On Cultural Appropriation

For the UAS Whalesong

With Thanksgiving a week past, it might be good to have a little bit of reality check, though it may be unwelcome, in terms of cultural appropriation during the holidays. It’s a tough truth to face, but it’s important to understand what exactly that all means. It’s especially important when we think about where we live and go to school, in a place that is filled with people who are so culturally rich. It is a sociological concept that views the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture as negative. Now, it can be confusing, because what necessarily is appropriation and what isn’t?

There’s a lot of discourse of what it all comes down to, but with Thanksgiving still in mind, I think the best way to describe appropriation is that of someone wearing a Native American Headdress, while not being Native American. Something that is commonly practiced, at least when I was in elementary school, is having the children dress up as pilgrims and Natives without addressing the whole truth of the history. It continues to happen even today and people don’t understand why people are upset about it.

Though, even objecting to appropriation has others upset, because it may seem, to them, to be a restriction on creativity – ‘you can have this, but not this.’ Which, it really isn’t. There’s a difference between sacred dress, and clothing just made by local tribes. It also doesn’t help that often times people don’t have an understanding of what they are actually appropriating. It’s this lack of knowledge that leads to appropriation in the first place, making people believe it’s okay. If we had a better understanding, such as we do in a place as cultural as Southeast Alaska, we would see these trends far less.

Still, there are some things that people may confuse with cultural appropriation, such as some parts of Japan which are  more oriented towards tourists, encourage people to dress in traditional Japanese garments, and see no problem with it. While we should be taking strides to make a universal culture, we can’t pick and choose things that we think should be part of it without other cultures’ consent. There are some upsides but there are far more downsides in what that means in the long run.

There is a difference between actually appreciating a culture and appropriating a culture. There are things that have been openly shared, but there are other parts that people of certain cultures shouldn’t be shared. Many people want to partake in, “Cherry-picking cultural elements, whether dance moves or print designs, without engaging with their creators or the cultures that gave rise to them not only creates the potential for misappropriation,” (Avins). People want to wear culture outfits at the same time as partaking in the food, but that’s not really how it works.

That isn’t to say there aren’t benefits to sharing culture. There are clear benefits, but there is a clear difference between sharing and taking. It takes teamwork on both sides for there to be any actual benefits. Like the falsified version of Thanksgiving, where the Natives came to help the Pilgrims, there was a sense of working together, and, though the story may be false, it should bring some hope.

There has to be an exchange made, on equal grounds, and as it stands cultural appropriation is not equal. People have to be willing to learn about the other before partaking in certain aspects of a culture. There has to be an effort to know about the other before trying to emulate.

Here in Juneau, we have a growing effort to create this cultural equality and we see it every day. We can only hope that through the joined efforts we can see culture shared more appropriately and as more of an appreciation than anything else.

Works cited:

Avins, Jenni. “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.

Leave a Reply