What is Cultural Appropriation?

Most of us have heard the term cultural appropriation used plenty of times in recent years during the age of social media. It seems that not a day goes by without someone being accused of cultural appropriation. From Miley Cyrus to Katy Perry, even Beyonce was accused of appropriating.

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This issue is being discussed all over America. It’s becoming a controversial topic that has people up in arms against each other. It is seen by some as a sort of cultural, exploitive crime, however, most of the time cultural appropriation is just another part of the process of interaction in our diverse world. I am talking about this topic as I am a person of color, and I have seen black culture be appropriated. I have done extensive research on the pros and cons of the appropriation of a marginalized groups’ culture so that I can truly understand all sides of this debate. And so, today I am here to convince that cultural appropriation does not hurt marginalized groups. First I will explain how cultural appropriation doesn’t devalue or always offend marginalized groups. Next, I want to talk about why cultural appropriation does not erase the origins of what was appropriated. Finally, I’ll discuss how cultural appropriation can be beneficial.

The opposition of cultural appropriation argues that it is harmful to marginalized groups because it devalues minorities as a marginalized group is punished for something a dominant group is praised for. According to an Unsettling America article “cultural appropriation is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression. It treats all aspects of marginalized cultures as free for the taking.” This article further argues that since systematic racism still exists there cannot be a “truly equal flow of ideas, practices, and cultural markers as long as one group have power and privilege over another group.” The article gives the example of a white pro- Palestinian activists wearing keffiyehs. Islamophobia in the United States is only directed at people who are perceived to be Muslim. White people don’t have to go through the same discriminations as they are not thought to be terrorist, which is a common, negative stereotype associated with Muslims. Instead of being seen as terrorists, white people wearing keffiyehs are seen as hip and fashion-forward.

This is not the only argument as some also argue that cultural appropriation reinforces stereotypes which reduces the significance of a cultures item. An article by Wesaw Marchell touches on this as it explains that many aspects of Native American culture have been appropriated over the years in order to help sell products in the marketplace. These products range from “Indians heroes like Pontiac, Indian artifacts like totem poles, and Indian attitudes like the stoicism of the cigar-store Indian.” Those labels and images are usually misleading to what Native American cultures are really like and reinforces stereotypes about their culture. Also, an article by Alexandra Mondalek discusses the appropriation of Asian culture in terms of the qipao. Mondalek cites that in 2015, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute celebrated the history and influence of Chinese culture in fashion with its exhibit, China: Through the Looking Glass. It’s stated that “American celebrities attempted to pay homage to the exhibit theme, which resulted in some conflating Chinese culture for Asian culture-at-large. As sexed-up versions of the qipao were on display. Mondalek also quotes Jack Tchen, a New York University professor and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America, as he explains that an American version of the qipao usually gets it wrong. He says that “Silk is a signifier of that de facto oriental, feminine luxuriousness that, when added to a super form-fitting version of the qipao with a slit up the side, it automatically becomes part of this exotic, erotic association with certain stereotypes of Asian women.”

Despite these criticisms, cultural appropriation isn’t always the villain it’s made out to be. What the opposition fails to realize is that cultural appropriation doesn’t devalue Marginalized groups and is not always offensive as not all cultural appropriation is misappropriation. The term “cultural appropriation” is a descriptive one, but not all forms of appropriation are misappropriation. People should have the right to celebrate what they find beautiful without criticism or abuse as long as they do it with respect. A prime example of this is when Beyonce was accused of cultural appropriation for wearing Indian attire to a wedding. Wearing Indian-inspired attire to a wedding, which was requested by the bride who is Indian is an example of an action that is in no way harmful to the source community. This was an instance of cultural appropriation that happened in order to respectfully keep with the norms of the community. Now to touch on the point about it being offensive I am here to say that this is not always the case. There is nothing wrong with getting inspiration from other cultures in order to make something new. If we get to a point in our society that everything is problematic, how is anything new supposed to happen? People end up being too worried that they will be dragged on the Internet and be shamed into silence. Previously harmless things are now labeled as threatening and off-limits. Appropriation does exist and, sometimes, it is bad. But the current framing goes too far. Not everything is stealing and not everything is bad. This is seen with Yoga and the argument the Westernized Yoga is offensive. A Kundalini Yoga teacher said in an article that “Using my suffering to deny others access to the transformational powers of yoga is disempowering not only to me but to everyone around me.” The practice of yoga by anyone who is not of the culture that it originates does not make the practice of it offensive or wrong. Another example is the bindi, something that holds a great deal of cultural significance for Indians. An article by Sravya Jaladanki, a person of Indian descent addresses this by explaining that even though the appreciation for bindis amongst non-Indians wasn’t around he believes that it is also important “to recognize how our society has developed to be more culturally aware in recent years [as] we’re now more aware of other cultures, and of their customs and traditions.” He goes on to say that it is okay for a non-Indian to wear a bindi or apply henna as long as they do it with respect. My point is not that cultural appropriation isn’t present in our world today or that it is always right. It definitely can be and has been offensive in certain situations. But it’s time we took a second to stop and think before we throw that label on a particular situation. Appropriation of culture is commonplace in our rapidly globalizing world as people of different cultures and customs interact with one another. However, this appropriation is also commonly mistaken for misappropriation. Overusing this term can very well obliterate the bridge between all our different cultures and devalue the word itself. For all these reasons, cultural appropriation doesn’t always do the harm that the opposition believes it does.

The argument that cultural appropriation erases the origins is not the case as the origin of an item is still known no matter who appropriates it in both the past and present. For examples, white people such as Katy Perry and Kylie Jenner have been scrutinized for wearing cornrows which are known to have an origin in Black and African culture. Them wearing cornrows is not going to erase or change the significance of the hairstyle in any way, shape, or form. Also, the girl accused of cultural appropriation when she wore a Chinese dress was scrutinized by thousands of people yet the people who supported her were the ones who she supposedly offended. People from China thought it was ridiculous to ridicule the girl for wearing the dress as it did not erase the history or origin of the dress. This is further backed up as according to FIT Museum director Dr. Valerie Steele, his impression that he’s developed by studying Chinese fashion over the years is that “ most Chinese people aren’t bothered by people buying something with a dragon print or with a Mandarin collar” says Steele. Secondly, The King of Rock and Roll, also known as Elvis Presley, is also guilty of appropriating black culture. Rock and Roll and Elvis Preselys overall style were influenced by black blues, rhythm-and-blues and gospel music. However, Rock and Roll did not erase the blues, and Elvis Presley did not erase the people who he was influenced by and came before him such as Chuck Berry.

All in all, cultural appropriation will never be a clear cut topic. There will always be gray area however throughout this speech I’ve given examples to back up my claim that cultural appropriation does not hurt marginalized groups. Although there are many people that argue that cultural appropriation is always offensive and reinforces stereotypes, my speech has shown that this is not always the case. It doesn’t erase the origin of the items and doesn’t devalue nor always offend marginalized groups. I encourage all of you to learn more about cultural appropriation as there is a lot of gray areas that come with this term and it needs to be talked about more in an educated way instead of just loosely throwing around the phrase. And remember, even Beyonce appropriates.

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