In light of the recent article released by the Huffington Post that depicted the Upstate New York Village of Whitesboro’s seal, I realized that I need to discuss the harmful nature of cultural appropriation.
The Whitesboro village seal, which depicts a white settler strangling a Native American, recently caused a nationwide controversy. As a result, the Whitesboro officials decided to kick off the New Year by putting it to a vote on whether or not the village should keep the off-putting seal or change it. An additional article published by the Huffington Post stated that despite the citizens of Whitesboro voting 157-55 in favor of keeping the seal, the village’s officials chose to work with the local Oneida tribe to create a less controversial seal.
More importantly, this incident reminded me that caricatures, stereotypes, appropriations, and abuses of native or indigenous people remain relatively socially acceptable in the United States. Obviously, I cannot speak for the entirety of the approximately five million Native Americans in the United States, but I can state that as a woman of both Cherokee and Choctaw heritage I find the continued appropriation of Native American and indigenous cultures offensive. In general, co-opting and misappropriating any aspect of another culture disregards its meaning and value. For example, the headdress in Native American culture is sacred and important an important symbol in many indigenous communities. Wearing traditional indigenous clothing or appropriating native culture is not trendy, hip or ironic. Picking what you may find aesthetically pleasing from an indigenous culture or what you think is pretty forgoes the decidedly un-trendy history that comes with being indigenous in the United States. A history that many people forget consists of cultural genocide, residential schools, racism, stolen generations, and the eradication of entire tribes of people and their cultural traditions. Consistently, indigenous people have had to fight to maintain their cultural traditions. So when someone dons sacred garb on the whim of it being a fashion trend, it disenfranchises the very real blood, sweat, and tears that went into securing a people’s ability to maintain that traditional garb.
So you may be asking yourself what is cultural appropriation and why is it such a big deal?
Cultural appropriation is when somebody adopts aspects of a culture that’s not their own. Of course, this definition is only a very basic definition – to read more about cultural appropriation see this article. A more in-depth understanding of cultural appropriation refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange or cultural appreciate when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic. So what’s the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? The latter is having a genuine interest in learning about a people’s history, traditions, language, values and way of life. Appropriation is based on a superficial appreciation of a group and uses convenient parts of that group’s culture for commercial reasons. It is damaging because doing so ignores the experiences of minorities and marginalized people.
Cultural appropriation is also not the same as assimilation. Assimilation occurs when marginalized people adopt elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t. Some people say that non-Western people who wear jeans and Indigenous people who speak English are taking from dominant cultures, too. But marginalized groups often don’t have the power to decide if they’d prefer to stick with their customs or try on the dominant culture’s traditions just for fun.
Appropriating someone else’s culture may seem harmless, but unfortunately, it is not. Cultural appropriation manages to trivialize violent historical oppression, allows people to appreciate the culture while remaining prejudiced against its people, and it makes things “cool” for white people, but “too ethnic” for people of color. Cultural appropriation also manages to let privileged people profit from oppressed people’s labor and often lets people get reward for things that the original creators never got credit for. Cultural appropriation can also spread lies about marginalized groups and perpetuates racist stereotypes. A more thorough explanation of these effects of cultural appropriation can be found in Maisha Z. Johnson’s article, “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation?”
Consider this: if you were faced with the choice between your ability to wear a costume that stigmatized, stereotyped, or caricatured a people group – or to don an aspect their sacred ceremonial or traditional attire – and that ethnic group’s ability to maintain the sacredness of said tradition that helps them avoid harm and oppression, what would you do?
Just remember that skipping the costume or the traditional attire puts you on the side of anti-oppression.