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Why and How is Cultural Appropriation Dangerous?

The line between culture appropriation and cultural appreciation is one that we as a society have been trying to distinguish within the last five years at the least. The conversation seems to be booming, yet “while examples of cultural appropriation can be found in just about any cultural facet or artifact, the true complexity of cultural appropriation is often not fully appreciated or sufficiently articulated.” (Biakolo). With political correctness and an open society attempting to make everyone equal at all costs, it is almost encouraged that we not only accept but assimilate other cultures into our everyday lives. In an Atlantic story, “The Do’s and Don’ts of Culture Appropriation”, writer Jenni Avins provides an anecdote that exceptionally reveals the reality of cross-culture exchange encompassing the entirety of what we do, “At my house, getting dressed is a daily act of cultural appropriation,... Depending on the weather, I may pull on an embroidered floral blouse I bought at a roadside shop in Mexico or a stripey marinière-style shirt—originally inspired by the French, but mine from the surplus store was a standard-issue Russian telnyashka—or my favorite purple pajama pants, a souvenir from a friend’s trip to India.” This exemplifies the technical aspects of culture appropriation that take place on a daily basis due to the fact that the country we reside in is renowned for being a “melting pot”.

Although culture appropriation and culture appreciation are commonly confused, the notion of acculturation is also a term thrown into the conversation in relation to culture. In latin, cultura means tillage whereas the etymology of appropriation is ad (to) and proprius (own, proper), leading appropriate to mean make one’s own. Similarly, the etymology of acculturation comes to mean the adoption and assimilation of an alien culture, from ad- "to" + culture (n.) + -ation. Thus, the difference between the two is thin and relative. New York Times in their first words article of “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong” notes that “ We sometimes describe this mingling as ‘‘cross-pollination’’ or ‘‘cross-fertilization’’ — benign, bucolic metaphors that obscure the force of these encounters.

When we wish to speak more plainly, we talk of ‘‘appropriation’’ — a word now associated with the white Western world’s co-opting of minority cultures” The cultural exchange that takes place daily within most cultures is closer to the idea of acculturation due to the fact that almost all the clothing we own and food we import to eat is the adoption and assimilation of an alien culture, the verbatim concept of acculturation. However, the overall connotation of culture appropriation is extremely negative rather appreciative. In fact, “Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation” addresses the common questions or misconceptions involved in the idea of culture appropriation versus appreciation. This very article broke down the true reason that, “cultural appropriation is harmful because it is an extension of centuries of racism, genocide, and oppression. Cultural appropriation treats all aspects of marginalized cultures (also known as targets of oppression) as free for the taking.” The evidence embedded within this post varies from simply defining cultural appropriation to using examples rooted in imperialism, capitalism, oppression, and assimilation; it addresses that cultural appropriation happens significantly and it’s such a complicated issue, almost impossible to define or correct. In fact, the final argument of whether or not “the popular chorus of cultural appropriation! cultural appreciation! quickly becomes a performance, in which neither side misses a cue nor forgets a well-learned line.” (Fashion’s Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless).

However, the issue at hand is not whether or not people in everyday life use cultural exchange for their necessary fashion choices - it’s not as if people are choosing to wear a Mexican floral blouse and claim they are Mexican; rather, the designers of high fashion industries are deciding to use stereotypical cultural identities without including the peoples of which the culture resides to. For example, Marc Jacobs recently held a fashion show with an “African theme” where all the models of this said show had dreads, a cultural stereotype typically associated with those of African-American heritage. Yet, there were a total of eight models of color within the total of ninety models in the show. The outrage of this fashion show hit several crevices of our media, questioning when or even if it is okay to represent a culture without the people that the culture is true to.

The article “It’s 2015: Why Does Fashion STILL Have a Problem With Diversity” makes several valid points indicating that while the fashion industry is infamous for its cultural appropriation tactics, it refuses to simply integrate other races into its market. Lynette Nylander, author of the article, works for the website Refinery29, a website covering an array of areas from fashion and beauty to tech and news. Emphasis of how culture appropriation has been prominent across the globe for at least over a year since this article was written, “ Collections were inspired by continents and countries and presented with none of their people, which in this day and age, is just not okay”, and the issue is yet to be addressed; designers around the world do not seem to recognize the detrimental deterioration of culture they serve upon these minorities that are being exploited without representation. Similarly, the argument over cornrows being stolen from a community that is typically bashed for completing the act from their very culture. As Time writer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, notes in their article, “Cornrows and Culture Appropriation”, “Another aspect that infuriates many African-Americans: what white culture deems worthy to borrow is often so narrow that it perpetuates negative stereotypes rather than increases racial appreciation.” Increasing racial appropriation is definitively borrowing an aspect of one group of peoples stereotyped in a negative way and then taking them for a grand situation, smothering it as “fashionable”. In fact, a scholarly article written Craig J. Thompson and Diana L. Hayto, addresses this very concept of consumers using culture appropriation through the means of fashion discourses that alternates from it’s original cultural meaning ; they state, “Consumers use these countervailing meanings of fashion discourse to address a series of tensions and paradoxes existing between their sense of individual agency (autonomy issues) and their sensitivity to sources of social prescription in their everyday lives (conformity issues).” (Thompson and Hayto). Therefore, a common theme of most of these culture appropriation topics include the idea of white culture borrowing from other cultures that are typically seen as oppressed or stereotyped as negative.

