La Güerita Takes On Cultural Appropriation

'Miley Cyrus Cultural Appropriation Paper Doll’ by AlexandraDal

Cultural appropriation: the act of taking an image, tradition, or aesthetic from its cultural context and repurposing it in a way (generally as a style or decorative item) that has no ties to its original meaning within a cultural tradition. This is a term you may have heard a lot recently, especially in pop culture. Iggy Azalea is constantly under fire for being a white rapper who appropriates black style and sound, while Taylor Swift has gotten into trouble as a result of her new music video which seems to celebrate the glory days of white colonialism in Africa. Miley Cyrus, who many would highlight as the face of cultural appropriation, uses black women as stage props, “whitesplains” Nicki Minaj, and wears dreadlocks on national television. Cultural appropriation tends to be a sin of the dominant culture, the one historically most responsible for exploitation and colonialism — white culture.

I have always felt cultural appropriation to be a highly problematic idea on both sides of the argument. On the side of those who feel appropriated, I can see why. White settlers decimated Native American populations in a genocide rarely called by its true name, and now young whites dress up in headdresses and warpaint for parties, football games, and music festivals. As certain tribes scalped their victims and displayed them as badges of courage, now we wear the symbols of those we virtually destroyed. After centuries of enslavement and debilitating enslavement in Africa, Urban Outfitters sells tribal prints at a premium price and TV personalities cornrow their hair. While presidential candidates build their platforms on the shameful dirt of mass deportation, costume companies make serious money off selling culturally insensitive costumes involving ponchos, sombreros, and stick-on mustaches and people get wasted on Cinco del Mayo. The argument against cultural appropriation is this: by choosing to wear symbols taken from systematically exploited cultures while remaining ignorant of the symbols’ value or meaning, we perpetuate violence. I can agree with that.

Photo Credit: SJ Wiki

Photo Credit: SJ Wiki

However, there are certain oft-mentioned examples of cultural appropriation that I do have trouble getting on board with, the most obvious being dreadlock, cornrows, and braids. Black culture states that these hairstyles are traditionally black, necessary because of the unique texture of black hair. Understood. And yet I have a hard time believing that a hairstyle is a truly defensible part of any culture. Granted, the white person on whom cornrows or dreads look good is rare, and yet they also have hair, which may have a difficult texture or length to easily manage. While traveling South America, I’ve met many people with dreads, from Sweden and South Africa and Australia. Why? Because, aside from shaving one’s head, dreads are the easiest hairstyle to care for when showers are anything but guaranteed. Long hair in hot weather begs to be braided and put up, regardless of the skin color of the scalp it’s attached to. If the argument is that braids are intrinsically black, then what about the braided styles based in the cultures of indigenous America or the Alps or the cold northern lands of the ancient Vikings? We all have hair, so I don’t think anyone, regardless of culture, can copyright its style.

In the big heaving morass that is cultural appropriation, the real question for me is where the line is between appropriating someone’s culture and having the right (or privilege) to wear or otherwise display a cultural symbol. So it’s probably insensitive to buy bindis and tribal print dresses at Urban Outfitters, but what if you buy something directly from the culture, one that makes its living off of selling traditional jewelry or clothing to tourists? Is it wrong of them to sell it? Or only wrong of consumers to buy it? In Ecuador, the country I’ve been living in for a year now, the indigenous people of the northern town of Otavalo have become one of the most successful indigenous groups in the world because they have so effectively marketed their beautiful alpaca-wool hand-woven fabrics. I bought an insanely soft scarf to protect me from the Andean chill. If I wear it, am I wrongfully appropriating Otavaleño culture? When I was in Kenya, I bought an intricately beaded necklace from a Masai woman. Is the fact that it hangs on my wall a sign of my cultural insensitivity? I’ve spent most of my life learning Spanish, spent years living and traveling in Central and South America, immersing myself in their complex, wonderful cultures. Are my Mexican folk art-based tattoos an act of violence?

My views on cultural appropriation are an incipient snarl of thoughts and feelings which I have a really hard time sublimating into a coherent argument. Nonetheless, I am aware that I hold a position of immense privilege as a young, white woman, but even with this potential bias forever in the forefront of my mind, I can not reconcile my own beliefs with the far-reaching tenets of the arguments around cultural appropriation. But my goal with this post is not to take a side, not to say who is right and who is wrong, but rather to open into a discussion a topic that has long been pushed under the rug by the “guilty” party — white culture. While it’s common to hear celebrities get slammed for cultural appropriation, we rarely hear a thoughtful response from them or anyone else. An argument in which only one side is participating is not an argument but a diatribe, and a diatribe, while not necessarily lacking in validity, will not bring about change.

