In recent years, the conversation of cultural appropriation has been becoming a big issue around the world. From use of hairstyles and fashion to certain characters and mascots, the use of certain cultures have become evident and have been treated as an act of disrespect when it could really be just an act of miseducation. Education on other cultures other than American culture has been a driving force in debates on cultural appropriation, but what exactly is cultural appropriation?
Cultural appropriation can be summed up as using the themes, clothing, practices or elements of a culture group without regard to the history or significance of impact within that group.
Acts of cultural appropriation from celebrities have also been called out. A few examples of this are Zac Efron sporting dreadlocks in summer in an instagram post stating, “just for fun,” and Katy Perry dressed as a Geisha sporting a kimono and pale makeup during her 2013 American Music Awards (AMAs) performance. It doesn’t stop at just music artists and actors/actresses, J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, also received some backlash from Native Americans for her portrayal of skinwalkers and medicine men.
There are also a lot of companies changing their mascots as well such as Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s all changing their representative mascots for portraying Black characters and profiting from it. With all these issues surrounding the topic a lot of people don’t understand the significance of this movement.
Shalonda Nelson, a former employee of the UA Little Rock Multicultural Center and member of the UA Little Rock Diversity Board and Student Government, says that there is an importance of culture and that it’s important to be educated on the matter.
“It helps because it keeps us from causing offense to each other,” she said. “The other thing is it also brings more equity to the environment whether it’s an institution, a grocery store, a school, or a community or neighborhood and being educated and being exposed and open to different cultures helps alleviate a lot of biases. Biases that can lead to implicit or not implicit racism and discrimination.”
Nelson says that there are times where we just do not understand other cultures or their religious views. She believes it is important that we take a step back and try to understand each other’s cultures and respect their values as well.
“Whether it’s in the classroom or in the workplace or in the community or if we’re volunteering in service learning projects if there is a culture that is a majority there we’re not quite sure how to interact and they’re not quite sure either,” she said. “I’ve been on service learning projects where the majority of people there were white and the only way to really enjoy myself was to act like them.”
Nelson says she believes that American school systems should add lessons on different cultures into the school curriculum.
“When you’re in a classroom learning with each other and you can’t understand one another or do not want to, it causes imbalance and makes it uncomfortable,” she said. “It’s for you to be you and that person to be you.”
Nelson says says that when her culture is a part of my education she does better.
“You’re either gonna have to adapt to it or learn it as well as bringing your own into the mix as well,” she said. “I do better when I bring myself as an African American female in search of my ancestors and my roots cause I don’t know where I come from exactly, but oftentimes my culture is excluded from the classroom and that’s not okay. We’re a diverse community why not learn about each other’s culture so no one has to feel like they have to migrate to another’s culture to be accepted.”
It all starts with ourselves. We have to be willing to educate ourselves in order to not offend anyone.
In an article discussing ideas for Halloween costumes for her school’s newspaper, Briana Ellison, a media arts and design major at James Madison University in Virginia, stated that a lot of cultural appropriation begins during the Halloween season. Certain depictions of many different cultures and ethnicities are disrespectful. Things such as Black face, Brown face, body deformations, and many other items such as jewelry. She also mentions the challenges of the stereotypes in the media such as African Americans with plump lips and the depiction of Native Americans clothing.
It’s important that we do our part in educating ourselves and understand the history behind these certain items and clothing. Culture is important to all of us and should be respected and if we don’t start paying attention to these acts of appropriation we will eventually erase what makes each one of our culture’s unique.