By Anthony Taylor
Welcome to autumn, everyone! About a month to go and another semester is in the books. Around campus there are some environmental changes that we have become accustomed to seeing this time of the year. In addition to everything being offered in Pumpkin Spice (eye roll), the leaves begin to fall and change colors, the parking situations improve, the professors loosen up as they hit their guru-strides, and oh—did I mention the parties? Oh, yes, the parties. Sure, college is about learning, but there is undeniably a social element to leaving home and going to a university.
While these social gatherings can be fun, and will give us memories, picture posts and Snaps to be viewed eternally, there is also an element of responsibility associated with how we have fun. The last thing any of us want is for our beloved institution to get national attention for the wrong reasons. Events themed around Columbus Day, Halloween, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Cinco de Mayo, Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May) and Thanksgiving usually give universities the biggest problems. Yes, I agree that being culturally appropriate is a fairly easy concept to grasp; unfortunately, it is still very much an overlooked issue in society.
Since the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is so thin, I am providing a few examples of each to assist you or your organization in being culturally responsible as you have fun. First, for clarity and context, I will first define some of the terms I will be using in this article. Culture is defined as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group (Merriam-Webster, 2019). Cultural misappropriation is defined as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society (Oxford, 2019). Finally, native is defined as a person born in a specified place or associated with a place by birth, whether subsequently resident there or not (Oxford, 2019). Now for the examples:
On September 9, 2019 the University of Toledo’s Campus, Activities and Programming (CAP) sent out an email stating that the organization would be “passing out Hawaiian shirts at our general member meeting to the first 25 people members that arrive tonight…see you there!” This an example of cultural appropriation. To be “Hawaiian, is to be from the Aboriginal Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands or their descendants. In total, 527,000 Americans consider themselves Native Hawaiian. This entire group of people, had now been limited to a shirt (being given away for free) with the University of Toledo’s logo all over it, by people who (I’m guessing) are not of Hawaiian descent.
Had CAP chosen to honor the less than 4 percent of students who identify as Pacific Islander or Polynesian with the shirts to raise money or awareness for the protest on the Big Island (of Hawaii) regarding the TMT Telescope on land that is sovereign to the students and their ancestors, this would have been an example of cultural appreciation.
The issue when it comes to cultural misappropriation is when the dominant group gets to cherry-pick bits and pieces from the smaller (less visible, less vocal) group and enjoy those things without having to bear the consequences of the smaller group. While it is true that the mixing of cultures is not new, typically in order for it to be a positive connotation, there is an exchange of cultures between the dominant and minority groups. For example, if your Halloween costume is called the “Arabian Prince” and has a traditional Middle Eastern Garment called a Thwab, and you are not of Middle Eastern descent, or Native to the Middle East, then this is an example of cultural appropriation. Especially considering the current state of Islamophobia many Middle Eastern people deal with on a daily basis.
On June 29, 2019 rap music star Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” broke the record for the longest-running No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100 list. In the song, which mixes the genres of modern rap music and traditional country-western music, Lil Nas X is rapping in a country- music style speaking twang. While there are rumors that African-Americans created country music, this style is music is not (as far as we can confirm) native to black people. His parodic speaking style and his profiting off others’ culture is an example of Cultural Appropriation.
Country music icon Billy Ray Cyrus joined the song as it began to rise on the charts. In the song, instead of singing, he rapped his verse. Because Billy Ray is from the culture of country music, Lil Nas X’s song went from being culturally misappropriating, to cultural appreciating, with the exchange of culture demonstrated by the two artists.
Additionally, choose your Halloween costume wisely. Costumes with black hair styles, togas, tribal tattoos, Asian culture, Hispanic culture, Native American culture, anything that involves black face, and (but not limited to) pimp or “thug” costumes will surely bring negative attention to you or your organization if done irresponsibly. A photo says 1,000 words and often as with when any person is offended, it is your intent (of the action), verses the impact (of the who it affects).
What about police, fire, or military costumes? While these jobs are honorable in our communities, we have to recognize that they too have cultures that deserve respect. Again, if you do not have to bear the consequences of what you wear, then it is unfair to wear the clothing of those that do, simply for recreational purposes.
A few more tips:
- Know yourself. Before you plan the function, take a self assessment of yourself and or your organization. This will help individuals in the group remember the vital role that culture has on their lives. Understanding who is in the group, who is not in the group, and who the target audience of attendees is, would help rectify any issues early on in the planning process. When we accept and reflect on our personal biases, we grow as people.
- Interact with diverse groups. Engage in conversation with people who have different opinions than your own. While it is true that imitation is the highest form of flattery, often, the imitations are exhibited as mockeries, and that’s not OK. It is in these cultural exchanges that we can begin to understand what the boundaries are between appropriating and participating. However, just because one or a few people of the minority group support some behaviors, know that they are not the voice for consent across the entire demographic.
- Learn. Learning about other cultures is fun. The world is small and you can be anywhere in the world in as little as two days. You can take cooking classes, visit museums, watching movies or read books to gain insight into the many cultures of the world.
Hopefully as you plan you events, this small list of ideas and examples will assist you in not looking foolish or unintentionally racist, sexist or homophobic. When in doubt about what is appropriate or not, ask someone. Actually, ask more than one person. See you at the party in my politically correct, non-offensive, culture-loving, bad-ass costume.