Some Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

We’ve all heard the phrase plenty of times over the course of our lives: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” However, one needs only to look at the problematic discussions that surround us every Halloween to realize that this is not the case. Not only has my campus been embroiled in a huge debate about race that began in part because of controversies surrounding, among a great many other topics, hurtful and offensive halloween costumes, (my blog post next week will very much be a reflection on what's been happening here), cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes is an issue discussed in the wider world as well. Every year there's a few celebrities who get lambasted, rightly so, for wearing black face or dressing stereotypically as members of another race, and "Last Week Tonight" with John Oliver famously produced a segment titled "Dressing Up As Other Races. How Is This Still A Thing?"

Cultural appropriation is obviously a problem, as it’s incredibly disrespectful and hurtful to those whose culture is being appropriated, to the point where it can actually negatively impact their mental health. However, not every example of cultural exchange is appropriative. After all, legitimate cultural exchange is how silk and silken clothing made its way to the western world, how musical styles like bachata and samba were born, and what Rihanna exemplified when she responded to the Chinese-themed Met Gala bash in 2015 by a asking a Chinese couture designer, Guo Pei to make her a dress. So, what exactly differentiates cultural appropriation from legitimate cultural exchange and appreciation? Furthermore, how in my own life, can I avoid appropriation? Every day I have the audacity to call myself a spoken word poet, a practitioner of an art form that has deeps roots in a culture that I don’t belong to. How do I ensure that I am not appropriating that culture, or indeed any other culture in my daily life?

To me, that the differences between respectful exchange and appropriation come down to a single factor with three main facets: respect. On the one hand, to dress up as a fictional character that you admire for their bravery and intelligence, or to wear a piece of jewelry in the style of the Quechua people because you appreciate and value its craftsmanship, is not an example of cultural appropriation. But to wear a ceremonial and sacred Native American headdress for the sake of a Halloween costume, or to wear blackface and a gold chain and pretend you're accurately reflecting what it's like to be African American, is cultural appropriation at its most disturbing, dangerous, and morally reprehensible. The reason we choose to imitate a culture different from our own matters, and if the reason we’re doing so is not out of respect or appreciation, then there’s a problem.

Intent is far from the only thing that matters when it comes to respect, however. Appreciation is also a function of knowledge. To celebrate Cinco de Mayo as nothing more than an excuse to wear sombreros and drink Tequila, for example, is an appropriation born of a misunderstanding of the richness of Mexican culture and the tremendous grief caused by Spanish conquistadors that forms a large part of Mexican history. If you’re going to exchange with a different culture, do your homework beforehand and endeavor to know the culture you’re engaging with.

Finally, respect involves an honest reflection on who you are when you’re engaging in imitation or cultural exchange. For example, I can write and perform slam poetry without being appropriative, as long as I respect the art form by knowing its storied history and recognizing that I, as a white male, cannot write a poem about my struggle to be accepted based on the color of my skin or imitate the stereotypical voice and performance style of other slam poets. Such an attempt would be dishonest appropriation of a story and a use of an art form that simply isn’t mine. As members of a global cultural exchange we need to be constantly aware of who we are and how we fit into this exchange. Imitation can indeed be a form of flattery. But for this to be the case, that imitation must be rooted in deep respect and admiration. Otherwise it is mockery, it causes pain, and it is unacceptable.