Opinion: A Conversation About Cultural Appropriation
By Emiliano Juarez
Let’s have a conversation about cultural appropriation. First, let’s define what the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is. Cultural appropriation is defined by Cambridge University as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Cultural appreciation is essentially the opposite. It shows that you appreciate the culture and understand what that culture means to the specific group of people that embrace it.
There is a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding cultural appropriation. In this article, I will speak about my own opinion and why this issue matters to me. I will talk about the main ideas that stem from this topic: cultural appropriation and oppressed cultures, gatekeeping each other’s culture, the difference between exploiting and appreciating cultures, and why cultural appropriation is not progressive.
I often see on the news that there are many cultures that are oppressed in the 21st century, and it is an important issue that should be discussed. These oppressed cultures are often “dying out” and are never recognized for their true beauty. Many people often say that they don’t participate in someone’s culture because it is not their “place” to engage in that specific activity, or they don’t want to offend anybody from that culture. As a Mexican American, I enjoy when other people engage in my culture. Even if that person does not know much about my culture, they can learn about it. Día De Los Muertos just took place in Mexico at the beginning of November, and I have always wanted for people to practice this tradition Mexico has held for years. Celebrating the dead in a positive fashion is something that I believe, and I should expect the same from many other cultures. However, it should be done in the right settings, with the right people, and with the proper respect the culture deserves. I define respect as enjoying something or someone and acknowledging the presence that it/they give. There are exceptions when enjoying someone else’s culture, like if that specific tradition allows for outsiders to engage in that tradition. All cultural traditions hold significant meaning, and there are some that are specifically only for the people of that culture, so it is best to not interfere or disrespect them. However, in order for society to become more inclusive, it is essential to spread and share cultures. This will make people more accepting.
There are many cultures that share similarities
There are many examples where cultures overlap in similar traditions, foods, customs, and values, whether or not they have been exposed to each other. Let’s take the example of braids and dreadlocks. Many people say that white people cannot have dreadlocks because it is not suitable for their hair or because it is cultural appropriation. Dreadlocks and braids have been used by many different cultural groups in the past, including but not limited to the Aztecs, the Vikings, and parts of Africa and Asia. There should not be a single ownership of a hairstyle since many different people may also wear that type of hairstyle. Singling out the conversation to only represent yourself is wrong, especially in America where diversity is supposed to flourish. Let’s take an example of food—the famous ‘al pastor tacos. The word ‘al pastor’ in Spanish derives from the Arabic language. Tacos al pastor are cooked using a ‘trompo’. A ‘trompo’ is like a rotating top, and the format in how it is cooked is similar to how Shawarma is cooked. Shawarma is a traditional Arabic dish. Years of cultural diffusion and exchanges has led to a diversity in different cultures sharing ideas, dishes, customs, and dances. Cultures are meant to be shared, exchanged, and appreciated, and should continue to do so.
A chef cutting strips of Shawarma meat off of a
“rotating cone of layered meat.”
A cook slicing cuts of meat for ‘Al Pastor’ tacos.
The difference between exploiting and helping cultures
I want to use Kendall Jenner’s tequila brand as an example of cultural exploitation. She is exploiting Mexican culture and is disrespecting the people who live and work in Mexico. The problem does not have to do with her embracing Mexican culture and using tequila as a way to make money, but it is in the way in which she is executing her actions. She is essentially exploiting the workers in Mexico and is disrespecting the hard work they have been contributing to tequila for centuries. I think it is great that Kendall loves Mexican culture. However, in her making her business, she may be hurting small businesses in Mexico.
Cultural appropriation is not progressive
Cultural appropriation is not progressive because it relies on the gatekeeping of cultures and no real change is essentially occurring. Instead of worrying about someone practicing a culture different from ours, we should be solving issues that are more prevalent and important.
There are also many oppressed people who have practiced their culture for decades upon centuries. Many people of color were discriminated against for their hair style, skin color, fashion, and essentially everything that people can hate or be prejudiced against. This is just one reason that people may “gatekeep” their culture because it is something that they can have only to themselves.
I have seen racially motivated attacks against many Latinos and Mexicans specifically, especially within the United States. These attacks are filled with aggression and hatred, and it hurts to see that some people do not welcome Latinos and Mexicans in the United States. I welcome the people that have helped me, and I enjoy their appreciation for the culture that I bring because we are a diverse nation. This generation is very progressive, outspoken, and accepting of many people. I want to represent that part of us through sharing our cultures and accepting one another.
I think that many people believe that cultural appropriation is not literally about gatekeeping one's culture, but rather looking towards why marginalized cultures are treated differently than white communities when both groups are expressing their cultures. This is a serious issue because it is still occurring in today’s society and in how we treat one another. Although it is not ideal to deal with this issue, gatekeeping cultures is not the answer to the problem. I believe that we should be more appreciative and accepting of “outsiders” into other people’s cultures because this is the only way that we will progress in society. This does not excuse hateful behaviors and mocking depictions of cultures. This topic especially matters to me because I embrace these important discussions and enjoy hearing others' insights.