I had never heard of cultural appropriation before I arrived at Northwestern. I was raised in Hong Kong by South African parents and spent most of my life in international schools. I am also white, which understandably confuses and surprises some people. Cultural identity was never straightforward for me, and I still feel like I’m from everywhere but also nowhere.
My cultural confusion is not unique. I am part of a growing population of cross-cultural people, internationally and in the U.S., for whom cultural, racial and national identities often do not converge. In my experience, I have found that when we talk about cultural appropriation at NU we do so in an exclusive way that assumes race and culture are interchangeable identities. Moreover, we often adopt a U.S.-centric rhetoric when discussing these “racial-cultural” identities.
The concept of cultural appropriation is a significant one, particularly in multicultural and multiracial societies with dominantly white populations, such as the U.S. or Australia. These nations also have enduring histories with regard to colonization’s devastating effect on their native populations.
In such circumstances it’s easy for the dominant race to systematically marginalize minority groups and disrespect their cultures in a way that perpetuates negative stereotypes. For example, Lady Gaga appropriates Muslim culture by sexualizing Muslim burqas in her song “Aura.” This is a clear example of popular culture trivializing minority identities and traditions.
However, cultural appropriation is not always that straightforward. At NU it is often simplified to mean any time a white person engages with culture associated with a historically (and presently) oppressed race. In reality it isn’t that simple, because external racial appearance is not equivalent to ingrained culture.
For example, if you see a white person dressed in a cheongsam at a party you could make the argument she is only wearing it to be “unique” or “sexy,” in which case it would be an example of cultural appropriation. However, you can never assume someone isn’t intimately connected with a culture just because they don’t look like the race you normally associate with that culture.
Perhaps he or she is actually mixed race. Maybe he or she grew up abroad. You cannot tell if someone commits cultural appropriation without first knowing his or her story. People of any race could live in any nation or be associated with any culture.
We further blur the line between race and culture when we make references to “white culture” or “black culture” or “Asian culture.” Terminology that decisively links culture and race without regard for nationality is an example of American exceptionalism. In most cases when students use these terms, they are making reference to American culture and failing to acknowledge varied national experiences. For example, “black culture” in the U.S. is obviously different from “black culture” in Namibia, Cuba or England. Considering the diverse cultures that exist in Asian nations, the term “Asian culture” is so general that it’s insulting. In reality we should be using more specific terms like “African-American culture” or “white-American culture” or “Asian-American culture.”
These semantic differences become important when discussing cultural appropriation partly because some people have cross-cultural identities, but more importantly because cultural appropriation is a concept that attempts to protect cultural identities, promote intercultural understanding and facilitate respectful exchange. We cannot begin to do this if we generalize about culture and race, assume a U.S.-centric rhetoric or exclude people whose race and culture are not obviously coherent.
The concept of cultural appropriation has huge significance in the U.S., but it’s not so obvious to people that have come from other countries with different racial demographics and cultural histories. I would encourage those confronting people about cultural appropriation to continue do so, but do so respectfully and without generalizing. Remember to listen, because you never know where someone might call home.
Nicole Kempis is a Weinberg 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]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.