Pretty, But Only Temporarily

Okay. Watch this first. 

Within the realm of social justice, I have always had a larger reaction to the mention of cultural appropriation. One might say that it’s a method of stifling one’s creative, personal expression, or a violation of the Constitution, but I’ve always thought of it as a way of promoting necessary sensitivity to others outside of yourself.

To define it more precisely, cultural appropriation means to take one’s culture sans permission—without appreciating it, without understanding it—and making it suitable under certain circumstances, which isn’t totally different from something being trendy, the cool new thing everyone talks about. Assumed traditions, when adopted temporarily for the sake of following a trend within a specific context, is like telling someone that large chunks of their identity only matter sometimes; and even worse, that these traditions only matter when they are adopted by white people.

But cultural appropriation isn’t as simple as an Asian girl wearing a T-shirt with the American flag printed across it. Much like the idea of reverse racism, cultural appropriation works around a power dynamic! It involves the oppression of a minority group, and because white (or more specifically, American) culture has spread through a history marked by colonization, the idea of an Asian girl wearing an American branded t-shirt isn’t considered appropriation. That, instead, is simulation—meaning that over time, “fitting in” has involved one's participation in white culture. Fitting in is, to people of color, synonymous with survival.

But let’s get back to appropriation in its truest form. Today, many fight the concept. The idea of being “too politically correct” often stands negatively in society because being PC seemingly takes away constitutional rights, when in reality, ensuring that everyone in the room feels as safe as possible is not limiting your speech as much as it shows respect. Take understanding the offensiveness of a non-black POC saying the n-word, for example: it’s a sense of awareness that benefits everyone, and one’s ability to wear Native American headdresses for a music festival is never worth the cost of offending someone as deeply as their culture cuts. As Ice Cube once said: The n-word was once used to disenfranchise, oppress, and ultimately dehumanize black people. Black folks have since repackaged the word as a tool in recognizing genuine camaraderie among each other; nothing about the word--its history or its modern usage--involves other racial groups at all. 

So "culture” encompasses many forms, forms not limited to clothing: speech, makeup, etc. Recently, the biggest fashion, dialect, and makeup trends have been derived from marginalized groups, groups that were oppressed because their now-“cool” traditions weren’t cool before. 

I am a black woman myself, and there’s something very disturbing and uncomfortable about watching pop singers in American media paint my culture as it isn’t, iMy culture applies to my family, my culture applies to the places my family came from, as immigrants--so it strangely feels personal...and that's maybe because it is.

But there are many ways to be aware, to stay aware! Here are two really simple tips to help:

KNOW THE CULTURE. Understand where it comes from, whatever you’re wearing, speaking, doing—be knowledgeable about the culture, because it’s all too easy to misuse something that is sacred to others! Research, research, research: and then decide whether it’s something you should be partaking in or not.

KNOW THE CONTEXT. Where are you going? Why are wearing _____, why are you speaking _____? For what occasion do you want to partake in the culture? If the event is all about immersion and appreciation and understanding, and if someone has invited you to participate, it is totally okay for you to get involved. And think about the context of what the activity is. What is the history behind protective styles? What is the history behind geishas? Headdresses? Have any specific groups of people been oppressed because they partook in those activities themselves? Groups that you don't belong in? Sorry if I'm being too straight up, but please... just leave it at home. 

Don't forget that POC can appropriate other POC cultures as well! White people are not the only appropriators; a great example is when Asian people adopt black culture as their own and as a trend. Like when Asian people speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and aren’t assumed uneducated because of it! They are using a part of another group's culture without truly experiencing the oppression that comes with it. 

Just remember: wearing culture for the sheer sake of beauty is not appreciation. In today’s world, it is more important than ever to make sure all feel safe.