By Angela Li
Cultural appropriation, as the name would suggest, is when one culture appropriates, or takes for its own use, aspects of another culture. What comes to mind is pictures of indigenous headdresses donned at flashy music festivals, cornrows and dreads exhibited on catwalks, and endless Halloween costumes, sugar skulls and qipaos galore.
The popular debate surrounding cultural appropriation is concerned with whether using another culture is showcasing an appreciation, or is negatively appropriating this culture. While for some, simply displaying various parts of another culture is demonstrating an appreciation, for others, this is not enough. Appreciation instead requires an adequate attempt at learning the importance of what is actually being appreciated, and presenting it in a manner that would be accepted by the culture itself. Educating oneself on another culture demonstrates a desire to appreciate this culture. However, this brings up the issue of how to measure whether or not someone has put in the work to truly appreciate a culture, especially one that is so distinct from their own?
Cultural appropriation is, ultimately, dependent on circumstance. It is difficult for a minority group to conceptualize how details about their own identity and culture such as language, appearance, and customs, can be cause for denigration and discrimination, yet for the majority, cause for praise and admiration. To exist as a minority in one culture without being able to express the multitudes within said culture, while others can, and do so willfully and without fear of repercussions, is infuriating, to say the least, especially if done for personal or corporate gain. There’s a sense of exoticizing a culture, but only the aesthetically pleasing and agreeable details, and a sense of reducing cultures to simply what is acceptable for the appropriating group. It isn’t appreciative or respectful. It’s a double standard. It's dismissive.
Is it only appropriation if done to minorities by majorities? What if appropriation occurs between different minorities— for example, Jeremy Lin, a notably Asian American basketball player, was criticized for having dreadlocks by Kenyon Martin, a notably African American basketball player. Lin responded to this criticism by criticizing Martin’s Chinese language tattoos. This back and forth sparked contention over whether each were appropriating the other’s culture. In this case, there was an equating of the importance of dreadlocks and language symbols to each respective culture, when dreadlocks are symbolic of a greater politicization of black hair. Black and African American people in the United States to this day face discrimination solely due to their hair, and broadly, systematic maltreatment of a social/ethnic group.
While also contributing to the debate of appreciation versus stealing of other cultures, cultural appropriation has also arguably further enabled “call out culture.” Call out culture is any sort of public condemnation, often through media, of some sort of perceived social wrongdoing.
The difficulty surrounding call out culture is due to the binary thinking that it implies and the social aftermath. Calling out cultural appropriation could both raise awareness but could also eliminate the possibility of discourse and possible understanding of the implications of appropriating— there is no room for redemption, forgiveness, or future change. Calling out the actions of an individual or a group establishes one normative right versus one normative wrong, inflicting both an uneven power dynamic and a good or evil dichotomy. However, call out culture can be a necessary, public, and sometimes viral movement that pushes for broader recognition of important issues, notably for the #MeToo movement, and again, cultural appropriation. In this case, call out culture can make space for other voices and experiences to express the absolute need for such a pushback.
About The Global Health Soap Box
This blog evokes the spirit of UC Berkeley -- the home of the Free Speech Movement. The Global Heath Soap Box provides a platform for GlobeMed at Berkeley chapter members to explore and discuss their thoughts on relevant public health issues. Whether it's an expansion on what we discuss in ghUs or a topic of interest--The Global Health Soap Box covers a wide range of topics.