Understanding the Harm in Cultural Appropriation

Bella Rinne, Editor

cul•ture (noun): the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.

ap•pro•pri•a•tion (noun): the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

International Day, a spirit day during Homecoming week, was a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive of different countries and cultures. However, it can be difficult to distinguish appreciation from insult in situations like these, as a few students wore culturally insensitive outfits.
As there is a very thin line between embracing culture and appropriating culture, it’s important to understand the difference between them and how to avoid participating in appropriation.
A basic understanding of cultural appropriation is that it occurs when a person adopts aspects of a culture that are not their own. The impact of that action is immense, especially in a school environment. It can affect student relationships with other students, teachers and the community
Many people are unaware of the harm they cause; clothing items or costumes -such as sombreros, kimonos and headdresses- can spread a stereotype that has been ferried for generations and make students of a specific culture feel targeted.
Stereotypes are harmful because assumptions about a group or person can be used to justify mistreatment or prejudices. Not only can stereotypes promote disadvantage, they can affect the targets mindset.
In multiple studies, often conducted at colleges, researchers found that when students thought a certain task or test applied to a negative stereotype- either about their gender or race- they performed unsuccessfully, seemingly in consistency with that certain stereotype. This is because the individuals had lowered expectations due to other’s generalizations.
In a school environment, this can cause difficulty performing in multiple academic areas, tests, sports, or relationships with other students. It can also create an environment where a student feels hopeless or unwelcome.
Appropriation can trivialize historical struggles and oppression, offending students of a certain historical background. This can appear when people of an unaffected culture wear or do something people belonging to that culture struggled to have.
An example of this lies in the athletic realm. Sports teams using Native American tribal names or symbols, or words with a historically offensive and negative meaning, have an abundance of appropriation and disrespect.
During colonization, Native Americans had their culture stripped away from them by European settlers. They could be killed for practicing their beliefs, or speaking their native tongue. It can be hurtful watching people outside that culture able to “celebrate” and parade these symbols with no conflict or strife. Even centuries later, it can still feel as if that culture is being ripped away.
One Washington DC team has an especially offensive name; a slur with a notably violent and repulsive history. The name is not only deeply offensive, but is often viewed as mockery of Native Americans.
This is yet another reason why understanding context is important, without knowing the background behind a sensitive subject or an object in an outside culture.
The key to accomplishing appreciation rather than appropriation is being respectful and thoughtful; understand the culture you’re referencing, know the historical context and practice empathy.
Ask yourself if you’re presenting something sacred and important to a culture in a flippant way. If you’re being sensitive in your words and actions, or if you’re promoting a stereotype.
Whether you realize it or not, your actions can have a wide spread impact on other people. It is always important to think before you say or do, and think about who you can hurt.