The United States has founded itself upon being a refuge for many, a home to all; yet it also has a strong history of pushing out native peoples and their cultures. The Native Americans were and still are to this day forced to adhere to the United States government and its ideas of what they, the natives, should or should not have as far as land. Similarly, the astoundingly long history of slavery that rooted racism against today’s African-Americans is far too significant to ignore in today’s society. While these are the two greatest examples, there have also been various accidents that are not always mentioned: the Japanese internment camps during World War II, the rejection of various immigrants such as the Irish or Polish, and recent development of Islamophobia. Racism has been prospering and developing in this country for years; yet the concept of this welcoming “melting pot” and the beautiful stories of families passing into the country hoping to fulfill their “american dream” is a rather common consensus as a representation of the country world-wide. In fact, the United States is seen in a light that has it’s own culture through the eyes of hundreds, if not millions, of other cultures.

However, can there be such a thing as a culture that follows from no one? Not entirely; the same concept as there are no “new ideas” plays out for culture, there is not a way that cultural nuances do not extract from other cultures. In fact, it is almost certain that most cultures blend together even historically. Yet by saying that culture appropriation is an overstatement or a hyperbole, actually harms the entire culture that is being used in the situation. Just as we cannot erase the histories of our cultures, we cannot erase the peoples attached with them. The article “Francophilia in English Society 1748-1815” by Jennifer Mori, reveals the idea of “ the love-- hate relationship between England and France permits Eagles to explore the ambivalences and inconsistencies often apparent in English attitudes towards France,... occasionally reduc[ing] Francophilia to the imitation of anything French in origin and ignores the process by which any true English cultural appropriation of French practices took place.”, it is permissible to say it relates to the theory that cultural appropriation is relative to the nation it is occurring in, it’s own history, and what the society is like as a whole. While reviewing this source, Mori also introduced the term “xenophobia”, meaning intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries. Cultural appropriation relates to xenophobia in that it does not allow a culture to represent itself in its true form which is arguably the people it comes from. Blogger, Tristan Vick, wrote a piece discussing the cultural appropriation outcry when kimonos, a common fashion garb from Japanese culture, became a huge hit in the United States. Vick argues that “if you cannot engage or partake in other cultures and customs, then I’m afraid this leads to xenophobia” and even goes as far to say “it denies access to culture for unsound reasons that limit cultural understanding rather than sponsor the spread and growth of cultural understanding.” Vick’s theory is interesting in that it broadens the definition of appropriation and allows for the discussion to of inclusivity to take place. Rather than borrowing from cultures and excluding its peoples, society should embrace each other’s differences and celebrate the cultures we individually hold.

Hence, culture appropriation seems to play different roles in how it allows for one group of people to be considered “hip” and “modern” and paints another group in a negative light. This imitates the idea that cultural appropriation leads to perspective of a country as a whole and what it has experienced in the past. Regardless of it’s intent though, culture appropriation strips a minority of its uniqueness and plasters it up for commercial profit without truly representing its people. Designers and labels around the world do not seem recognize the detrimental deterioration of culture they serve upon these minorities that are being exploited. The aspects revolving around what is sincere intent behind using a piece of culture that one may or may not ethnically be, but relates to. Ultimately, can culture appropriation just be an attempt towards an act of understanding and enjoying another culture? In hindsight, possibly; however, the bigger picture is that culture appropriation can lead to greater systemic roots of xenophobia and even racism if we as a society are not careful. To enjoy the beauty of other cultures is progress, to deny the origin of its people is prejudice.

Works Cited

Avins, Jennyi. “The Do’s and Don’ts of Culture Appropriation.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Billaud, Julie, and Julie Castro. "WHORES AND NIQABÉES: The Sexual Boundaries of French Nationalism." French Politics, Culture & Society, vol. 31, no. 2, 2013., pp. 81-101,157.

"Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation?" Unsettling America. 16 Sept. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

"Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Cornrows and Cultural Appropriation." Time. Time. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Mycultureisnotatrend. "On Reverse Cultural Appropriation." My Culture Is Not a Trend. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Kovie Biakolo / AlterNet. "How to Explain Cultural Appropriation to Anyone Who Just Doesn't Get It." Alternet. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Mori, Jennifer. "Francophilia in English Society 1748-1815." Canadian Journal of History, vol. 37, no. 1, 2002., pp. 138-139

Nylander, Lynette, December 3 2015 7:00 PM, Fashion, and Photo: Courtesy of W Magazine. "It's 2015: Why Does Fashion STILL Have A Problem With Diversity?" Racism, Cultural Appropriation In Fashion Industry. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Sehgal, Parul. "Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?" The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

Thompson, Craig J., and Diana L. Haytko. "Speaking Of Fashion: Consumers' Uses Of Fashion Discourses And The Appropriation Of Countervailing Cultural Meanings." Journal Of Consumer Research 24.1 (1997): 15-42. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

Vick, Tristan. "Cultural Appropriation OUTRAGE Is Thinly Veiled Xenophobia." Advocatus Atheist. 02 Sept. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

Wadham, Lucy. "'France Wants Assimilation Not Integration': The Problem with French Secularism." Newsweek. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

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