Cultural appropriation is a morally grey area

Sydney Hopper, Senior Writer

Living in the “great American melting pot,” we are influenced everyday by factors that come from other places.  We eat Chinese food, take yoga classes, and wear moccasins. Being in America, it’s easy to have access to various cultural aspects—but it’s also easy to take advantage of these cultures.  The debate over the Washington Redskin’s name has brought up an important question: when it comes to appreciating other cultures, where is the line separating respect from bastardization?

Cultural appropriation, as defined by law professor Susan Scafidi of Fordham University, is the “taking of intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Cultural aspects that can be inappropriately “borrowed” include traditional dance, dress, language, music, folklore, cuisine, and religious symbols.

Cultural appropriation is most likely to be offensive when the object at hand is particularly sensitive, such as a sacred object, or when the minority group that is being borrowed from has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.  Miley Cyrus, for example has been accused of appropriation via her obsession with twerking. Twerking has roots in African-American dance styles, and some have accused Cyrus of taking away credit from the originators of the dance. Examples of appropriation don’t just come with pop-stars. Halloween is a time where we can often witness people using different cultures to create a costume. I myself donned a Native American-style outfit for Halloween one year, not thinking of it at the time as being potentially offensive.

The truth is, the line where cultural appreciation becomes appropriation is hard to define.  I don’t think we can live our lives in fear of constantly offending people, or be afraid of trying to understand people and cultures that are different from what we personally experience. What is vital is to view those cultures from a place of respect and understanding. If a culture has been targeted or persecuted in the past, we need to treat their culture with care; understand their history and their past struggles, and be mindful of any implications that your actions might have.

The past matters—persecution and discrimination has occurred and we need to be mindful of that. So next time you read a folktale, or eat sushi, or create a historical costume, take a moment to think about all the history that is associated with what you’re doing, and make sure to act with respect. Living in a melting pot doesn’t mean that we don’t pay attention to the individual ingredients.