Appropriation of Cultures

Tanya Calvin

Whether someone argues that the U.S. is a melting pot or a tossed salad of cultures, no one can deny that there are a lot of different people that live here. Everyone has unique beliefs and traditions, and many of these create curiosity, sometimes even admiration. Recently, however, there’s been an uproar about whether or not it has become exploitation. Some might say that wearing a Native American headdress for Halloween is cute, but others argue that it’s insulting. The question here is where do we draw the line between trendy and offensive?

Towards the end of last year, a couple of friends and I went to get henna tattoos, just for fun. When we came to school the next day, one of us was approached by someone at Latin who expressed their belief that what we had done was disrespectful, for henna has an incredible significance in certain countries and religions and has been treated in the States just as something pretty. It bothered me at the time, but I didn’t look into it until recently.

The first article I read about Miley Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs said that she was “ruining black culture for black people.” Some felt as though Miley was only taking parts of black culture that would attract attention without truly understanding black people. When I asked someone at Latin about their thoughts on it, they said “it’s ridiculous that Miley twerking is seen as cool, but it’s dirty or ‘ratchet’ when black women do it. Her performance was gross, the way she used her backup dancers as accessories and the fact that she got away with it speaks to how white appropriation of black culture is seen as no big deal.”

Obviously, however, cultural appropriation isn’t just an issue when it comes to Miley’s performance. There are a lot of aspects of other cultures that have become trends in the States, like wearing bindis at music festivals, practicing yoga just for fitness, dressing up as someone from a different race for Halloween, and even getting henna done. Kaya Romeo, a senior, feels “wearing a bindi isn’t disrespectful if you understand the cultural significance. The problem is when people don’t understand the culture and are just practicing Hinduism because that is what’s ‘cool.’ It indicates that a person has a lack of understanding of the culture they’re emulating…and are itemizing a culture and choosing what they want.” However, another student thinks “people need to remember that we live in this American ‘melting pot.’ If you get angry when people show interest in your ethnic culture, in a way you’re going against what is American culture.” Gianna Miller, a junior, agrees, saying “we need to stop thinking only one group of people ‘owns’ a culture and are the only ones who can represent it,” but still feels “Miley is using black people as a tool to legitimize herself as a respectable, non Disney artist.” Mrs. Arif sees the contrast between ethnic and religious traditions, pointing out that “religious symbols, clothing, and practices usually have spiritual or historical meanings that often run deeper than ethnic ones.”

Maybe too many teens in the U.S. are taking aspects of different cultures and making them “cool” without learning about where they come from first. Still, it’s important to remember that since the world is so interconnected, a certain culture isn’t going to stick with just one group of people. This diffusion is inevitable, and as Mrs. Arif says, “in our globalized world, we have the ability to share and learn from other customs and ideas in a way that was never possible before, and that’s a good thing.” Yet it makes sense that someone was insulted when my friends and I went to get henna done. It’s hard to tell where the line between appreciation and appropriation is in a world where we can learn so much about each other through the internet. It is time, though, that we start questioning if we’re, as Mrs. Arif put it, “being respectful and responsible individuals.”]]>