In a diverse American society, cultural exchange is often viewed as a practice that benefits all. Individuals are influenced by other cultures, adopting new styles and customs to make their own more interesting. While this may display appreciation for the group in question, some instances of exchange are considered disrespectful. This transition from constructive sharing to irreverent “borrowing” is known as cultural appropriation. It largely depends on direction of influence, and the term “appropriation” is typically reserved for occasions when the dominant culture uses aspects of a group that is or has been marginalized. It is deemed offensive because it increases the power imbalance between majority and minority cultures.
The question has become whether cultural elements should remain specific to their origin or be shared and developed. When does the “melting pot” become too melted? Objects considered sacred to one culture are sometimes treated as secular fashion accessories by another. Concepts are drawn from communities that do not receive the credit they deserve.
For many concerned by this issue, the problem is not so much in the actual exchange as it is in the lack of attention given to real individuals within the culture. The heritage of appropriated fashions may not be understood by those who use them, and the inclusion of these trends in pop culture cannot substitute for representation and appreciation of the people behind them.
Ball Bearings met with Carlos Mata, president of the Latino Student Union; Nikkole Wade, PR director for the Black Student Association; Haley Crane and Ghada Alnadi, president and vice president respectively of the International Ambassadors Association (Alnadi is from Saudi Arabia); Beth Messner, professor of communication studies; Chelsea Smith, president of the Social Justice League; and Alexus Cole, secretary of Ball State’s NAACP.
Ball Bearings: What is your definition of cultural appropriation?
Nikkole: I would define cultural appropriation as taking an aspect from someone else’s culture and making it kind of your own. I know it’s looked at as kind of negative in some ways, but I think it also could be a positive way too.
Carlos: Yeah, pretty much.
Haley: For me, I think it’s when someone takes a cultural aspect and they use it inappropriately and in a negative fashion. An example would be Halloween costumes. You see people use Native American headdresses and things like that, some things that are sacred, and they use it in a kind of humiliating sort of manner or in a way that it’s not supposed to be used.
Ghada: I agree with Haley. At the same time I see it as – in the other side, other than the negative side – in the positive side it’s a way of learning as well, to consider that there’s a lot of people like that. Some people take it in a negative way, some people take it in a positive way. I always see in the positive aspect of it, but at the same time there’s a lot of negative view of it.
Beth: There are a couple of key features of it. I tend to adopt a definition that focuses on a majority culture appropriating, maybe borrowing is another word for that, cultural symbols, behaviors, texts that belong to a marginalized culture. So that’s kind of my short and sweet definition, but obviously there’s a lot that’s packed into that in terms of issues associated with power and integrity and that type of thing.
Chelsea: It’s a really big topic, and difficult to discuss as someone who is just learning about it. The way that I see it is taking components from another person’s culture for your own use without engaging in that culture.
Alexus: I would say cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture takes a piece of a minority culture and displays it in a way that is kind of disrespectful. They may or may not realize it, but it’s usually disrespectful.
BB: The United States has often been called a melting pot. Where is the line between cross-cultural influence and appropriation?
Nikkole: I think it’s a bad thing when it becomes a mockery.
Carlos: Especially during Halloween. What happened with [University of Louisville] in which the whole staff and president were wearing like a poncho and mustache and a sombrero, mocking the Latino culture there. That’s when you go way overboard, especially when we’re talking about the 1920s or 1910s when white actors would put on black makeup to make themselves look like African Americans. That’s when you step over the line.
Haley: I think the line is drawn in the usage of these cultural artifacts, because, for example, we are known for taking these aspects but when they’re used in a humiliating fashion – you can look at Victoria’s Secret models, you can see like a couple years ago they had, once again, the Native American headdress, and rather than appreciating that culture and being knowledgeable, they took that artifact and used it in a sexual manner. I think the main thing is usage. When you look at kimonos, people use those sometimes in a sexual manner rather than taking that culture, being educated on that culture, and I think the big part is that it’s cultural appropriation when someone doesn’t know about the culture but they take the thing, and they don’t use it in the means it was supposed to be used.
Ghada: Yeah, when people take it and they make fun of it but they don’t use it as an educational way. And when they see it they’re like, “Oh, you guys do this.” I’m like “Yeah, like, we’re the same exact thing but we do it in a different path.” I feel like every culture does the same thing with tradition, society, religion – everything, but each culture or each country takes it in completely different paths. And that’s like where each person grows up in that culture, and they see the other culture like, “Oh, it doesn’t really matter if we really learn about it or anything.” But it really does because you’re going to see that it’s exactly the same thing but in a completely different way.
