Cultural Appropriation

  • Mira Ravi ’22

“Cultural appropriation.” Everyone has their own opinion on what this phrase means because it is not properly defined, leaving people confused. I did not fully understand what it meant until a couple of days ago. A lot of nearby schools, like Menlo, have had incidents labelled as “cultural appropriation”––whether or not that is an accurate label––so it is important for people to understand exactly what it is, especially in the case of it happening at SHP. That way, it will be a lot easier to recognize instances of cultural appropriation and to address them properly. If we can never agree on what cultural appropriation means, we will never have productive conversations about it, and it will just become another topic that divides people because of their different opinions. Understanding it will also require us to learn a lot more about different cultures, which is a topic that is not emphasized enough in our education.

A while ago in my history class, someone asked, “Why is cultural appropriation such a big deal?”, and no one in our class could come up with a compelling answer. It was confusing because people accused of cultural appropriation rarely seem like they are trying to be offensive. They do not seem insensitive either, and for whatever reason, they are automatically labelled as “racist” by a lot of people. “Racist” is when someone knowingly holds prejudices against another race and acts based on those prejudices, and I do not think white people with their hair in dreadlocks, for example, are being racist. That led me to an important realization about cultural appropriation: people are not usually trying to be racist when they are accused of cultural appropriation, and until we stop accusing them of that, we will never have comfortable conversations about race.

So you are probably still wondering, “Well, what is so wrong with cultural appropriation?” I spent a really long time trying to find an answer to that question on the internet, and I could not find anything that was useful. Most of the answers I found were along the lines of “it’s wrong because it’s stealing from a minority culture,” which did not help me because I did not understand why it was “stealing.” I eventually tried thinking from the perspective of someone offended by cultural appropriation and have come to a better understanding of the problem.

In this country, it requires a tremendous amount of strength for a lot of minorities to continue their cultural practices rather than assimilating into the dominating white culture. When my mom was 18, she arrived in America wearing traditional Indian clothing. As time passed, she began to wear the more “normal” clothing that most Americans wear because of the amount of pressure she felt to fit in with those around her. If my mom saw a white person wearing the same clothes that she had been pressured to abandon in this country, I know exactly why she would feel offended. It just would not be fair if a white person, most likely unaware of the cultural significance of that clothing, could wear it as fashion, when America would not accept my mom for wearing the exact same outfit as part of her culture. 

And it is not just my mom who would feel this way. Let’s go back to the example I mentioned before about white people with dreadlocks. In the past few years, incidents where African American students have been forced to cut their dreadlocks or face suspension have made national news. When white people have dreadlocks, it reflects their privilege to be able to stray from white cultural practices, which people of color cannot do because of the pressure to conform. It seems unconscionable for a white person to be wearing dreadlocks when some African Americans are not even allowed to wear that hairstyle, which belongs to their own culture. 

I do not think that cultural appropriation is about “stealing from a minority culture” so much as it is about unknowingly borrowing something culturally significant from people who are often expected to conform to white culture, and therefore, give up a part of their larger cultural identity. There is a metaphor for America as a melting pot related to cultural appropriation. A lot of non-white Americans’ identities are almost “melted away” when they cannot preserve parts of their culture, and so it is really hard to avoid assimilating into white culture. That is why it is wrong when white people, who have never had their identity “melted away” in this country, adopt practices from a completely different culture.

That said, I still do not think that white people with dreadlocks are racist (unless, of course, they are intentionally trying to offend other people), and so they do not deserve to be treated as though they were intentionally racist. Rather, they are usually just unaware of the significance that hairstyle holds for a lot of African Americans. It is extremely important to understand that for the most part, cultural appropriation is rooted in the inability of white people to recognize the cultural significance of certain practices. For that reason, we should not accuse anyone of being intentionally racist because it is likely false. 

I also think that schools should be less harsh on students when it comes to cultural appropriation. It would not be fair to suspend or expel students for participating in cultural appropriation because it is not something taught in school, and it certainly is not something intuitive or easy to figure out. I know that this has not happened at SHP this year, but it is important to mention because it has happened at nearby schools. When cultural appropriation is not clearly defined in the first place, it does not make sense to have such harsh policies in place to address it. The best solution to overcoming the confusion surrounding cultural appropriation is by having conversations about why those practices carry significance for certain cultures, and the first place where we should have those conversations is right here, at SHP. After all, we come to school (virtually or in-person) to learn, and I think we can all agree that this is something we still need to learn about.

By Axel de Vernou

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