What is cultural appropriation?

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Savannah Roberson


When it comes to accepting and embracing other cultures, most would agree that as long as everyone in the picture maintains respectful, there’s no harm in “borrowing” ideas, trends, or recipes from different cultures. This type of sharing is the best way to increase diversity, right? While this line of thinking certainly has its merits, cultural appropriation, or “the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture”—according to thoughtco.com—can be a complicated and confusing idea for many. Maybe this is why, when it comes to Radford students (and most college students, it seems) cultural appropriation is not a frequently discussed topic, and in some cases, it’s not even a known topic.

Many students may not comprehend the exact definition of cultural appropriation, but they still understand that it is a controversial topic. Gillian Shepard, a freshman, is one person whose picked up on such cultural faux pas. With Halloween right around the corner, she brought up the annual custom, for many, of “blackface”—painting your face black as part of a costume. “It’s just racist,” she said. “And it happens every year without fail. It’s not a costume; it’s mocking a culture.”

Another timely example of appropriation is team mascots. In 2014, the world of sports was in upheaval over the Washington Redskins. Not the team, itself—but the name. When applied to football, most of us would think nothing of it. But when the term “Redskins” is taken out of the football context? It takes on a different meaning entirely. According to CBS News, the term is “dated” and is “frequently considered offensive,” but many team managers have vowed never to change it. Like the Halloween costumes, we have to consider if this is an example of offensive action towards other cultures.

Are misguided Halloween costumes cultural appropriation? Are team mascots who’ve been around for decades too blatantly offensive to keep instated? How can you know when you’ve stopped “appreciating” culture, and you’ve begun overstepping boundaries and exhibiting potentially offensive behavior towards other cultures? The truth is, it can be confusing for even the most well-meaning multi-cultural and diversity seeking enthusiasts. According to thoughtco., appropriation can manifest itself through music, dialects, tattoos, and fashion. So what can we do to avoid it? To be accepting and respectful, without any of the mockeries?

I think most would agree with freshman Erin Taylor’s thoughts on the subject. She said, “Cultures of all kinds should be treasured and respected. When something is taken from a culture—even if it’s only inspiration—we must understand that culture is something that is held close to the heart and that we should give the utmost respect to the heritage in question.”

It all comes down to our ability to determine the reasons for this cultural “borrowing.” We have to be able to tell when we’re doing it out of genuine interest or a desire for heightened awareness, or if we’re doing it to be trendy. A second thing it comes down to is the necessity of building our skills of empathy. How would your actions make a person from the other culture feel? If the answer to that question is negative, then there’s a good chance cultural appropriation is going on. And it’s our responsibility to take responsibility and treat others with the same respect we’d want to receive. “The sharing of ideas, traditions, and material items is what makes life interesting and helps diversify the world. It is the intention that remains most important and something everyone can remain conscious of as we learn from others.”