There happens to be a wide misunderstanding of what cultural appropriation actually is. Nadra Kareem Nittle from the race relations section of About.com defines cultural appropriation as, “…typically [involving] members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.” (Nittle) Cultural appropriation has recently made a re-emergence in today’s society. The most talked about controversy these days is over the cultural appropriation of traditional African culture, styles, and contributions. However, if you were to ask someone today to name three other cultures and how they are being appropriated, the answer may come up short or not at all. Many everyday things we use without thinking about have been derived from another culture. Olive oil originated in Jewish culture, sushi came to us from Japan, headdresses and fringe style leather were part of Traditional Indigenous wear, the list goes on for quite some time. So, with all these parts of our lives available to us from other cultures, how do we avoid culturally appropriating? As the definition says, cultural appropriation involves the exploitation of a lesser group. Having the awareness of where you are in the societal rank is the first step. A colored person of the community is typically not held above a person who is white. The colored ethnic groups vary, however each experiences discrimination in their own individual group. If you are not colored this simply means you have little to no a chance of having your culture appropriated. This is a privilege many see automatically placed upon birth to only non-colored, or white skinned people. The issue of race has been successfully avoided by almost all who are of white skin, making terms such as reverse racism invalid, and there is a good reason why. Jenn Jackson from the website watercoolerconvos.com wrote an article about how reverse racism and reverse cultural appropriation are not quite realistic. She talks about how the advantage that exists between white and colored people is what makes the reverse impossible. Jackson writes, “Racism requires power. Without it, negative racial feelings might be discriminatory but they certainly aren’t racist. Any racial animus held by minority groups toward whites cannot be set apart on its own as an initial offense because we have already experienced centuries of targeted racial oppression from whites. So, the point of reverse racism is moot.” (Jackson) Cultural appropriation is a phenomenon because it is easily avoidable, yet there are so many instances a day where it is blatantly displayed, and brings offense from the ignorance of the cultural appropriator.
Racism is one of the main offenders that promotes the continuation of cultural appropriation. At this point in time, however, within racism exists a sub-discrimination called colorism. Colorism is when there is a discrimination within colored races, it goes beyond just black and white. Since skin tones range from pale to very dark, colorism is a preference of shade. Typically, given the white skin’s advantage in society, lighter shades are made the “prefered” shade. With the pressures of a forced “universal image” the effort to change oneself is more than apparent in many of these races. In Jamaica there is a dangerous trend called skin bleaching, this means exactly what it is. Skin bleaching is using a lotion or other topical containing chemicals similar to bleach, it lightens your skin from a dark shade to lighter. Skin bleaching, although it does what is says, is a very dangerous practice. Skin bleaching is known to thin skin, so much so that even a paper cut can result in a massive loss of blood. While that is a result of heavy skin bleaching, a review website specifically based around skin lightening writes, “There is little doubt that the evidence suggests that prolonged use of skin lightening techniques that make use of harsh ingredients like Hydroquinone [skin bleaching] and mercurous chloride [skin bleaching] can be dangerous, not only for the skin, but for the entire body.” (?) So why do people go to such dangerous lengths to achieve a specific look? The human race has a need to be accepted. Factors such as racism, colorism, classism, and the “norm” that has been preset before some of us were even born makes it hard to be seen as the lesser in a society where one culture is more accepted and another quite the opposite. Cultural appropriation is a way for a dominant culture to continue to oppress. When you take a less privileged culture’s customs and without credit or appropriate representation and then exploit them, you create an even bigger effort that will be needed for that culture that is seen as “lesser” to be accepted as well.