Beth: I don’t know that there’s a clearly demarcated line. I really don’t. I think part of your question has to do with assimilation, which historically we have seen happen with immigrants coming to the United States. There has been a kind of majority culture expectation that newcomers to our culture will assimilate into American cultural patterns. And so when we do that I think we’re looking at a slightly different type of thing than when we’re talking about the majority culture borrowing the cultural patterns and iconography of a minority culture. We’re talking about two different directions. We’re talking about two different usages of power, if that makes sense.
Chelsea: If you’re not engaging in that culture or paying respect to it through whatever aspects of their culture you are trying to take on, that’s where I see the negative effects coming from. Essentially when it’s like stealing from a culture without understanding the context of it.
Alexus: I think that the line goes where you don’t feel comfortable telling someone that you’re doing something from their culture. So like with Blackface, I’m under the impression that nobody would be like, “Hey, I’m about to go do Blackface!” Like no! That’s ridiculous. It would be different if the conversation went like, “I want to be something..” – Like a lot of people dress up like Kanye West. So it would be like, “Hey, can you help me with my Kanye West costume?” instead of, “I’m just going to do Blackface.” Like you’re not comfortable saying that. But you’re probably comfortable saying, “I’m going to be Kanye West.” So the line is when you know that it’s inappropriate but you still want to do it. That’s where we should be standing up and saying “no.”
BB: What are some positive examples of cross cultural exchange that you have witnessed or experienced?
Nikkole: We’re doing “the big four”. Each of us has an event during Welcome Week and we all go to each other’s events and become immersed in the culture. I know food is like a big cultural appropriation, like sharing different cultures. Like Carlos said, when it becomes – like you try to make the appearance and all of that and… It’s one thing to appreciate someone else’s culture, but there is definitely a line.
Carlos: And for people who want to immerse themselves in the culture: go to other countries, be open-minded, ask questions. There are people that, if you ask questions, will definitely help you out in some way. It’s just being open-minded and just keeping yourself open-minded because right now in the world, some people are close-minded and they share that with social media and all that. But all we’ve ever wanted is everyone to be open-minded and just to immerse themselves with something they haven’t before.
Haley: For an example, when I went to Thailand, religion is the main thing that defines the culture. And they shared with me their Buddhist culture. Now, in Thailand it’s illegal to bring Buddhist statues from the country because people will put them in their bathrooms, and that is an inappropriate use. But some positives are, they gave me a Buddhist bracelet because I was respectful and they knew that I would appreciate the culture. So with that I learned a lot of things. I learned about Buddhism, I learned about deep culture. I earned and I learned respect from that specific cultural value.
Ghada: So my biggest culture shock here was the body language, as well as people not knowing a lot about the Middle Eastern culture, like belly dancing or Dubai, or they don’t really know the culture itself. I get questions like, “Do you guys have McDonald’s?” and “Do you guys ride on camels?” So that was the culture shock for me when I came, because when I came I really wanted to study in America and get into the American culture because my thought was that like Americans know everything already, they have the media, the media shows them, it teaches them. But on the other side when I came here and lived here with them, it taught them the old way of Arabian, the very old traditions. They don’t teach them about the traditions in America, the old traditions, but they do it in the media for other countries. And that was a culture shock for me.
Beth: I certainly think that we have seen on the music scene a long, extensive history of appropriation that I think has been very positive in the sense of providing new energy and new ideas, new directions for genres of music. The collaboration and the creativity that’s a part of that process I think is something that tends to be respected and tends to be viewed as something that’s done with integrity. It’s a part of how genre develops through time, that kind of borrowing process.
Chelsea: I live with a bunch of art majors, so I think arts are a great example of being touched by another culture in a way that’s inspiring and leads you to create something beautiful that’s also taking aspects of that culture. But it’s done in a way that it’s beautiful and not stealing.
Alexus: I know that in this building [Botsford/Swinford] there was an African American hair program that the RAs put on. They did a presentation about African American hair to mostly white people. It was a really positive experience. I know that they learned a lot, they asked a lot of questions, and it was a comfortable environment. Nobody felt uncomfortable or anything of that nature.
BB: Are there any aspects of your culture or another specific culture that you feel should not be taken on by others?
Carlos: The mockery of how we talk. Especially one thing is that some Hispanic people or Latino people talk a lot or they talk rapidly and people just put accents in whenever they can, like for “gracias” people will say “grassy ass”, and that’s something that’s really offensive to our language. It’s almost a mocking of our language and a mocking of our culture.
Nikkole: Another thing that will probably bother the black community will probably be, as he said, dialects and the use of words. I know in our culture we have a lot of slang and different things mean different things. I know we have a lot of accents, and depending on which region you come from, it’s kind of like “you shouldn’t do that.” Like I’m from the Midwest so I’m not going to talk like I’m from down south. It’s just respect, pretty much.
