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In the media, the term “cultural appropriation” is typically linked with images of young, white party-goers donning Native American headdresses amidst protests from minority groups who don’t appreciate being worn as costumes for Halloween. Appropriation is also connected to the occasional white rapper bursting onto the hip hop scene with a single hit that sends ripples of reaction and debate throughout the hip hop community.
It is also seen in the western fashion industry, when the newest trends borrow imagery from minority cultures without seriously engaging with the attached issues of oppression. For example, Marc Jacob’s new “mini-buns” are twists that Bantu people have styled into their hair for millennia. Kylie Jenner garnered widespread attention for posting a picture on Instagram sporting cornrows. But with the world growing more globalized and connected, the conversation should expand outside of the day after Halloween, the hip hop community and fashion circles.
So what is cultural appropriation according to the Principia community? Freshman Harmony Nash said, “[Cultural appropriation] is somebody emulating a culture other than their own either because they want to or they feel have to. Overall, I feel it is negative.” Harmony herself has dabbled in other cultures. During her first year at college, she styled her hair into dreadlocks.
“Our generation is more open-minded, but I still received negative comments from students and administrators alike [who said dreadlocks] were dirty or associated me with drugs,” she added. “Even to this day, people think my friends and I are stoners.”
The issue of hair—particularly African hairstyles—is politically and racially charged. Sophomore Taffiny Kablay, president of the Black Student Union, said, “Black people lose jobs and get expelled from school for wearing their hair as it grows out of their head—yet [others] can just do it because it is cool? I think there should be a sensitivity and respect when members of a culture ask you not to engage in certain things.”
Kablay added, “I think everyone should know what appropriation is and learn not to do it.” The day before Halloween, Kablay made an effort to educate people by passing around pamphlets on cultural appropriation. She hoped that this would help people understand how not to offend others with costume choices.
Under what circumstance would it be reasonable for an individual to ask an outsider not participate in some aspect of their culture? Senior Falukh Sentongo said, “I think if someone asked me not to do something related to their culture, it is my obligation as a global citizen to honor that.”
Sophomore Marcia Reis agreed conditionally. “[If] the item holds religious meaning, I’d never casually wear it again. But if it is a dress or some jewelry, [and] I think it is beautiful, I would continue wearing it because I admire it.”
It seems as though people are less willing to appropriate pieces of culture with distinct religious connotations attached. When Akayla Bustamante discovered how important the rosary was to her father’s largely Catholic family, she completely quit wearing it casually as a necklace. Bustamante explained that her grandmother told her what it meant to her and the message resonated deeply. “The thing is, it isn’t easy to know who you are offending, and [even] if you are […] offending [people], if those who know the deeper meaning aren’t around to enlighten you,” said Bustamante.
Multidisciplinary professor Karen Haire experienced something similar to Bustamante, although she took a different approach. She grew close to an African woman while they worked together in the United States, and began to call her by her first name. When the two met later in South Africa, “Her daughter thought it was disrespectful and told me not to,” said Haire. “[However], I [continued] because her mother told me it was okay.” In this instance, Haire went against a cultural norm because the context of the specific situation.
As seen in Haire’s experience, the nuances of private, personal relationships can be a space where cultural differences can be explored more freely. But in front of a public audience, Haire deferred to the judgement of her black co-author, Daniel Sekepe Matjila, on how to publicize their book in South Africa. She realized that the country’s racial history would color how the target audience received the book. Appropriation should not be mistaken for cultural exchange, but the power dynamics that come with cultural appropriation cannot be ignored either.