People wearing sombreros like the one shown are often criticized for “cultural appropriation.” Photo by Acapeloahddub and labeled for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. - See more at: http://theboltlive.com/8976/the-bolt/opinion/cultural-appropriation-food-fashion-racism-and-a-confused-writer/#sthash.tkSBkFsP.dpuf
Charter Oak High School

Cultural appropriation: food, fashion, racism and a confused writer

Yoga. Dreadlocks. Sombreros. Chicken tikka masala. These terms seem like they have nothing to do with one another. However, once involved with someone of a different culture, these seemingly harmless words form the term “cultural appropriation.”

Cultural appropriation is defined by Oxford Reference as “the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes or practices by one cultural group from another.” This term is widely debated, with some being offended and others embracing. Celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Miley Cyrus have received criticism for adopting traditional African-American hairstyles and dances, and the controversy has even led to a yoga class in the University of Ottawa being shut down for “cultural issues of implication involved in the practice.”

When I first learned about this issue, I was confused. I myself enjoy many aspects of Japanese culture. Though I am not Japanese, I often visit Japanese stores and restaurants. Are my actions considered offensive to others? Which actions are considered insulting, and which ones are not?

When I decided to write about the pros of cultural appropriation, I thought that it meant the sharing of local culture with others. I felt that the idea of cultural appropriation being racist was narrow-minded. How could the spread of culture be racist? Why was this a big deal?

But there is so much more to the term. Cultural appropriation is not simply a pro or con issue with the multiple meanings. Does “pro cultural appropriation” mean supporting exploitation of culture, or does it support the spread of culture? At what point does appreciating a culture turn into something racist?

The problem with this term is the connotation. While some, such as Nadra Kareem Nittle from racerelations.about.com, call it “a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions,” others, like Brendan O’Neill from spectator.co.uk, say that “rage against cultural appropriation is ultimately a demand for cultural segregation, for black people, white people, Latinos, gay people, women and every other racial, gender or sexual group to stick with their own culture and people and not allow themselves to be diluted by outsiders.”

After hours of research and confusion about what I was really writing, I felt that I had come to an answer. The meaning of cultural appropriation lies with how each individual uses it. If one understands the culture and meaning behind the fashion, food, tradition or whatever they adopt, then there is nothing racist about it. They appreciate the culture. They appreciate its parts.

If one adopts the culture without knowing what it means or adopts a stereotype, then it is no longer appreciation. It becomes exploitation. It becomes offensive because the person adopting the culture has no idea of the importance or value of what they have adopted. Often times, they unknowingly adopt a sensitive item or tradition.

This does not mean that not understanding a culture is offensive or trying ethnic food is rude. This simply means that before appropriating something, learn about the item or practice. Talk to whoever is selling or practicing the specific item or tradition and find out where it comes from. Give credit to the origin and know why it exists. Appreciate the people just as much as the culture. Just as claiming someone else’s work is plagiarism, claiming another’s culture is abuse.

The world is a melting pot of diverse cultures. With modern-day communication and interaction with people of different backgrounds, food and fashion is shared almost in one way or another. To put it simply, cultural appropriation with recognition is beneficial and allows minorities to be appreciated. Simply “borrowing” another culture is not.

–Stephanie Wang