Founded in 1974, the Women’s Center was established to:
Dismantle, from a feminist perspective, all forms of oppression, including but not limited to those based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Advocate for an equitable environment free from violence and harassment based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Create an anti-racist, non-sexist, queer-affirmative space where all people can feel valued and safe.
Facilitate and strengthen connections among people across lines of difference through programming and educational campaigns.
Integrate an appreciation of Women's Gender and Multicultural Studies across the disciplines.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Cultural Appreciation or Cultural Appropriation--Where is the Line?

     This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. I recently decorated my arm and leg with designs from henna paste, and it turned out great. People seem to really like them, and I didn't think twice about it at the time. Then, on a completely different train of thought, I wanted to visit the local Hindu Temple to learn more about the religious practices there. After I got permission to visit, I realized--there is no way I can go in there with my limbs looking like this. This was way more than a "what will other people think" concern. This was an "am I insulting the culture and traditions of many of the members of this temple" concern. Thus, the internal debate of where to draw the line was born.
     First of all, let's inform our understanding of cultural appropriation. This occurs when a group or individual adopts certain elements of a culture. Usually it is a dominant group appropriating elements of a marginalized group, and usually these elements are taken completely out of context. A common example is that of the Native American war bonnet. When folks who have no ties to Native American culture choose to wear a war bonnet as a costume, it is insulting to the original culture. There is a lot of history to that element that is simply being erased: only men could wear war bonnets, and each feather signified an act of bravery (additionally, there are far more specific nuances to this aspect of culture that differ among the many, many Native American tribes that wore war bonnets). Choosing to wear a war bonnet because it's "cool" or "cute" or "fashionable" without respect or consideration of the history is unacceptable. Unfortunately, this is all too common in everyday America, especially with the rise of the "hipster" identity.

     Let's return to the initial example of henna. This one is a little sticky, for me, and I'll explain why.  The substance is widely used across many cultures as a dye for the hair and skin. Only in certain South Asian cultures does it hold deep meaning and significance. So, is using the substance okay if one is not parading some false or fashionable meaning? Or is even that rude to some? This is a topic the folks of the internet are deeply divided on. Some say it is never, ever okay to utilize any elements of a culture that is not your own, while others don't see the big deal at all. I, personally, lie somewhere in the middle. I think this blog post does a great job of balancing artistic expression and respect for cultural roots.
     That being said, I'm still strongly opposed to cultural appropriation. Universally labeling prints of triangles and dots as "Aztec" or "tribal," wearing kimonos with chopsticks in your hair, doing makeup in the design of a "sexy" sugar skull...these so blatantly disregard the fact that they are misunderstanding or misrepresenting cultures that are currently living in our world! To put a bit of harsh realism on the effect of dominant groups appropriating elements of marginalized cultures, I turn to this quote from an article by Karina Banuelos: "ask any indigenous individual how they feel about seeing their culture being worn on the backs of the people of power. Things like this are deeply rooted in oppression, and for people of color, culture is all that we have left. It's the one thing that hasn't been taken from us. When you're in a position of power, picking and choosing what seems "cute" from our culture to make you feel more cultured is the biggest spit to the face."

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