Written by Jenna ’16, Ivy ’16 and Sydney ’18
Have you ever used the word “ratchet” or “hella”? Have you ever worn “tribal print” clothing? Have you ever “tried out” wearing your hair in cornrows? Have you ever made a Harlem Shake video? Have you ever worn a bindi as a fashion statement?
Appropriation occurs all the time, but is it disrespectful theft or is mimicking the greatest form of flattery? When a person of one culture borrows something typically associated with another culture, such as hairstyles, clothes and music, this is appropriation. Usually, this is done not with the intention of insulting people of that culture, but often the perpetrators of these “trends” do anyway. Often, people are unaware that they are appropriating a culture. Cultural appropriation is a big term that can be hard to understand or define. Rarely do two people agree on one definition. Yet cultural appropriation is an issue that matters to and is on the minds of people in the Marlborough community.
Pumpkin Day last month brought cultural appropriation to the forefront of dialogue about diversity at Marlborough.
The Diversity Committee included a note in two all-school e-mails, asking students to be thoughtful about their costumes.
“Costumes that denigrate marginalized groups or portray objectionable stereotypes are in bad taste; they reflect poorly on you, and more importantly make others feel excluded or demeaned,” the statement read. “Each of you is creative enough to create funny, clever, and unique costumes without resorting to culturally illiterate memes. As a community, it is beneath us to make our fun at the expense of others. Let’s show the wider community that Halloween can be a fun and safe place for everyone.”
Halloween is a holiday that many cite as a time where cultural appropriation is particularly present and, as a result, accepted. Cultural appropriation on Halloween can take many forms when someone dresses up as either a stereotype or something characteristic of a culture different from their own.
Alana ’16 reflected on seeing a student imitating Latino culture on Pumpkin Day last year.
“There was someone who dressed up as ‘Señor,’ and it was just a sombrero and a mustache and sandals. It makes a mockery of what it is to be a Latino person,” Alana ’16 said.
When it comes to choosing an outfit or a costume, it is important to know your audience. Isabel ’17, who is the president of OLE, Marlborough’s club dedicated to education about Latin culture, says that girls should be free to explore their style so long as they remain respectful of the culture they are imitating.
“People have to understand by adopting something —whether it be a style or dance—from another culture. They run the risk of offending someone of said culture, but at the same time, if someone wants to embrace an aspect of a culture they admire, they should be allowed to,” Isabel ’17 said.
Awareness of cultural appropriation at Marlborough is not limited to Pumpkin Day. English instructor Kyanh Tonnu, who advises the EAST club, Marlborough’s club dedicated to education about Asian culture, says that styles that might be seen as “cool” can, in reality, be adopting another culture.
“I’ve certainly seen the emulation of black pop culture, in a way because it’s the definition of ‘cool.’ In these days, it’s loaded because [students] are taking on things that they don’t fully understand. ‘Coolness’ is one level, and then there’s the history of all of that, and sometimes we don’t know we are taking on the history when we are just wearing the coat,” Tonnu said.
IN THE MEDIA
Another way that Marlborough girls see cultural appropriation in their daily lives is through the media. Music and fashion are creative industries where the line between cultural borrowing and cultural imitation can be blurred.
When people adopt mannerisms or fashions associated with another culture, Kerry Gordy (Juliet ’18), music executive and son of Berry Gordy, founder of Motown records, said he believes the issue is not usually a matter of discrimination or mockery, as much as it is a matter of regard and interest.
“Once an artist starts doing things that the kids look up to, whether it’s wearing tattoos, or whether it’s putting earrings in their ears or noses, the kids emulate that,” Gordy said. “The kids are only emulating what they feel is cool. It’s not even that they totally recognize that they are crossing a culture. They look at an artist and think that what that artist is doing is cool, and they emulate that because those artists are inspirational to them.”
There is much controversy about whether or not it is acceptable for people to mimic culture out of appreciation for what they see by artists of color in the media. English teacher and Diversity Committee Co-Chair Chris Thompson reflects on his experiences with students that appropriate culture.
