Cultural Appropriation

Don’t pretend you haven’t seen it, because we both know that you have- even if you didn’t want to. You cannot unsee it now. It is burned into your retinas. That’s right, Miley Cyrus’  grinding on Robin Thicke or swinging on demolition tools on your television, computer, or heaven forbid, your cell phone. You knew it was wrong, and not just anesthetically, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on it and God knows that you didn’t want to rewatch these saddistic horrors again. Or perhaps you remember Katy Perry’s geisha get up at the AMAs, because “we love Japan” isn’t a good enough answer as to why you are completely culturally ignorant. And let’s not forget the messy, ultra-confusing fashion industry vs. Native America, that’s rights, I’m talking about that scantily clad Victoria’s Secret model strutting in her underwear along with an enormous headdress or American Eagle’s Navajo Hipster Panty.

Wrong? You bet, and you can look back to the standard of cultural appropriation as your guiding North Star. The matter-of-fact truth of it all is really that the American media industries’ blatant, uncensored, ignorant use of racial customs as accessories shows little to no regard for cultural appropriation, destroying the secrecy of ritual and smothering ancestral pride.

So now that you and I have established that the source of that discomfort you get in the pit of your stomach when you hear Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and remember Marvin Gaye is actually cultural appropriation gnawing on your conscience, we should probably define exactly what cultural appropriation is, so that it is not to be confused for its twice removed cousin, cultural exchange. According to journalist Jarune Uwujaren, “even if the line between (cultural) exchange and appropriation bends, loops, and twists in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.” Let’s be 100 with each other, Western culture is accustomed to shoving their ideas and ways of living down the innocent, oh-so-diverse throats of foreign sweethearts and taking whatever aspects of their lives and traditions they please in return. My favorite example is with our language. In our country it is perfectly acceptable get frustrated with the woman in Walmart that has the audacity to request the Spanish-speaking cashier in the checkout line (this is America after all, everyone needs to speak English to fit the patriotic, all-American bill, that means I shouldn’t have to push one for English) and then drive next door to enjoy a burrito and flan at a Mexican restaurant and get to wear the sombrero on their birthday.  This isn’t just a recent development though. Our oppressive and aggressive forcing of the “modern, intelligent” Western lifestyle goes all the way back to colonization (In the process of colonization, colonized countries lost vital pieces of their lifestyles, because not only where they were forced to be  indoctrinated into a culture that did not belong to them or their founding beliefs, but through that indoctrination, they sacrificed pieces of their culture as well. Even in our own modern society, there is a phenomenon that doesn’t just originate out of some any political and economic neo-colonization, but of cultural neo-colonization as well.) and our dear friends the Native Americans, and with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, things still haven’t changed. Our media industry is merely a reflection of these ideas coming up to the forefront.

And now we are back to where we started, that’s right dear friend it is that image that you cannot shake out of your cranium: Miley.

As obvious as it may be, I am going to have to plead American people to stop using black people and their culture as accessories (I mean really, for the love of the almighty God, that’s sort of pathetic). Let us not forget how Katy Perry almost successfully made a music video that wasn’t offensive, but it is the original “California Girl” so of course, she had those tell tale ratchet-culture enormous earrings, chowing down on a slice of watermelon and bucket of fried chicken (all she needed was the stereotypical glass of grape KoolAid. Or perhaps how in her one of music videos Miley Cyrus is seen twerking with a group of black girls, and shopping, laughing, and partying with her white friends. (Sure, only God can judge you, but we all know what the big guy is thinking.)You get this whole wealthy white woman making profit off of less fortunate, gyrating black women. As sad as it is to have to say this, it is time that we realize that culture is not a costume that one can accessorize with on a whim, not even if you make millions of dollars and are well known on a world stage. These things should only encourage you to become more aware of your faux pas to increase your audience and get more fame and money. Wearing a headdress on a runway with your panties does not qualify as honoring a tradition, or showing any respect toward tradition, ritual, or reverence whatsoever. Is nothing sacred? Apparently not to the American media industry.