Ghada: Yes, the head scarf, for sure. A lot of people assume that every woman and every female is controlled by a man or has to wear the head scarf, like I’m not wearing it. I know a lot of girls that don’t, and when I tell them, “Yeah, I’m from Saudi Arabia and I’m Muslim,” it’s a shock for them. But when I tell them, “If you go to a big city, a more diverse city, you’re gonna see those kind of people.” We’re Muslim, we do the same thing: we pray and everything, but each one of us has their own opinion about wearing the head scarf or not. And not every female is controlled by a man. Not every man wants to control a woman. It’s just how people view it because of the religion and the tradition. But when you separate the tradition and culture and religion, it’s completely different things.
Beth: The first thing that comes to my mind is anything that’s considered sacred, religiously or spiritually sacred. Probably one of the most horrific examples that I’m aware of from studying specifically Native American mascots is the use of the eagle feather, which is considered an incredibly sacred symbol. No matter which Native American nation you are a part of, it most often finds a sacred place in most of those Native American faiths. And to see the eagle feather displayed in headdresses or used as part of entertainment on the floor of a basketball court or the field of a football game is highly offensive. That’s as profane as taking the Christian cross and using it as a form of entertainment.
Chelsea: I think anything that would be considered sacred to another culture should just go untouched. The only exception I can see to that is if someone from that culture is sharing that with you in a very meaningful way.
Alexus: I think that this whole movement of girls trying to become more well-shaped, kind of like curvy … that kind of bothers me. Because I was born with hips, I’ve had hips since I was like eight, and I couldn’t do anything about that. So the way people go about trying to portray that image is offensive to me. It could have been a conversation. I feel like there are other ways of appreciating culture instead of just kind of taking it for your own.
BB: Why do you think individuals so often incorporate elements from other cultures into their style without actually interacting with and learning about the people of that culture?
Nikkole: I think people have a lot of assumptions, and they think “oh, if I just wear this or say this” that they’re immersed in the culture, when really it’s more often assumptions of what you see off the media. The media is like nothing that’s real.
Carlos: Yeah, it’s more stereotypical with what’s actually presented. They will think we will be totally fine with it when they use slang or just mock the culture. But they don’t really understand that if they see that on television, it’s not a representation of all of us. It’s just a representation of a few. Don’t make the few just represent the whole thing.
Nikkole: Yeah, most of it is fictional.
Haley: Well we live in a world where it’s globalized. There’s media everywhere. We see this everywhere. If you get interactions at least on a small level, with every culture, you see it. So a lot of times people see, for instance, some Asian culture’s different style of dress and you say, “Oh, that’s really, really pretty. I like those hair pins. I like the patterns.” But then they don’t take it further, they devalue it because they think it’s just fashion, but it’s not just fashion.
Ghada: It’s not fashion. It means actually something. If you really go back in the history of it and read of it, it means something. This little thing, it means something. This little thing, it means something. So everything for us means something. The way we dress, like the jilabia, the very tradition in Middle Eastern, the long one, or the Indian, it means something. And every fabric, it actually means something from each city, from that country. So they just see it as a fashion, “Oh that’s cool, we don’t see this here a lot.” But if you really read about it, it’s very interesting and you might say, “Oh my gosh, I want to be in that culture,” you know.
Haley: I think it also goes back to the United States. We have a relatively young history in comparison to other cultures: Chinese, Middle Eastern. So we lack in some ways those cultural meanings and in-depth meanings in these fashion trends. Like in Middle Eastern culture, in Chinese culture, these things have carried from generation to generation, building meaning. But we’re a relatively young culture in the scope of Americans specifically. So we don’t pick up on those cultural meanings as much because we’ve lived in a pretty mixed society where everything is together.
Beth: I’ve certainly heard stories of people who are standing in tattoo shops, and they’re looking at all of these tattoos that they can choose to have placed on their body. And they just look at one and there’s something about a particular image that just strikes them as interesting or engaging or they find a personal meaning in it without recognizing that there may be historic symbolism to it. And so because of their lack of education, because they’re not being thoughtful, because they maybe come from a position of privilege, they just say, “That’s the one I want.”
Chelsea: I would like to think the biggest factor is ignorance, but that also might be naive in a lot of ways. I would like to think that people just really aren’t giving it a lot of thought when it’s happening, not seeing how it would be offensive or why it’s wrong. Which again is the privilege of ignorance, like you don’t have to understand that culture to take from it.
Alexus: I think it’s easy to say something is cool, but it’s harder to be like, “I need to learn from you.” Especially when you know that you’re in the dominant culture, I think that it’s hard to just step up and say, “Hey, I know I don’t have all the answers, so can you help me.” And asking for help and education is difficult in any setting, but in our society, digging into people’s culture is automatically a little taboo. It’s hard to figure out how you want to phrase it. But then there are people who aren’t worried about how they phrase it who start fights.
BB: Have you seen instances where cultural appropriation was passed off as a substitute for diversity?
