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Cultural Appropriation

My sister-in-law recently asked me about my thoughts on cultural appropriation. She is interested in getting dreadlocks, but is concerned that she would be causing offence, as she is white.

Cultural Appropriation is a term that I don’t particularly like, not unlike my thoughts on the phrase mansplaining. I think it is a term that is overused for the wrong reasons and can take attention away from the real issues, sometimes even hiding them all together.

It’s a hard thing to talk about, especially when you take in to consideration how loosely defined it can be. A lot of the time, it can be down to an individual’s interpretation of a situation. What is considered ‘Cultural Appropriation’ to one, may be a considered something entirely different by another.

Take my beloved Chicago Blackhawks, for example. The organisation has often been accused of cultural appropriation and I have lost count of how many times it has been demanded that they change their name. To many people, Native American or not, the Chicago Blackhawks name, mascot and logo are examples of cultural appropriation.

I disagree. The team was named in honour of Black Hawk, an important figure in the history of Illinois. I don’t think that the use of his name, or an Indian Chieftain logo are inappropriate. I think it encourages people to learn about Black Hawk. To learn about Native Americans and the significance they have in history.

One could argue for either side, as each side raises valid points. I am incredibly passionate about the organisation not changing anything. I think it is very important to honour our past and history, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand arguments from the other side.

The Blackhawks are just one of many examples of cultural appropriation, in sport and in life. I encourage you to read about the controversies surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks and their use of Native American imagery. Educate yourself on it. Engage in respectful conversations with your peers. Of all races. Discuss it together, with kindness and understanding.

I already mentioned that I have a problem with the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’. It can be such a blanket phrase. I mean, what is culture? It can be anything. Religion, music, television, dance moves, food, fashion or even works of art. All of these things can be of significance to someone’s culture.

The definition of cultural appropriation (from Oxford) is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. The example they go on to use, funnily enough, is about dreadlocks.

When we factor in Oxford’s definition and everything that makes up someone’s culture, we are left with a very massive definition. Is it cultural appropriation for a white person to listen to Dr. Dre? Absolutely not. Music is made to be shared. Yet, according to the above definitions, it is absolutely an example of cultural appropriation.

What about me? I’m of Indian descent. I have a bandana that I often use to tie up my dreads. The bandana is designed to look like the American Flag. It’s basically an exact replica. I am not American. I’ve never even been to America. The American Flag is a very important cultural symbol to many American’s. Is it an example of cultural appropriation when I wear my bandana? Absolutely not.

If we are judging us all by the same rules, it should be considered an example. Oxford points out that it is typically only used to describe when a majority takes something from a minority. Being a minority, I am free to take whatever parts of a more dominant society and exploit them to my will. Is that ethical? Of course it isn’t, but it fits the definition and therein lies my problem with the term cultural appropriation.

How can we, as humans, be considered equal if we operate under different rules? I’m so tired of seeing minority vs majority debates. Yes, there have been countless horrible examples of inequality throughout our history. These issues are still prevalent today. But let’s call a spade a spade. It’s not cultural appropriation that causes the problem. It’s racism.

My white sister-in-law wanting dreadlocks is a very different situation to all of the white people who have called me ‘nigga’ in my life. Yet, for some reason, they are both frowned upon. One is an example of this so ‘cultural appropriation’ that is running rampant in today’s society. The other is an example of racism, which I don’t hear about as often in the news.

Let’s not start an argument about semantics. We could do so all day. The point I’m trying to make, is that we are getting to caught up on the little things, like music and it is distracting us from the real issues, like racism. Too often I see the majority being wrongfully accused of cultural appropriation by a minority, often by something as trivial as an earring.

If you flip the situation, you can see how ridiculous it all is. Just imagine me being in the news for wearing my bandana and being accused of racism. You might laugh at the thought, but it’s the same scenario and it is the problem I have with so many modern movements.

The real message gets lost, because we waste so much time fighting trivial issues. It feels like it is becoming less and less about equality, and more and more about revenge. Yes, there have been some terrible things happen to minority groups over the years. Yes, these things continue to happen today.

Attacking the majority isn’t the answer though. True equality is moving forward, together. To stop seeing the world as minorities and majorities. Just people. When I look at my friends, I don’t see genders, colours or sexual preferences. I just see friends. I don’t hate my white friends for having a better upbringing than me. I’m happy that they did.

I’d like to see less of cultural appropriation in the news. I don’t see it as stealing. I see it as sharing. We can all learn from one another and share the best parts of our culture with one another. Call racism out when you see it, but don’t attack someone for trying to learn about your culture. If it offends you, talk to them about it. Communication and unity are our keys moving forward.

It is important to remember the tragedies of the past, but we cannot cling to the hatred. We must learn from it and move on from it. Together. I love so many parts of so many different cultures. I encourage you all to do the same. At the end of the day, unity is our answer. Really, we are all the same culture. Human. It’s time we start acting like it.

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