The appropriateness of cultural appropriation

The topic of cultural appropriation is only taught in one class at West, yet has significantly found its way among the student body without an understanding of the impact.

May 19, 2019

Getting caught up in fashion trends is no exception to West High. From thrift shops to popular items, plenty of students are geared into finding the next big trend and what looks in-style. There’s beauty everywhere to choose from, and especially from other cultures. From intricately painted henna to tightly braided cornrows, many of these cultural styles have found their way onto the bodies of students. The only catch is that a lot of the students aren’t of the culture the style originates from.

While it seems there’s nothing wrong on the surface, there’s a bigger issue at play. It’s cultural appropriation, a subject that’s only taught in AP Human Geography and relatively unknown to a large population of the student body.

According to Dictionary.com, it is defined as the act of adopting elements of an outside, often minority culture, including knowledge, practices and symbols, without understanding or respecting the original culture and context.

While some are aware of its presence in music videos and news events, many don’t know how prevalent the issue is among the West High community.

“I think that, oftentimes, cultural appropriation results from a level of ignorance,” said social studies teacher Megan Johnson. “I think that [students] don’t necessarily understand that they are taking someone’s culture and turning it into a fashion statement, something that they do without the understanding and respect that they should have.”

This cultural ignorance creates an environment where students are unable to recognize the significance of their actions.

“My students were talking about cultural appropriation and they’re sort of like, ‘Oh come on, that’s not that big of a deal,’” Johnson said. “Well, you need to think about it. If you are a member of that culture that’s being appropriated, think about how they might feel, not how you feel.”

At West, there are two forms of cultural appropriation out of the many that are commonly seen in the hallways — cornrows and henna.

 

Cornrows

African-American hairstyles, such as cornrows or box braids, have a history reaching back thousands of years in African culture and were not only woven for beauty but also signified marital status, age, wealth and rank. During the age of colonialism, slaves wore cornrows both as homage to where they had come from, but as a practical way to wear hair during long hours.

Despite the cultural importance of the hairstyles, there has been a trend where non-black students adopt the styles.

“If you want to try to get braids to experience the pain that women in their lives may have gone through into braiding and to better connect with them, I think that’s appreciation,” said Lilli Duncan ’20, who is half white and half black. “But if you were like, ‘Oh this is a cute hairstyle,’ then that’s appropriation.”

Duncan believes that these situations tend to fall in the latter.

“When people tend to do hairstyles that are traditionally black, I’ll get uncomfortable, but I usually won’t say anything because it’s not really anything I can do about,” Duncan said. “Regardless of how I feel, that’s just something that’s going to keep happening.”

Often, the continued cultural appropriation ends up perpetuating stereotypes about a culture.

“There are girls here who will get cornrows and they wear big hoop earrings. And they’ll start talking differently in African-American vernacular. People will put on something that doesn’t belong to their culture and all of a sudden, they think they have a pass to do things that weren’t socially acceptable for them to do before,” Duncan said.

Picking and choosing parts of other cultures is especially common among those who get caught up in fashion trends.

“If you’re white, you can tan your skin, curl your hair, or whatever. But at the end of the day, if you get pulled over by the police, you can say ‘I’m a white woman.’ But if you’re another ethnicity, you can’t take that off,” Duncan said. “It’s stuck with you because that’s how you are. That’s how you look. That’s how you were born, and you can’t change that.”

 

Henna

With a history stretching back thousands of years in Indian, African and Middle East origin, henna is a practice where the paste of crushed leaves of the henna plant are used to decorate the body in intricate designs. Whenever it is done, it’s with the intent that it would bring good fortune and feeling, along with religious significance.

However, the intentions have not been the same at West, and student Mallika Huynh ’21, who is half-Indian and half-Vietnamese, has noticed the situation.

“[Henna] is something that I typically use to celebrate at events like Diwali, weddings and festivals but also on a day-to-day basis. It’s just part of my culture,” Huynh said. “I remember being at an [Indian] wedding and there was a [white] college student who was saying ‘Oh [henna] is so cute but I don’t want to be associated with the people.’ She wanted to be cool in the moment with henna but was ashamed of the whole culture.”

Throughout multiple instances, Huynh has disagreed with the justification behind the appropriation.

“With henna, people are like, ‘It’s not a big thing, it’s not clothing or anything big like a hijab, only a little thing.’ People are willing to mock and ignore people’s cultures but they’re willinging to bring in this ‘tiny part’ that they find ‘cool’ and then reject everything else,” Huynh said. “Appreciation is like coming to Diwali, getting [henna] done at a wedding, wearing a bindi, and appreciating the context of that culture. Not saying, ‘oh my god, it’s summer, and I want to look cultured and cute and get it done for Coachella.’ You don’t look like me. I don’t get to pick and choose my culture. I just have my people.”

With cultural appropriation of henna and black hairstyles also comes a double standard when people of the respective culture represent the styles versus when white women appropriate the styles.

“If you see a Muslim or brown woman, they’re a terrorist. If you see a black women with box braids, they look ghetto. If you see me with my henna or my sari, I’m weird and exotic or strange but if you see henna, a bindi or cornrows on a white woman, they’re cool, they’re cultured,” Huynh said. “Other people who aren’t part of our culture shouldn’t be able to take it and be seen in a different light.”

 

The Grey Area

Ultimately, the issue of cultural appropriation is a grey area when it comes to determining what is, and what isn’t. Where does the fine line between appropriation and appreciation exactly fall?

“It’s kind of in the eye of the beholder,” Johnson said. “Beyonce did Bollywood dancing. Some members of the Indian community came out and were like, ‘Oh she’s appropriating our culture — she probably doesn’t understand the underlying meaning.’ And then I also had students who thought that was awesome [and] see it as her respecting the culture. It always depends on who’s viewing the situation.”

The fine line always depends on perspective and the context that the cultural appropriation may be taking place in.

An event that embodies this ideal is Walk it Out, West High’s annual fashion show celebrates diversity through traditional clothing, music and dance. Occasionally, people from different cultural groups will wear traditional clothing or dance to a genre of another group, raising questions about appropriation.

“I think it’s really cool that the group is inclusive. And I think if anything, it speaks more to the kind of multicultural aspects of our community, that we don’t necessarily just identify by our ethnic origins. We have groups that transcend those ethnic origins,” Johnson said.

In the future, especially in school settings, Johnson supports increased education about cultural appropriation.

“It helps make people better decisions on both sides of the equation. Having a general understanding of cultural appropriation and where the lines are is crucial,” Johnson said. “At the same time, it’s important to understand that there’s a diversity of opinion, and the overall line between appropriation and appreciation is in the eye of the beholder.”

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