Appreciate Don’t Appropriate

By Simleen Gulati

The media has been profiting off of the disrespect of cultures while considering it entertainment. Cultural appropriation refers to the use of objects or elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that doesn’t respect the original meaning, or the use reinforces stereotypes and contributes to oppression.

A recent example of cultural appropriation in media was when Selena Gomez, a world-renowned pop artist, wrongfully adopted Indian culture whilst performing her song “Come and Get it.” In it, she wore a bindi (a red dot from Indian culture). The bindi is often used to denote a marriage status, but it is also said to be the third eye in the Hindu religion, which can be used to ward off bad luck. Her wearing the bindi erased the religious and cultural meaning and turned the rich culture behind it into a meaningless prop or costume detail. To her, it might’ve been a shiny accessory that her stylist carelessly placed on her forehead, but to so many people it just felt like a watered-down representation of their culture. Even though she was given backlash for the first performance, she didn’t hesitate to do it again.

This isn’t the only example of mega-stars engaging in appropriation. Notoriously, Katy Perry drew outrage by performing Unconditionally in a geisha costume at the American Music Awards in 2013. A geisha was a class of female Japanese entertainers and performers trained in traditional Japanese performing arts genres such as dance, music, and singing, as well as being skilled conversationalists and hosts. Perry’s dressing in the costume was essentially a caricaturization of Japanese folks and this history. In her This Is How We Do video, she earned a negative attention for the way she styled her hair in cornrows, once again adopting recognizable symbols of another culture to appear non-white, while calling herself “Katy Kardashian” in an apparent misidentification of the origin of cornrows. She also received backlash for her video Dark Horse, which featured Ancient Egyptian-inspired theme where Perry was portrayed as a Pharaoh in a caricature Egyptian aesthetic. Not only that, but she gained criticism from Muslims too because, in the same video, she miraculously transforms a man into the sand while he wears an Arabic pendant that says “Allah.” There are a number of problems, including the lazy confusion of African cultures. For this, Katy Perry has earned the reputation as one of pop music’s worst cultural appropriators.

There’s a difference between appreciating and appropriating. Appreciation of culture is when someone tries to understand and learn about another culture in order to extend their horizons and make cross-cultural connections, whereas cultural appropriation is just adopting a part of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own benefit. In a world where oppression and racism still exists, it is further problematic when a celebrity is adopting aspects of a margenalized community, while refusing to use their privileged position to support that community. Perry, for example, benefits from borrowing cultural imagery, but she does nothing to give back. To celebrities, cultural appropriation is entertainment. But to the individuals of a certain culture, it is not entertainment — it is racism.

I was thankful to talk about this topic and get the people’s opinions on it. About 42 people of color at Westview High School from different cultures and perspectives came to convey their feelings and thoughts. Interviewing all of these people has made me realize just how much this problem affects others. I’ve collected some reflections on the topic from students here at Westview below:

“I’ve witnessed cultural appropriation every Halloween, I see people wearing costumes that appropriate for Día de Los Muertos. As a Hispanic, that irks me because people decide to make a tradition that celebrates our dead loved ones as entertainment.” (11th Grader)

“An incident that happened a lot back in elementary school was when kids would pull their eyes back and mock Asians because we have small eyes. At the time, I was younger and I didn’t know what it meant, I kind of just moved on from it because I wasn’t aware that they were disrespecting my culture.” (11th grade)

“A lot of times when cultural appropriation happens, people just brush it under the carpet because of the excuses the public makes.” (10th grade)

“People need to be more informed about the damage it does when you’re disrespecting someone’s culture.” (12th grade)

“ A big message I want to say to the uneducated is if you want to use something from a culture, research on how important culture is. Asking one person doesn’t represent the whole population of the race and culture. Ask yourself if what you’re about to do will offend the people of that culture. Appreciate it, don’t appropriate it.”(12th grade)

“Get educated and educate others, disrespecting something so personal and important to us makes us feel like a joke. We aren’t entertainment, a trend, or just for a fun activity. Do your research and get it together.” (12th grade)

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