Now, I don’t mean that enjoying sushi while watching The Last of the Mohicans is you being a deft moron, I’m saying that wearing a sari with your crocs to Walmart because you don’t want to put pants or real shoes on, or wearing henna “because it is pretty”  is merely a reflection of the typical Westerner’s attitude toward the rituals of people that are foreign to us. (Refer back to my first point.) It isn’t that everyone is being intentionally disrespectful pricks, it is just that we are being disrespectful pricks that have on freaking idea that we are being disrespectful pricks. However we can also be too careful and rashly label things improperly. Wearing your hipster-chic, plaid button-up that accents your perfectly trimmed beard in all the right ways is not being a cultural buffoon (the Scottish really do not even care at all, just don’t use their families’ plaid without their permission), and neither are those wonderful Jackie Chan Movie Relay Sundays (oh yes, you bet your mama’s cookies those are safe). Over patronizing the fashion industry for their use of prints is a typical reason that cultural appropriation is shrugged off, but over sensitivity is something our nation is facing too- however, that is an entirely different article for another time. Enjoying what other cultures have to offer is not a bad thing. It is actually quite the opposite. However, exploiting a culture is a bad thing; it is very, very bad. Like, you need to be shot with a stream of frigid water from a fireman’s hose bad. It is totally fixable though, it just takes a little education, a little media tweaking, and a large dose of respect. America is a melting pot after all, but we are trying to over season, and the Western flavor is getting overpowering, drowning out all the other flavors that Uncle Sam’s dish could potentially feature. It is just about time our figurative Bobby Flay come and rescue our disastrous dinner.

Let us not forget that not only are we robbing these people of their background, but they are already at a startling disadvantage. According to the 2010 United States Census, even though black people make up about thirty percent of the population, they make up about sixty percent of the imprisoned population. Do you realize that means that one in every fifteen African American men and one in every thirty six Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to one in every one hundred and six white men. This statistic isn’t just limited to adults though. According to the same Census, Black and Hispanic students represent more than seventy percent of those involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement. Currently, African Americans make up about two fifths and Hispanics ring in at around one fifth of confined youth today. The Department of Education recently released data showing that African American students are arrested far more often than their white classmates. The data showed that 96,000 students were arrested and 242,000 referred to law enforcement by schools during the 2009-10 school year. Of those students, black and Hispanic students made up more than seventy percent of arrested or referred students. Harsh school punishments, from suspensions to arrests, have led to high numbers of youth of color coming into contact with the juvenile-justice system and at an earlier age. This is reminiscent of the age old crack v. cocaine incarceration debate. Generally wealthy white addicts use cocaine powder to achieve their high, leaving the much cheaper crack the drug of choice for poorer minorities. Crack cocaine guidelines were first set by Congress in 1986 with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which established the first mandatory sentence minimums with a sharp crack-to-powder ratio — 5 grams of crack cocaine was treated as harshly as 500 grams of powder cocaine.The consequence for getting caught with cocaine is a minimum five year sentence. However, getting caught with crack can get someone a sentence ranging from ten to twenty years. In 2010, President Barack Obama passed the Equal Sentencing Act, leveling the playing field that much more. The rate of black imprisonment is still so high, even if federal courts punished crack violations as lightly as powder cocaine infractions, the black prison population would scarcely shrink at all. By herding these people into the judicial system, we are preventing them from being productive members of the community and their families. The disrespect to minority culture cannot be nipped in the bud if the only people that can do anything about it are being punished for a crime that is heavily related to their background. I’m not saying that drugs are a part of their culture, I am referring to the biased criminal system the American government uses to enforce laws. Culture suffers when there is no one to protect it.

So let’s wrap this puppy up. Ratchet culture, Native American culture, Indian culture, Japanese culture, etc. are not some type of necklace us white people can put on and take off at our own disposal, because not only does that necklace not belong to us in any way at all, we have no entitlement to it because we live in the “land of the free’.  but the necklace doesn’t match your outfit or venue whatsoever. Cultural appropriation isn’t about taking foreign influence away from people, it is about respecting that foreign influence and encouraging that influence to thrive so people can enjoy it while providing appropriate levels of respect, credit, and homage. Thanks to the America’s media sweethearts Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus , we have shining examples of how to painfully misuse America’s cultural gift in the most embarrassing way possible for them, for the public, and for the individual culture groups. So enjoy that burrito and watch your Jacki Chan movies, just know that South American culture is to thank, so that lady in Walmart shouldn’t be so bothersome, and that Asian culture is more than just a girl with a pale face and silky robe bowing over and over again. I am not asking for white people to act white and black people to act black and Asian people to act Asian. I am asking for diffusion with respect and courtesy, which can be a tall order, but not an impossible one.  Or we can role our eyes at the minorities and call them “haters”- that is a you thing.