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Cultural Appropriation at Warren Wilson College

Madeline Robinson, Guest Writer

By now we should all understand that we attend a college mostly made up of white, relatively affluent students. We’re part of a privileged community that likes to advertise itself as “progressive” and “socially conscious”, but these terms are true only to an extent. I like to imagine that most people here easily understand what is problematic about sports teams like the Washington Redskins, and feel frustrated when they see or hear about Lindsay Lohan parading around in a Kabbalah bracelet. But, despite this understanding and frustration, we seem to generally turn a blind eye to cultural appropriation as it appears on our own campus. I can’t even begin to account for all of the occasions on which I’ve seen people at this school wearing bindis to class or sporting feathered headdresses at parties. What is even more shocking to me than the prevalence of cultural appropriation on campus is the lack of serious discussion about the issue. Aside from the controversy surrounding the Thug Life party last year, I’ve never heard anybody at this school even come near diving into what seems to be a wide-spread problem.

For those who don’t know, cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture (i.e. the colonizer) raids another culture with lesser social, political, economic, or military status (i.e. the colonized) and begins using aspects of that culture without properly acknowledging where the aspects came from. By taking these elements of a culture, whether they are related to art, fashion, spirituality, or speech, and using them merely for the sake of appearing “cool,” you essentially attempt to erase the history of the people from which they originated.

Why would you wear a stylish Che Guevara shirt without learning about his actual role in the Cuban Revolution? Why would you get a kanji tattoo without deeply researching the meanings of the characters? In the same mindset, why would you practice yoga or belly dancing, wear a sari, or buy a keffiyeh without having an equally in depth understanding of where those things come from and what meaning they hold not just in our own culture but in the ones from which they originated. Feathered headdresses are not devoid of meaning. Neither are bindis and head-scarfs. Dreadlocks are not devoid of meaning.  By wearing dreadlocks, you are taking on a symbol that is expressive of a racial pride, a stand against oppression, a spiritual belief, or another meaning.  It doesn’t matter what meaning a white person gives to their own dreadlocks. They already come loaded with implications that generally don’t pertain to, or belong on, a white person’s head. Think of the confederate flag: you can’t take a cultural sign and act as if it has no history, as if a headdress or dreadlock just exists “in itself”. If you do, you’re trying to eliminate meaning, though perhaps unintentionally, and thus kill a little bit of the culture that established that meaning in the first place.

In my experience, when people are called out for appropriating aspects of another culture, they often become defensive and deny accountability. Many make the argument that they are “genuinely interested” in the cultural item that they are appropriating because they “respect” the colonized cultures from which they come, which honestly doesn’t make very much sense. If you respected the culture from which you were taking this culturally and historically significant artifact, you would probably not take it in the first place.

However, if the accused do recognize the problem, they often begin asking lots of questions. They want to know exactly what they did wrong and how they can make sure they appear completely non-racist in the future. “I eat burritos all of the time. Is that racist?”  ”What if I listen to Elvis?”  ”What if my hair naturally dreads?”  ”Are moccasins and dream-catchers okay?”  I don’t believe that people should make concrete lists of what is and isn’t acceptable. Instead, the push should be to ask these questions to yourself. Is what I’m doing okay? Why or why not? Deep down, we all know what our own intentions are, and we know how much thought we have or haven’t put into our actions. It isn’t about trying to stop appearing racist. It is about trying to stop being racist, and instead becoming more conscious of the socio-historical weight that your choices carry.

Still, these endless questions about what is and isn’t appropriation are understandable. It can be very difficult to tell the difference between healthy cultural exchange and selfish cultural commodification. Our country is in part based on the idea of blending cultures, and it isn’t an inherently negative concept. White people of a particular class often feel the need to appear worldly, eclectic, and liberal, so a great deal of time is spent “broadening horizons” in ethnic shops or exercise and dance classes. Cultural practices are adopted because of their “earthiness” and “authenticity”, and thought to be appropriated in a respectful manner. Still, the bottom line is that white people can cut off their dreads or remove their bindis and recover all the privileges that might have been deferred because of their choice in appearance.  It doesn’t work like that for everybody else.  In a way, these choices are just a way of flaunting your social position. You are essentially saying, “Look what I can do!  I can adopt your culture and still retain my white privilege!” While these practices certainly aren’t intended maliciously, for many people, that’s the message that comes across.

I don’t see myself as free from racism or white privilege and that isn’t the point. The point is to take racism and cultural violence seriously and be accountable for the extent to which you are complicit in these cultures of violence and try to minimize the damage that you personally help perpetuate. Some ways to do that include calling out racist bullshit when you see it or just stepping back to check yourself and listen to people’s perspectives who are part of different cultures than your own. Also, in this article I am talking about ways of adorning and presenting oneself, but there are countless other ways to be involved in cultural violence. This is just a starting point to a higher level of self-reflection and cross-cultural understanding that we all should be actively working toward.

I am not saying that any person who adopts part of another culture necessarily lacks that cross-cultural understanding that I’m talking about. Of course, signs don’t just have one meaning. They mean different things in different contexts. For example, the inverted Christian cross is commonly understood to be a sign of Satanism, but in a Catholic context, the inverted cross is the sign of St. Peter. Or the swastika, which is a sacred symbol for many people, was completely altered in meaning by the Nazis. So I am not saying that there are only certain ways that you can wear your hair, or that only some “races” should be able to use certain symbols. What I’m arguing for is an understanding of cultural signs as extremely loaded, and to challenge yourself to constantly read these signs in their full context, even the sad and uncomfortable parts, the genocidal parts, the slavery parts, the Trail of Tears parts, and all the parts that make you rethink not only your hairstyle or outfit, but also your place in history and your accountability to others around the world and within our very own Warren Wilson community.


2 Responses to “Cultural Appropriation at Warren Wilson College”

  1. Madeline,

    This is very helpful. As a liberal anti-racist, white person, it can be scary to confront and articulate these tangible issues surrounding cultural appropriation in expression. I think you hit it on the head when you say we don’t want to hold ourselves accountable because we feel like we’re not racists. Regardless of how we self-identify as anti-racist or not, the color of our skin alone (setting aside class privileges) puts us in a framework of cultural colonization; we retain our privilege when we take off our “cross-cultural wear.”

    I don’t see a lot of this happening on Emory’s campus (white people tend to stick to their ugly Ralph Lauren polos) — but I’m gonna’ watch out for it, more, and do what I can to talk about the implications of taking on these loaded cultural wears without fully investing in their meaning.

    Much appreciation and love –

    Posted by Conrad | April 23, 2011, 4:41 pm
  2. Great Article! A friend sent it to me…def a good read.

    Posted by Colton | April 23, 2011, 5:53 pm

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