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Cultural Appropriation: Are Some Cultures Off Limits?

Has culture become a weapon of the oppressor while remaining a tool for the disadvantaged?

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America has been considered a melting pot of race, ethnicity, and culture since its inception. This idea was cemented during the decades of mass immigration following the Mexican-American War. Immigration became one of America’s notable characteristics, becoming a defining value of our country’s willingness to accept all who sought liberty and prosperity. These new American values were even inscribed on the Statue of Liberty since its unveiling in 1903: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Despite the mixing of so many cultures around the world as part of our American identity, culture has now come to be debated nationally for its nature as a weapon of both the oppressor and oppressed.
Cultural appropriation has been defined as the adoption of specific customs, practices, and mannerisms from cultures deemed oppressed or disadvantaged by those of privileged cultures. In the majority of cases, it is considered cultural appropriation when a white person tries to adopt cultural practices from marginalized groups, which critics deem an example of the colonist mindset still held in place centuries later. Whites are discouraged from having dreadlocks, dressing in traditional African regalia, wearing Native American Halloween costumes, and – in a more radical example – cooking food from around the world.
The concept of and outrage against cultural appropriation is new to our generation, but all societies have absorbed cultural trends from one another throughout history. The three-piece suit was derived from Eastern European and Islamic fashion to fit the style choices of West European aristocrats, and American attire in the Wild West originated from the style of Mexican Vaqueros of the time. Marginalized voices are being uplifted and given newfound importance to speak out against cultural appropriation today. At times, this uplifting of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) voices has led to the dismissal of white culture. White culture is seen as having a legacy of colonialism.
There have been many notable examples of punishment being directed at perpetrators of cultural appropriation. Rachel Marshall, a small business owner in Seattle, was photographed by the media. Pictures of her blonde dreadlocks were shown, and calls for her to remove her dreadlocks flooded her social media. She apologetically promised to have her dreadlocks removed in the following weeks. At San Francisco State University in 2016, student Bonita Tindle physically assaulted fellow student Corey Goldstein when interrogating him about the meaning behind his dreadlocks. There have even been YouTube videos made discussing attempts by pop-star Ariana Grande to portray herself as mixed-race through tans and skin products to hide her white skin.
Many argue that culture is ever-changing and that the nature of humanity is to adopt from all cultures around us. People who believe in the idea of cultural appropriation usually express disgust with stereotypes and caricatures seen in Halloween costumes and sport team names, for example. They argue that the radical cries against dreadlocks, skin products, and native American attire are from their extremist fringe supporters, and not the mainstream.
On the other hand, many argue that culture is ever-changing and that the nature of humanity is to adopt from all cultures around us.
Cultural appropriation will continue to be a contentious battleground between free expression and insensitivity as long as culture can continue to be weaponized.

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Jose Backer, General Assignment Reporter, is a graduate of St. Michael's College and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Political Science. Born and raised in Southern California, he currently resides in the Pasadena area.

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