Nikkole: I think that’s when it becomes a mockery. Like if you’re praising the community, why wouldn’t you want people actually from that community, and actually have live examples to show other people and actually showcase the values and beliefs and stuff like that.
Carlos: I can’t name a specific one, but there have been a lot. Not just here at Ball State, but anywhere in the country.
Ghada: I went to fashion shows in Europe, and it was more diverse when I went there. There’s Asian, there’s black, there’s French, there’s all kind of people. But when I went here and went to fashion shows, it was mostly white people. It was mostly white girls, and I was like, “Where’s the diversity in it? Like, where is it?” There were so many beautiful girls that were actually sitting and I’m like, “Why aren’t you guys up there?” So I’ve seen a lot here, but not in Ball State, actually, but in like fashion shows, the one in New York, the one in Chicago. Youtube videos, when I see like dancers and dancing I’m like, “Where’s the diversity in it?” That kind of hurt my feelings for a little bit but… what to do about it.
Haley: I think that’s present really heavily within American culture, because I think sometimes we have a tendency to say, “Well, we appreciate this culture so we have this tiny little aspect of it and we’ve included it within our fashion, or we’ve included it within this or that.” And it’s not really diversity. It’s a substitute. And I think sometimes it goes back to that historical like “oh we’re not racist, I have a black friend”.
Ghada: Yeah, I feel like it’s always there and it will always be there. You just have to convince yourself and educate yourself that “they’re only people, they’re more like me,” you know. It’s not their fault that they were raised in that culture. It’s the way they think because they grow up in that. I still have to educate myself when I travel that they’re people, like I can’t assume, I have to ask before I assume. Because I used to assume but now when I get into situations when I can’t assume anymore, I have to ask. It’s not offensive when you ask, when you come in a very polite way and tell them, “I would like to know, I would like you to educate me about your culture.” Ask the question even if you think it’s offensive. I got a lot of offensive questions, but the way they approached me was very polite, because they were scared to ask me or for me to be offended. But at the same time I was like, “It’s okay, I will tell you because I know you don’t know,” and that’s fine with me.
Haley: I think generally speaking, everyone wants to know everything about everybody. You’re never going to have a moment when you’re generally trying to connect with someone and communicate abroad, or someone here who is an exchange student or just from a different culture in general, they’re never going to shut you down because you’re curious and you want to know more. And you just have to keep an open mind, and you have to look at things from a different perspective. That’s the only way that you’ll ever get anything worthwhile out of those experiences.
Beth: The thing I see a bit more commonly, particularly when we’re dealing with Native American mascots, is the claim that, “Well, this is just an honor. We’re honoring people with this. We’re honoring their heritage.” My first line of thought is, “So if you know that they’re offended by it, how much of an honor is it?” So it’s kind of like the rationale they’ve latched onto without really understanding what it means. It comes to your tongue quickly and easily as a defense, without really understanding what that conversation should be about.
Chelsea: There are many examples in media. One example I was reading about was the – was it the Valentino designers? – where they used cornrows in the girls’ hair to “represent the culture,” but there were no black women on the stage. That’s where it comes down to, like if you’re not engaging in that culture but just like “oh no, we’re representing it,” but like not actually including them, then I think that’s where you are going wrong.
Alexus: I think when white people say they listen to rap music to say that they are diverse – no thank you. That’s the only thing that’s happened to me personally.
BB: Do you have any additional comments on the topic?
Nikkole: I just think people need to be more aware of their culture and other people’s. That’s how you get the whole diversity aspect, when you become curious and intrigued, not trying to make Halloween costumes and stuff like that. Just be more cautious of other people’s feelings and identities.
Carlos: Be an open-minded person. Here in college, you are going to experience a lot of things, a lot of ideas, and a lot of assumptions, and you have to be open-minded. If you’re close-minded and you stick to just one thing, then you graduate and you’re still close-minded, what have you learned in college? You have learned, to me, absolutely nothing, and wasted probably four years in which you could have really grown as a person and as a leader.
Beth: Those lines that you’re asking for are not easily drawn. I don’t know that they can ever be clearly drawn. When you’re dealing with issues of identity, power, and privilege, it becomes a difficult conversation to manage, because we are sometimes so emotionally connected, and sometimes emotionally vulnerable in those conversations. As focused as our culture is on popular culture, that actually might make our culture even more vulnerable to the practice of cultural appropriation. I think in doing that, it also historically removes people from the origins of those things that we’re appropriating. And in a society that doesn’t appreciate its history – and I will make that claim about our country – and doesn’t fully understand its history, that that also problematizes the way that we address these issues in our culture.
Alexus: I just hope that our generation can figure out how to approach people without being overly aggressive, and be able to educate each other. Because we are all peers at the end of the day. So hopefully we can do better than the last generation and not leave anything unspoken and start to break some of the taboos.