The Epidemic That Has America In Its Control

Cultural appropriation is practiced all over America, and the SEM community should take the initiative to help bring awareness to stop this form of racism.

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Popular examples of cultural appropriation (http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/whatwewear/files/2015/05/Collage1.jpg)

Elisa Yi, Contributor

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Katy Perry performing at the 2013 American Music Awards

At the 2013 American Music Awards, Katy Perry made quite the grand entrance on stage to perform her hit single, “Unconditionally.” The stage was set to look like an Asian garden with bonsai trees, Asian-style fountains, and a bright red arch, recognizable in Chinese architecture.

Perry and her backup dancers were dressed as geishas with Asian topknot hairstyles, kimono-like outfits, Asian-style umbrellas, and fans. They imitated some Asian dance moves, bowing and giving off a shy, dainty vibe. Some people were in awe of Perry’s performance, admiring her exotic way of performing.

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A modern-day Japanese geisha

Perry’s whole get-up and performance just screams problematic and “cultural appropriation.” No matter how attractive Perry looked and no matter how well she performed, it cannot be denied that Perry was participating in cultural appropriation in front of the presence of thousands of people. Perry is only one of many people that participate in cultural appropriation, and frankly, this is a huge problem in American culture and society.

The precise definition of cultural appropriation is when an individual takes or uses elements of a culture they are not part of. This includes wearing the clothing and hairstyles of a different culture. This definition is rather lacking for what cultural appropriation is today, because acts of cultural appropriation would be brushed off and labeled as cultural exchange.

To be clear, cultural appropriation is not the same thing as cultural exchange. So what is the key difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange? Power, and the idea of “borrowing” as opposed to “sharing.” Cultural appropriation becomes problematic when a dominant majority is borrowing the elements of the culture of a minority. The dominant majority has the privilege and power to borrow and label aspects of another cultural as chic, trendy and exotic, but when the minority actually display those same elements of their own culture, they are labeled as too ethnic, weird and associated with other negative terms.

In the U.S., cultural appropriation has spread like an epidemic into many different aspects of our culture. The dominant majority (namely, white people), freely appropriate minority cultures, the most popular being African American, Asian, and Native American cultures. Cornrows, Pocahontas costumes, and kimonos are all common ways people perform cultural appropriation.

Perry’s performance is a prime example of cultural appropriation. To start off with,  it was not very clear exactly which culture Perry was appropriating. Her costumes and the stage set were solely based on American stereotypes of general Asian culture. In addition to this, there is more to Perry’s performance than what meets the eye. The song Perry performed, “Unconditionally,” is about a woman that chases after her lover, promising that her love is unconditional and everlasting, no matter how the man acts. This whole idea contributes to the stereotype that Asian girls are generally shy, submissive, and subservient to men.

In response to the backlash her performance received, Perry responded that she didn’t think her performance would generate negative reactions. In her defense, all she wanted to do was give a beautiful performance while paying homage to Japanese culture. I believe that Perry genuinely did not mean to participate in this form of racism and truly admired Japanese culture; many people who culturally appropriate are not aware that they are actually being racist.

Perry’s positive and well-meant intentions do not excuse the fact that her actions were problematic, despite what some media sources claim. The mere fact that some articles toned down and nullified Perry’s act is a problem in itself. It is a clear reflection that cultural appropriation has been generalized and is known as a common practice that is normal, not problematic or harmful.

Katy Perry is hardly the first or only celebrity that has appropriated the culture of a minority in America. In our modern society, celebrities have a great impact on popular culture and the younger generation. These days, children and teens all over the nation are raving over celebrities like Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Karlie Kloss and top fashion companies like Marc Jacobs and Valentino. How are these celebrities and companies all related? They have all appropriated the hairstyles of African American culture.

