Over the past few months, the Black Lives Matter movement swept over the nation, forcing Americans to reexamine what racism looks like in modern America. This new understanding of racial issues makes it all the more important to recognize cultural appropriation and actively work to prevent it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a certain culture or identity by individuals who are not a part of that culture; this is most visible and damaging when a dominant culture appropriates from a minority culture.
In general, minority cultures mostly consist of people of color; in the US white people make up the dominant culture. As people of color, we face backlash for our cultural traditions because they are seen as outside of the norm. However, when the dominant culture steals an aspect of our cultural identity, something that we are proud of because it is uniquely part of our culture, it hurts. So, it is imperative that people in the dominant culture understand that and actively try to avoid cultural appropriation, without trying to justify it to the minority culture.
One such example of cultural appropriation is dreadlocks, which are a part of African-American culture. In this case, the dominant culture has made it clear that they feel that dreadlocks are an “inappropriate” hairstyle in the workplace, going so far as to fire Black people who wear this hairstyle to work, even though this is a part of their cultural identity and rich history. However, when a white person, a dominant culture member, wears the same hairstyle, it is seen as cool or chic, just because they are white and not Black. White people face no repercussions for wearing dreadlocks, taking a piece of Black culture away from the minority culture that created the hairstyle, and thereby reinforcing racism.
Another example of appropriation is mehndi, predominantly a popular Indian tradition. Mehndi is a paste made out of leaves that temporarily stains the skin orange. It symbolizes joy, cheerful spirits, spiritual awakening, and luck. Mehndi is used at weddings and cultural celebrations. However, in the West, mehndi is seen only as a trendy and temporary replacement for tattoos. It is referred to as a “henna tattoo” rather than mehndi, ripping this tradition from its cultural context and erasing years of tradition and history in Indian culture.
The difference between appropriation and appreciation is found in the attitude of the dominant culture toward the piece of culture in question. In cultural appropriation, the dominant culture takes from the minority culture without taking the time to learn the significance of what they have taken. In cultural appreciation, on the other hand, the dominant culture is open to learning about the minority culture in a respectful and non-invasive way. I want to make it very clear that minority cultures welcome cultural appreciation. I love it when someone wants to be educated on my culture and tries to understand where I am from culturally, but understanding and taking from a culture that is not yours are two very different things.
Avoiding cultural appropriation is easier said than done. It takes practice to understand the concept and catch yourself doing it, but making that effort is essential because your actions directly affect the people of color around you.
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