I am grateful to have grown up in the Bay Area, with friends from diverse cultures around the world. These cultures come with rich traditions that are also sources of pride for these communities.
In recent news, people have been quick to accuse others of cultural appropriation, when someone of a different race or culture tries to adopt elements of another culture without understanding the significance. I have been thinking about this a lot lately because I am interested in other cultures’ languages, histories and traditions. With all the discussion of cultural appropriation, I wonder if I will be accused of appropriating a culture when my motive is to appreciate.
One of the biggest issues with interpreting cultures is how to distinguish between appreciation and appropriation. For me, appreciation has a key element of respect that appropriation lacks. Cultural appreciation pays homage to the uniqueness and richness of cultures. This is not something that should be condemned but rather celebrated.
With something as sensitive and personal as one’s culture, we need to consider the intent of the action. Was it the result of malice or ignorance? When supermodel Karlie Kloss walked down the Victoria’s Secret runway in a Native American headdress and lingerie, was she appropriating Native American culture?
In my opinion she was. What she was wearing was disrespectful: headdresses are worn by the elders of the tribe, and each feather must be earned. She should not have been wearing a traditional headdress with strong cultural significance as an exotic underwear accessory. Victoria’s Secret perpetuated the degrading image of the “sexy Indian,” and that was offensive.
In the recent Vogue diversity issue, Kloss also appeared as a Japanese geisha with traditional robes and makeup. Why was a white model used to portray an important Japanese cultural figure in the diversity issue? Not only was it incredibly poor form on Vogue’s part, but the spread failed to demonstrate the beauty of diversity. It is one thing to be influenced by another culture, but it is another thing to misrepresent it. The editors missed a prime opportunity to deliver a diversity issue that celebrated the uniqueness and beauty of different cultures, instead blatantly appropriating Japanese culture.
But there have also been times when those with pure intentions were criticized. In January, Aragon’s Senior Activities Committee celebrated Chinese Lunar New Year with a fortune cookie and noodles. One of our Asian parents brought the food and other parents added a “Gong Hei Fat Choy” greeting. Afterwards, I heard that some students felt it was cultural appropriation to have that as the focus of the senior snack.
I know the parents who provide senior snacks, and they would never purposely offend any students. I wish that those students who were offended would have taken a different approach by teaching others about their rich culture. Instead of criticizing the announcement as being offensive, let us start a constructive discussion focused on better understanding others’ cultures.
In November, Redwood City had a huge public festival for Día de los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that honors the dead and celebrates life. The town square displayed huge altars and street vendors sold pan de muerto and decorated skulls called calaveras. People walked up and down the streets dressed in skeleton outfits with vibrantly colored dresses.
I was so inspired by the celebration and was grateful that the Mexican community shared it with us. I noticed that people of all races were participating by wearing costumes, dancing and eating the food. No one was accusing another of appropriation.
It saddens me that we have become quick to point fingers and accuse people of cultural appropriation before looking at the underlying motive.
Stereotyping or belittling a culture through a “sexy” outfit is inappropriate under any circumstance, but promoting cultural collaboration, and the appreciation of art, music, food and ideas between all of our cultures is a positive activity regardless of our heritage.
Despite being white, I am very interested in my friends’ cultures and I hope that they are willing to share them with me so that I can appreciate them. Especially in the heart of Silicon Valley, we live in a world that is connected by technology but seems to be divided when it comes to sharing cultural views. My wish is to focus more on that connectedness to create a society that truly appreciates the unique differences that make up our diverse cultures.