Last week, we had some truly flaming opinion write-ins regarding cultural appropriation — when a dominant cultural group takes the cultural expressions of a minority group and uses it to look exotic. It was a particularly triggering piece of artwork at the Mini, Trinity’s student art showcase, that sparked the controversy.
Over the last year I have had the privilege of traveling to Haiti, where a lot of women wear braids. I really love them; especially when there is a swirly wire or a metal bead incorporated, I just think braids are beautiful. Casually, I thought that I’ll have braids someday; it might also make me feel like I could keep a little bit of Haiti with me. Facing the judgment of friends when I told them of this desire made me aware first hand of how complex cultural sensitivity can be. But I also have a complaint about the arguments surrounding cultural appropriation; fundamentally I think they divide and separate people who deep down see the world the same way.
I believe that the same way that any African or Haitian or South American student can express themselves in any way they want, that I should also be able to. If I wear a Dashiki, it is not because I am taking advantage of a minority’s cultural expression in this country for personal gain. I really believe that when it comes to this stuff, as Anene Ejikeme, associate professor of history, said to me, we should always give someone the benefit of the doubt; maybe they don’t realize that what they said or what they are doing is personally offensive in some way.
I also have the privilege of never having experienced discrimination related to the hairstyle, so there is no long-term impact of me choosing to wear my hair this way. Arguably, dreads have been around for centuries: the Celts, the Vikings, even Egyptians had dreadlocks. But in contemporary cultures, dreads have been synonymous with Rastafari movement and African American culture. When we start to examine history of culture, though, it brings up an interesting question of ownership; can we really say that anything we do is exclusively the right of one culture?
As an Italian, I know that the pride and joy of what my country is known for — food — was the product of years of cultural exchanges and trade. Now, am I going to go to the nearest Olive Garden and get upset with them for how they butcher that food? And mispronounce bruschetta? And put meatballs on spaghetti? No. I think it is a form of flattery that Americans attempt to copy my culture. I know this is a little different, as Italians have for the most part been quite accepted in America, and we are usually white, but it is my personal experience with something approaching cultural appropriation.
Cultural mixing will inevitably happen with time, and I am a person who really appreciates cultural differences. I celebrate them! I thought that by choosing to wear a hairstyle that is associated with African American culture, it’s like me saying, “This is cool. You are cool. I want to be like you!” Imitation is a form of flattery, right? I mean no harm, and in fact, I would consider myself an activist in regards to a variety of minority and racial issues. There are a lot of scenarios where people are criticized for all sorts of displays of culture that they don’t realize might offend someone. Avril Lavigne — though she has a huge following in Japan — was accused of cultural appropriation when she dressed as Hello Kitty in a music video. There are countless white rappers who are deemed ‘wangstas’ because they are acting like wannabe gangsters and appropriating hip-hop culture.
I see this conversation as a huge gray area. I understand and see both sides, truly. Why can’t it be seen as me showing my appreciation for something cool about your culture instead of me taking advantage of it? But I am also aware that I can’t really understand or appreciate the difficulties minorities experience every day.
I think the key difference between appropriation and appreciation is respect, acknowledgement and understanding. If I choose to wear a color or a pattern that is from another culture, I should understand its meaning and be open to discussing how that culture is beautiful. By wearing it, I am choosing to promote, accept and model symbols from that culture. Religious symbols, in my book, are off limits; I am not about to put a bindi on my forehead. But, I think I would like to learn about Hinduism, understand Henna and wear it. Another rule, too, would be to use the symbol as it was originally intended to be worn — for example, don’t wear a full-length Dashiki during the day, as in Rwanda they are considered house clothing.
I think this is really about a larger discussion of what some people call ‘politically correct’ language and I call respectful communication and behavior. Today, with so many gray lines about how to speak, act and dress without offending someone, I think the best way to navigate it is to give people a chance to explain themselves and be open to conversation. You might make a mistake, as I have before, but there is a way to talk about these things constructively.
I don’t want to be just a white girl. I want to be a person, a human on the earth that likes all of the ways that other humans dress, speak and express. I want to take from my experiences and incorporate difference into my life.