Cultural appropriation is when another culture, typically a dominant one, takes an element from another culture and reduces it to a simple trait. This can also include the dominant culture taking an element from another culture and claiming it as their own.
This is a year-round problem, but it becomes increasingly prevalent around specific times of the year. This past summer, there were a lot of problems with people wearing Native American headdresses at Coachella concerts. Another issue is with people wearing bindis, an important mark representing marriage in Indian culture.
A dominant group taking other aspects from other cultures is problematic because not only is it reducing another group’s traditions into a simple trend, but it mocks other cultures. It’s also an issue because dominant cultures are often selective about what aspects to take from marginalized cultures but don’t understand the value or history behind it.
Many things that are taken from other cultures are often praised when the dominant culture wears it, but marginalized cultures are looked down upon when they wear it. As the online magazine Everyday Feminism states, “It makes things ‘cool’ for white people—but ‘too ethnic’ for people of color.”
One example is when people of color wear their hair naturally, whether in an Afro or box braids. When people of color wear these styles they are often looked down upon and immediately stereotyped in a negative way. But if a white person, a member of the dominant culture, were to wear the same style, they would praised and possibly be given credit for the style itself.
One recent controversy was when Kendall and Kylie Jenner were accused of appropriating chola culture this past summer. According to The Guardian, an online media outlet, chola culture is associated with Mexican-American girls being influenced by hip-hop and sometimes gangs. The sisters were wearing outfits that typical chola women wear, and it was considered fashion. On the other hand, if a Latina wore the same style, she would be looked down upon.
With situations like that, it depends on the context. According to Sally McBeth, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Northern Colorado, this is considered ‘borrowing.’ Borrowing, compared to claiming something from another culture is acceptable.
With cultural appropriation, it can be very complex and even more so during Halloween. Things like blackface or dressing up as a member of any racial group is not acceptable, but some may not understand why it’s not acceptable for non-natives to dress up as Native Americans.
“It’s not really hurting anyone per se…it’s one of those no harm no fowl type of thing,” said UNC senior John Farrell.
Mike Kimball, an associate professor of anthropology, says there is a gray area when it comes to cultural appropriation.
“It’s in the eye of the beholder,” Kimball said.
What he means is that it could be an honest mistake for some. Some people don’t know what it is, and don’t know that they are appropriating another culture. There could be many parents that that don’t know how offensive it is for their child to dress up as Pocahontas or Moana, Disney’s first Polynesian princess.
“The individual wasn’t seeing it that way. They weren’t trying to be offensive, they were merely dressing up and playing a role that they thought was meaningful to them on some level,” Kimball said.
Kimball also said that there is a difference between not knowing when something is offensive and intentionally going out and making fun of another culture. With that being said, according to Kimball, it is up to the individual to learn about other cultures.
“I think we all have a responsibility to learn to listen. Now there are groups that haven’t been listened for a very long time, and those of us to don’t belong to those groups need to create spaces in which they can be listened to deeply,” Kimball said.
Kimball says there should be open conversations on both sides, so there can be more understanding and learning.
Roger DeWitt, a part-time anthropology professor at UNC and Aims Community College, plainly explained the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
“That’s what appropriation is to me, it’s disrespect, it’s humiliation, it’s degradation and dehumanization. You don’t have to be French to know a little about France or French folk,” DeWitt said.
McBeth also agrees. She says people don’t have dress up like a certain culture to appreciate them. There’s many other ways to do so, such as supporting their industries and learning the history.
When it comes to cultural appreciation it’s clear that things like blackface are completely unacceptable, but most of it is gray. Many see the difficulty in telling a child they can’t dress up as Moana for Halloween because they aren’t Polynesian. Many children are too young to understand cultural appropriation and what it means; most kids see their favorite character and just want to be them.
It’s the responsibility of everyone to be aware of different cultures and sensitivity. It’s important for dominant cultures to learn about their privilege, why they’re dominant and be aware of power struggles in conversations. By being aware of these things, marginalized groups can have a space to speak and to hopefully be heard.
UNC junior Natalia Henselman also emphasized the importance of being aware of cultural appropriation.
“It’s important to close the gap between different cultural groups and to close the anger that groups have for each other, just to create more understanding,” Henselman said.