My Culture Is Not Your Trend

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It’s something many minorities notice early in their lives, even if they don’t know the exact word to describe it. It’s seeing your culture’s native print on someone else’s phone case. Or seeing white celebrities like Kylie Jenner become famous for full, pouting lips while black women get ostracized for it. This phenomenon is tied to systematic racism. It’s called cultural appropriation.

“We are never appreciated for just being us,” senior cultural anthropology major Maya “MJ” Johnson says.

For Johnson, seeing her black culture appropriated is a daily occurrence. During her sophomore year at Webster, she began learning about cultural appropriation extensively and started noticing the double standards placed on her culture.

She cites the appropriation of black hairstyles and says that when black women wear their natural hair or style it in afros or braids, it is considered unprofessional or ghetto. But when other women style their hair the same way, it is deemed “high-fashion” or trendy.

“It’s only when those aspects of black culture get copied onto non-black individuals that it is seen as cool or accepted,” Johnson says.

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Cultural appropriation differs from cultural appreciation because it goes beyond simply incorporating different aspects of a culture into one’s lifestyle. It is a term associated with economics; cultural appropriation includes the exploitation of a cultural symbol for profit.

Johnson used to work at Urban Outfitters, which frustrated her because of the massive amounts of appropriation she would see.

“They would sell native prints and use white models to showcase the prints on runways without giving credit or profit to the original tribes,” she says.

Johnson says that exploitation occurs when there is mass production of symbols that have history, culture and significance to a group of people.

Adjunct professor Bernie Hayes explains the matter of cultural appropriation and how it’s tied to exploitation through several courses he teaches at Webster, like Media and Social Change and Cultural Diversity in the Media.

“A lot of people who make the profits are very insensitive to what they’re doing,” Hayes says. “A lot of them don’t care or know the history behind what they’re selling.”

Appropriation vs. Appreciation

Junior journalism major Sara Bannoura first heard the term cultural appropriation when she moved from Palestine to the United States two years ago and decided to dreadlock her hair. Bannoura says that her hairstyle decision wasn’t done on impulse — she found that there was a common connection to nature and spirituality varying across the cultures of dreadlocking in Africa, the Middle East and India.

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“Before I started, I researched [dreadlocking] and the meanings and re

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entations that came with it,” she says. “The values rooted in the dreadlocking culture are a very important part of who I am.”

There can be a thin line between appreciating a culture and appropriating it. Even if you have a friend of a different culture, you should be wary of what you choose to represent on yourself. Many people may not know they are appropriating a culture.

“If you show something and say that it was inspired by certain people, then that is cultural appreciation to me,” Bannoura says. “But if you claim it as your own, that is the fine line.”

Bannoura says seeing her country’s symbol, the Palestinian kaffiyeh (kerchief), used as an Israeli fashion statement is the most egregious form of cultural appropriation she’s faced.

“Our identity is being stripped from us,” Bannoura says. “Holding on to these things that make us who we are is very important to us.”

Avoiding Appropriation

Johnson tries to have conversations about appropriation with friends and speaks up when she sees a friend appropriating a culture. She cites examples of people wearing Kansas City Chiefs jerseys, colorful Hawaiian Leis at parties or Halloween costumes that are based on other cultural garbs.

Bannoura notes how things that seem simple, like traditional food and clothing, can still be appropriated. Cultural appropriation is not limited to white people either — minorities can also be perpetrators. In February, Beyoncé faced backlash following her role in Coldplay’s music video for their single “Hymn for the Weekend.” She donned a bindi and Indian garb while dancing in motions that have no actual root in Indian dance culture.

Johnson says that it’s every person’s responsibility to regulate themselves — don’t wait for someone to do it for you.

“It’s not a person of color’s job to police every person that appropriates a culture,” she says. “If a person from a particular culture has a problem with what you’re doing in regards to their culture, you should respect that.”

Hayes says that you can appreciate a culture by letting it flourish and support it instead of taking it as your own.

In St. Louis, Hayes makes sure to stay involved in organizations that pertain to black culture to ensure the black voice is represented, like in the blues music scene. He is the only black member of the St. Louis Blues Society committee and says that racism has prevented black people from getting the funding to open certain projects, such as the National Blues Museum.

“This has been attempted several times by black people, but it never got off the ground,” Hayes says. “[The blues] is a culture that’s been hijacked.”

Hayes encourages his students to take diversity classes and ask questions about things they are not sure about to help clear misconceptions that can come from assumptions.

He assures that it is not embarrassing to ask, nor is it insensitive or difficult to do so. However, Hayes says he is disappointed in the digression of diversity classes at Webster. He advocates for diversity-based courses because he says there is a need for students to communicate with people outside of their own background, race and culture.

Taking opportunities to ask and expand your worldview allows tolerance and deep understanding across cultures. The ultimate goal is for a deep understanding of sensitivities and cultural significance, Hayes says.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get there,” he says. “But I do know that communication is the key.”

Story: Lara Hamdan

Photo: Jeannie Liautaud

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