Chase: The overlooked reality of cultural appropriation

Arielle Chase, Columnist

Understanding the difference between appreciating someone’s culture and appropriating it can be difficult.

Cultural appropriation is when you essentially steal parts of another person’s culture for your own entertainment or style without understanding how that “thing” functions for that person within his or her own culture. This theft particularly affects oppressed groups of people. Basically, to appropriate culture means to pick and choose what you like about someone’s culture, use it for your own benefit and disregard all the parts you don’t like or understand.

America is supposed to be a cultural melting pot, so why is it problematic to borrow things from other cultures? Because many “cool” parts of someone’s culture are religious, spiritual or originally a way to cope or survive.

Let’s think about black culture related to hairstyles, for example. Black people have had very methodical regiments when it comes to their haircare since they first “came” to America and noticed European culture and haircare were predominant. Soon, people like Madame C.J. Walker in the early 1900s were making products that would straighten kinky hair so blacks could be seen as more respectable and better “fit in.” To maintain these hairstyles, blacks would sometimes wear head scarves known as “do-rags” when they slept to keep their hairstyles in place.

Now, let’s flash-forward to a Derek Lam fashion show during New York Fashion Week 2014. As the models were backstage, Livid Magazine posted a photo on Instagram of the models wearing blue do-rags before the show, captioning the photo, “What are your thoughts on this Chanel Urban Tie Cap?”

What is a Chanel Urban Tie Cap and why is this a problem? I don’t know what a Chanel Urban Tie Cap is because what the models were wearing are commonly known in black culture as do-rags. The do-rag is something that blacks have never profited from — for them, it was a common way of life and survival. But when a person outside that culture borrowed it, it became something trendy and fashionable, dropping its original value or stigma.

To be clear, the majority of Northwestern students have never worn a do-rag and probably never will. But more people are guilty of cultural appropriation than you’d think, maybe even yourself. Something as minute as using a phrase made by a minority from a certain city that you heard in a popular Vine or trending video — think Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that” — could be considered appropriation. Also, wearing a sari because you think it is a cute alternative to a dress, a hijab because you think it is an interesting new way to keep your hair out of your face or sticking a bindi on your forehead to be trendy is also appropriation.

But this is not necessarily your fault because most white people do not actually have a nonwhite friend.

As shocking as it may sound, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 75 percent of American whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” As a result, many students have not authentically experienced a culture outside of their own, learned how to respect it or be a part of it.

Coming to a university like NU has also not necessarily solved this issue considering our white majority. We are a product of our environment, but there is still a fine line between being inspired by someone’s culture and appropriating it.

It can be tricky to fully grasp this concept, so here are some ways to check yourself before you unknowingly offend someone of another background:

  1. Immerse yourself in another culture and do extensive research.
  2. Make some friends outside of your race or ethnicity.
  3. Ask these friends respectful and honest questions and listen to their responses/experiences.
  4. Think about the origin of the things you choose to say or wear.
  5. Don’t be too quick to jump on every trend train you see.

This discussion may seem insignificant or niche, but the point is to be aware of and sensitive to people who are not like you. Understand that others have experiences or practices that differ from yours and are valid and important to their identity, and it is not okay for you to try to mimic these experiences or practices. Culture is personal, so try to be respectful first and trendy second. If that’s all you take away from this piece, it’s a first step toward a better year.

Arielle Chase is a Medill sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].