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Kylie Jenner’s Instagram selfie of her wearing cornrows

Both Kylie and Kendall Jenner have posted numerous photos on social media outlets wearing cornrows. It could even be said that the two sisters helped spark the “fashionable” trend of wearing cornrows, as they supposedly provide an “edgy” look. Valentino also decided to adopt cornrows for their Spring 2016 collection. In fact, the whole chosen theme was named “wild, tribal Africa”. Recently, at New York Fashion Week, Marc Jacobs had his models wear dreadlocks in his Spring 2017 show. Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss, and Gigi Hadid, who are well-known supermodels, walked in the Marc Jacobs show, wearing dreadlocks. Photos of the three celebrities and the other models were posted all over social media, and many people complimented how “chic” and “trendy” the models looked. While non-African Americans are considered fashionable

when wearing African American hairstyles, when Africa Americans wear these hairstyles, they are considered “hoodrat,” “ghetto,” or “ratchet.” African Americans are even denied jobs if they show up to job interviews wearing traditional African American hairstyles, because they are considered “unprofessional” in the eyes of the majority.

“People don’t realize that some relics and symbols are sacred to other cultures and that the people of those cultures fight to maintain their cultural background while living in America”, says Ms. Wooten, a faculty member. “People don’t know that African Americans can’t get jobs if they wear bantu knots, cornrows or dreds to interviews.”

Models walking in the Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 Collection show while wearing the controversial dreadlocks hairstyle
Models walking in the Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 Collection show while wearing the controversial dreadlocks hairstyle

Because celebrities  are idolized and greatly looked up to, when celebs appropriate a culture, they are advertising cultural appropriation to the whole nation. The younger generation looks at all these photos of celebrities wearing cornrows and kimonos, and thinks that this is just another cool trend. But it really isn’t. While a Native American Halloween costume or cornrows is just another hairstyle or costume for  one person, to another person, it represents the struggles their culture has gone through to be recognized as part of the American society.

Cultural appropriation should not be confused with cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation is when individuals use elements of a culture in an educated manner with the intent of respecting and honoring the culture.

There is a very fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation that can be extremely hard to define. Context definitely matters. If I wore cornrows because I really thought the hairstyle was beautiful and appreciated African American culture, I could claim that I am appreciating the culture and respecting it. However, just by looking at my outward appearance, no one would be able to tell whether I am appreciating or appropriating the culture. Therefore, my wearing cornrows might actually send out the message that it’s okay to appropriate. So are you really respecting a culture if you’re risking other people becoming offended? Are you really appreciating the culture by taking the risk of spreading cultural appropriation? It’s okay to think that cornrows and bindis are beautiful and in a perfect world, everyone would be able to share their culture and wear whatever they want with no racism involved. However, American society is far from being perfect.

Cultural appropriation is very much present in the SEM community but those who are more educated in this field have taken means to spread awareness and alert their peers who participate in cultural appropriation. It is not always easy to stand up and take means to educate your peers. Mrs. Jessica Silverstein, who teaches history, was happy to share her input on how one should go about educating and raising awareness.

“I think that one strategy is to share your own reaction or share your worries about how other people feel, rather than pointing fingers and labeling an action by saying ‘that’s racist!’ It is more productive to use words like ‘this is how that makes me feel’ or gently asking the person if they know that the hairstyle or clothing they are wearing is associated with another religion or culture and may offend others. Starting a conversation is better than charging in. Most people don’t want to offend others and it is useful to offer information and new perspective.”

If you go into a conversation with the positive intention of spreading awareness rather than scolding or calling out your peers, your peers will most likely respond positively and take the chance to expand their knowledge. For that reason, no matter how offended you may be by someone else’s actions, for a more productive outcome, it is essential to remember that the main goal is to shed light on this issue, not bash others for wrong decision they didn’t know they were making.

SEM has already stepped forward to bring attention to cultural appropriation. Just before Halloween, members of our Justice League gave a presentation to remind the community of the relationship between cultural appropriation and popular Halloween costumes. When asked how SEM should continue to address this problem, both faculty members and students had the same response.

“I think that we need to have more conversations where people don’t feel the need to be defensive,” said Ms. Wooten, “People should be willing to learn and other people should be willing to give information.”

Racism is a significant issue in our culture and society and we should do the best of our ability to promote equality for all. Cultural appropriation may not seem like a serious form of racism, but unconscious racism is still racism. So the next time you are choosing a Halloween costume, a hairstyle, or an outfit that incorporates elements of another culture ask yourself these questions: “Is this going to offend or hurt someone?” “Is it really worth it?”  Because for you, this may be just another costume, outfit, or hairstyle, but for someone else, this is another reminder of the underlying racism that still exists in our modern-day society.

Here is Katy Perry’s full performance at the 2013 AMAs.