“When I was teaching in a co-ed school…watching white boys adopting African American [culture], what they imagined it to be—hip-hop mannerisms and clothing—that’s actually embarrassing to me, and I don’t know why it should be, but it seemed it was,” Thompson said.
The past 50 years have witnessed a dramatic shift in cultural blending, especially seen in the music industry.
Gordy said that the matter of appropriation in the music industry can be seen less as a matter of racism and more a matter of profit.
“Once Motown came to be [in 1959], and people like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross and Michael Jackson were introduced to the white community, the kids from those communities that were open to diversity were actually listening to that other culture that had been forbidden to them,” Gordy said. “Once those kids started listening to that music, and once it became an economically feasible prospect, then it was embraced by the world because it then became a matter of gain. It wasn’t black or white; it was what made money, as far as the big corporations were concerned.”
According to a 2013 NPR story by Gene Demby, “When Our Kids Own America,” Millennials are exposed to the constantly changing demographics of the United States, as is seen through the evolution of hip-hop. Demby wrote that as oppressed groups become a larger portion of the population, the dominant culture slowly adapts to the culture of the oppressed. This often takes shape through unintentional appropriation by younger generations.
According to the Demby’s story, hip-hop has become a codename for black music because the genre’s artists were primarily African-American. In recent years, hip-hop has been adopted by many white rappers including Vanilla Ice, Eminem and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. These artists have been called into question when they topped the charts with hits that directly emulated rappers, such as Dr. Dre.
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
Cultural appropriation is controversial because of society’s historical power dynamic set up between the dominant white culture and its marginalized counterparts.
Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, writes that when the dominant culture borrows or emulates traditions from marginalized groups, such as African Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans, the minority groups are understandably protective over the culture that has been historically subjugated.
Thompson says that cultural appropriation is offensive because of American society’s past of oppression and cultural theft of minority’s traditions.
“[Cultural appropriation] would not be a problem were it not for the larger political construct, which is when you have a dominant and oppressive culture doing this to the sub-dominant, oppressed culture; otherwise, it would just be influence and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Thompson said.
When derogatory phrases become normalized in song lyrics without regard to the history from which they originate, music can be a catalyst for cultural appropriation. Thompson and Gordy agree that the issue become most obvious with the use of the n-word. Gordy said such a charged word must be used in context.
“White people can’t understand the concept of people saying the n-word, and black people can’t understand why white people say the n-word,” Gordy says. “It’s not negative in general, in the black community, because it’s said as a term of endearment as opposed to a racial slur. But if a white person says it, because of the history of where it comes from, then it is looked at from a negative perspective. So, the point is, I think everything needs to be looked at based on what the issue [is] or the emotion is behind it.”
The unintentionality of cultural appropriation in modern day society creates a gray area as to whether or not appropriation should be considered offensive or if it is appreciative and a natural progression for our society.
According to Jennifer Weston, Endangered Languages Program Manager at Cultural Survival (Hunkpapa Lakota, Standing Rock Sioux) in an interview with Jezebel, it is offensive to minority groups when members of the dominant culture adopt the aspects of Native American culture without understanding the tradition behind them.
“When modern Natives see half-naked chicks strutting around on runways or street corners completely devoid of knowledge of our real cultures and religions, and misrepresenting and misappropriating these sacred symbolic articles, we must demand respect for our religious practices,” Weston said.
In this technological age, with the far reach of the Internet, Gordy said he thinks that cultural appropriation is transforming into appreciation, especially online.
“I find that the Internet in general has opened up the world to varying cultures, and I find that people now tolerate other cultures in ways that they’ve never tolerated them before,” Gordy said.
Gordy also said he believes that the sentiment behind the action should be considered.
“I just think that things need to be looked at for what they really are and what they really mean, and they need to be looked at based on what the meaning behind it is. If it’s just a fun meaning, then that’s how people should take it, but if it has a mean spirit behind it, that’s how people should take it,” Gordy said.
Yet, Gordy said he thinks that the issue of cultural appropriation is gaining recognition.
“It’s a really important issue to address because people are seeing it more and more, and people are starting to notice it but still not calling attention to it,” Gordy said.