A Woman of Non-Color Momentarily Experiences Otherness

604123_10101221298385158_3499986577985883661_nAlmost daily I am asked for stories and anecdotes from my trip. I find myself telling the same ones again and again– what my favorite parts were, why I liked Ecuador so much, was I ever afraid, etc. People are interested in my answers. They want to touch a small piece of a life that isn’t theirs (but could be!). They want to feel a shade of the emotions I felt, live vicariously through my reactions towards certain experiences. What did you do when you realized you were standing next to an über-poisonous snake in the jungle? What was it like to take buses across countries? How did you get that scar on your knee? But the story I tell most often, the story to which people have the strongest reactions, is the story about how I was mugged twice within a week in Bogotá, Colombia, but more so, how I managed to defend myself against not one but both attempts and lose nothing of my own.

I have told this story to strangers and friends, to other women who felt threatened or anxious while traveling alone. I spoke of how the attacks seemed like manifestations of the pervasive feeling of otherness that I experienced while in South America. With my white skin, my blonde hair, and my tall body, I was as other as I could be compared to the generally darker skinned and haired, and of shorter stature, people I encountered on my travels. I spoke in previous entries of how that made me feel, how it made me empathize more with people who live with this feeling of otherness every day of their lives. But the experience never truly connected me with these “others” until a couple of nights ago at a bar with some friends. My friend and I were talking to a couple at the bar, a young English woman and an American man, and somehow my friend mentioned my mugging experience. The man turned to me and asked me about it, and I told him how I hadn’t been surprised that it had happened, how wherever I went I felt people’s eyes on me, in appraisal or interest, with curiosity, and sometimes with malice. He looked at me jokingly and said “I don’t know how that feels,” to which I laughed unthinkingly. His smile faded as he added that actually he felt that every day of his life, as a black man living in Orange County. I looked at him and then away. Then I said, “I never thought of it that way. I have never had to think of it that way. But that’s a terrible way to feel.” He nodded and we began to speak of other things.

I forgot about that conversation for a couple days, until it suddenly resurfaced and knocked the wind out of me. I struggle to be constantly aware of the way I treat people. I believe that we are the same where it matters, but that social constructions have had centuries to create striations of worth pertaining to color and religion and gender– anything really that is different from those who control the power structures. But I am white; privileged; most days I even consider myself beautiful. I occupy the pinnacle of the privilege pyramid. And although theoretically I understand that privilege and what it would mean to not have it, I never would have experienced it for myself if I had not left Orange County, California, the United States behind me to step into the shoes of the “other”. I never would have felt, even for a moment, what it feels like to be different than the majority and victimized because of it.

I may have been attacked even if I had looked like everyone else on Avenida Jiménez in Bogotá, but the reality of my difference made my chances much, much higher. A white person in this country can be wrongfully killed by the police, sentenced to a life in prison for minor offenses, subjected to prejudice and racial hate, but it is so much less likely to happen to them because they are a fragment of the majority, a stone, however insignificant, in the power structure of this country. To me, my experience in Bogotá felt almost exotic. It had never happened to me at home in San Francisco, although I worked in one of the more dangerous neighborhoods. I was mugged and I fought back, emerging unscathed though perhaps a little wiser. But to a vast part of the American population, what felt like an isolated and exotic (though terrifying) experience is something that is dealt with daily, something to be survived.

I don’t know if I’m explaining myself well, if I’m successfully relaying to you, reader, what this experience felt like to me. It was this man’s reaction to my story more than my experience of the mugging itself that floored and humbled me. Regardless of what I do, because of who I am and how I was raised and the world into which I was born (by luck, by chance), I can not write or express myself but from a place of privilege. I have acknowledged and accepted this reality, and I use this position to attempt to understand the lives of others whom chance has placed in lives or bodies so very different from mine. It is awkward and uncomfortable for me to talk about this in some ways, but I believe that it is in talking about the problems in this world, by starting conversations with others, that we can hope to change the status quo.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing like being outside of your comfort zone and accosted with the realities lived by others to make you just a little bit more compassionate, an ounce more loving and understanding of the people who share the world with you. Sometimes it feels like progress is slow, if it’s happening at all. But I think the man at the bar, sitting next to the white woman who was his date, is an emblem of progress in himself, if looked at from the perspective of the ramifications of such a thing fifty years ago. For his sake, and mine, and for the sakes of everyone trying to live this infinitesimal sliver of time we have been given, I hope that within our lifetime he will no longer feel like the other in Southern California, or even better, that people will have realized that this practice of relegating those who are different into the sphere of “otherness” serves no purpose other than to create more distance between human beings, and that to acknowledge the “humanness” of each and every one of us is so much more powerful.