If there was a meter that kept count of every time an Indian said the n-word, the meter would probably be broken. What's the big deal with the n-word anyway? I am a person of color so I can say it, right? Well, that's not really how it works. What you're taking part in is cultural appropriation.
I know, I know - you're probably tired of hearing the word floating about. (And honestly, it sounds so technical, it's confusing.) But cultural appropriation is kind of a big deal. And it may all sound like a made-up thing, but it's important and vital to be aware of.
So, what is cultural appropriation?
Simply put, it's when a dominant culture takes things from another culture that is experiencing oppression.
But what are these things that are taken?
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without their permission. Which usually include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.
So it's pretty easy to follow once we get that cleared out - but there are so many questions that go unanswered still, so here's a breakdown of all the questions you probably have.
Why Is Cultural Appropriation A Problem?
Certain cultures of the world were bred in the light of colonization and oppression - just like India. The oppression and colonization became an important part of these cultures - and if you haven't experienced the oppression taking part in the culture only feels half-hearted. But the larger issue with cultural appropriation is the fact that when dominant cultures use these oppressed cultures to their advantage like economic development or otherwise.
For example, American stores selling t-shirts with Native Americans art prints. The dominant culture benefits, but the Native Americans are still in the shadows of oppression and have no credit in the benefit made by the Americans.
And credit becomes another important issue - when Kylie Jenner was given credit for glamorizing a "new hairstyle" (cornrows), while she had no African heritage of any sort. But, Africans and African Americans are criticized and outcast for the same hairstyle which is a part of their culture.
Lastly, cultural appropriation adds to stereotypes faced by non-dominant cultures. The Native American chief, the Japanese geisha or the Arab Sheikh are the best examples of stereotypes that pop up during Halloween. When people from dominant cultures ‘dress up’ like this, they reduce the cultural significance to just a costume so the dominant group can have ‘a bit of harmless fun’.
But the truth is it only reinforces the already existing stereotypes that more often than not add to the negative experiences of the less dominant cultures.
So Can Cultural Exchange Never Happen?
Cultural exchange is very different from cultural appropriation. Things like tea, recipes, crops, medicine and the like have all been exchanged for centuries between cultures. It isn't these that constitute cultural appropriation because these things don't have any attributes of power. When different cultures come together on an equal ground, an exchange happens.
So, cultural exchange is actually one of the best ways to bond and create positive environments between cultures. So appropriation isn't when you enjoy some good falafel or cook a sick pot roast - it's when you steal something of importance from a certain culture and gain from it without any credit for the non-dominant culture.
For example, if a white person attends and Indian wedding and wears a saree to be a part of the celebrations - it isn't cultural appropriation. It's just an attempt to be a part of the culture for that particular moment and truly be a part of tradition instead of dressing up for fun or for Halloween or the such. That's just an exchange of culture.
But If I am A Part Of An Oppressed Culture Too, Is It Still Appropriation?
That's a very valid question but here's why you're still appropriating even when you're a part of an oppressed culture. As I mentioned before - taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without their permission is appropriation.
So, even if you are a person of oppressed culture, you haven't lived through the experiences of other cultures in the same way. You can decide and make decisions for your own culture because your heritage and experiences allow you to - but it isn't the same for you with other cultures, it is an entirely different domain.
Oppression isn't the same for everyone - so to claim or incorporate an element of foreign culture to your own still counts as appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is an easy thing to understand when you respect other cultures and understand their struggles and heritage. Taking part in cultural activities different from yours is always healthy but taking claim over the culture entirely is not.
So maybe next time, look into the heritage, struggle, and history of the culture you're interested in - understand what's okay and what's not and you can steer clear of the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, uncredited labor, and trivialization of oppression.