A large focus is on the conflicts that have risen lately over trends such as hairstyles, clothing, and accessories. Traditional clothing such as the Bindi from India, Dashiki from Africa, or headdress from the Indigenous are being worn as costume and turning a custom into something less than what it really is. There has been a huge uproar over the traditional African hairstyle known as dreadlocks. A lot of celebrities and people in the spotlight have recently been implementing dreadlocks on themselves or in their work. At the same time they have completely missed the point, the meaning, of these locks and at the end of the day, why what they did was wrong. An article on CNN by Emanuella Grinberg explains,”Black hair is a touchy subject tied to beauty, identity and politics. Whether it’s Afros and black power or cornrows and hip-hop, hairstyles associated with African-American culture can make a statement before their wearers say a word. So when whites choose a traditionally black hairstyle such as dreadlocks, it adds another layer of complexity to the issue.” (Grinberg) When a black person is in their dreads, natural afro, or other African hairstyles it is empowering. There are years and years of history condemning them for these styles, for their skin, and for their culture. On the contrary, a white person has not experienced the hardships in both day-to-day and history as a colored person has. By wearing dreadlocks and flaunting a style that belongs to the African American community it can be seen as disrespect and cultural appropriation because many of those who are not African but take their traditions are typically using them as a means to exploit. Grinberg explains, “Rastafarians consider the locks a sign of their African identity and a religious vow of their separation from what they call Babylon, a historically white-European imperialist structure that has oppressed blacks and other people of color since way back when, according to Migrations in History.” (Grinberg) While some people remain indifferent to the hairstyle, it adds insult to injury when a person does have a deep connection to their roots and the history of their culture. We live in the age of information, and yet so many of us fail to use the tools at our fingertips to research another culture before we make a decision to take a part of it and call it our own.
The psychological effects of cultural appropriation are worse than one would assume. In Canada there is an issue of cultural appropriation of the Aboriginal culture. As many people know all across North America Indigenous and Aboriginal peoples have been kicked out, moved over, and forced off their own land. Often many of them killed, tortured, or enslaved as well. In an article by Debra Schubert she focuses on the effects of Aboriginal cultures being appropriated in Canada. Debra explains, “The dualistic views that the media’s audience is fed, work to dehumanize First Nations women. As a result, ‘images like the romantic Indian princess, the easy squaw, and the hopeless suffering victim are constructed to distort the reality of Indigenous women and justify social, political, economic and spiritual oppression.’ ‘Playing’ at being ‘Indian’ in turn trivialises the vast cultural traditions and history of an entire people.” (Schubert) Cultural appropriation is one way that allows room for racism, dehumanization, and the devaluing of a culture’s history. Since appropriation is targeted at groups that are less privileged, typically it will involve an oppressive race continuing to oppress the race being appropriated. As Schubert explains the media sends you an image or idea of these cultures that is inaccurate, and they over simplify an entire culture leading to a wider gap between one group and another. As well as over simplification misrepresentation is a common theme as well among cultural appropriation. In history white skin has been the one who oppressed the other races, by continuing cultural appropriation it allows the oppression to continue and it also allows a desensitization to the history of those being oppressed. When you dress as a Native American for Halloween you do not immediately remember how many innocent lives were slaughtered, children killed, women raped, and villages ruined for control over their land. The fact that one is able to pick up another culture’s item that may hold thousands of years of meaning and symbolism to turn it into a lesser symbol is one of the reasons cultural appropriation is such an offense. It takes value away from the original culture and gives it to another culture that has done nothing but take it away. This can often be referred to in slang as Christopher Colombusing.
One way to stop the negative impacts brought on by cultural appropriation is to educate yourself on the other culture. There is a layer of ignorance that rests on society that gives a false idea that one is above the education of another culture before taking it’s traditions into their own. That statement alone is contradicting, yet nonetheless it is a very real factor towards disrespecting another’s decent. Cultural appropriation is just one of the many things people of color have to deal with day by day. Racism, colorism, appropriation, discrimination, and classism are all interconnected. Each is a system of separation and oppression of the people. By allowing one you allow them all. Race is a touchy subject, but it is almost shocking to see how many jump to defend someone being targeted for race but sit by and accept the circumstances when one’s race is being devalued by another. Cultural appropriation is dipped in a layer of acceptable racism. Celebrities such as Kylie Jenner have been able to take their bodies into surgery to achieve traditionally black or colored features and be praised for it, while those born into the beauty of their own ethnicity are still being condemned for who they are. When will this change?
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