Photo of mural created by Pitzer College students Alegria Martinez, Jacquelyn Aguilera and Estefania Gallo-Gonzalez

Photo of mural created by Pitzer College students Alegria Martinez, Jacquelyn Aguilera and Estefania Gallo-Gonzalez

Written by: Cher Valentine

Cultural appropriation will never be shocking news because it seems as though every day we see another case of it. Yet, some people still don’t understand that you can’t take something from another culture and use it for personal gain. Cultural appropriation comes in a variety of forms and situations, whether  it is clothing, art, hairstyle, or food.

One argument for donning appropriated objects, styles, and language is, “It’s not appropriation. It’s appreciation!” But, there’s a huge difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Cultural appreciation, for example, is a person who is not Muslim wearing a hijab while visiting a Muslim country out of respect for the culture and the people around you. Cultural appropriation, however, would be a person who is not African making clothes that have their origins in African culture and selling them for personal gain. Sometimes people can get those two mixed up.

Another example of cultural appropriation comes from Pitzer College, where a wall on the side of a dormitory devoted to unmoderated free speech through art (colloquially named “the free wall”) was recently painted by a group of Latino students, who wrote the message, “White Girl, take off your hoops!!!”  Apparently, they saw white female students wearing hoop earrings as a problem because wearing that style comes from Black and Brown women culture. An active member of the “Latinx Student Union” stated that it was tiring for the WOC students at that school to see the White female students flaunt something that comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion. She stated that the Black and Brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings, are viewed as ghetto, and are not taken seriously by others in their daily lives and that White people have actually exploited the culture.

That is just one of the ways Black and Brown culture is exploited. Sometimes they will actually receive financial gain from cultural appropriation and many times none of the proceeds reach the culture or makers. For example, the creators of Valentino’s 2016 Spring Collection, which was based of African culture,  were accused of cultural appropriation. The African people who inspired those outfits fight every day to keep their families alive while they struggle to get materials for their creations. People have taken their history of oppression and turned it to their favor by selling “exotic” traditions as they participate in a discriminatory system. Other examples include the Kardashians, who appropriate Black Americans’ fashion and hair, and Asian hip-hop groups that take from the struggles, resilience and survival of Black Americans.

There are many cases like the one I mentioned. Privileged people use a hateful history as a way of selling their “art,” dominating an industry that is not meant to be theirs alone while also silencing and ignoring all of the other voices that want to be heard. The tragic part about this is that they succeed.  

Wearing hoop earrings obviously isn’t just for one culture, just as using African culture as inspiration for fashion collections isn’t immoral. What makes it immoral to me, however, is the purpose behind it. If Valentino was making his spring collection to bring awareness to African culture and had Black models and craftsmen, it wouldn’t be bad. Just as if the White female students  at Pitzer College understood the meaning behind wearing hoop earrings and respected it, no one would have a problem.  If your feminism is intersectional and you’re actually appreciating the culture, you’re not appropriating. If you understand the culture and use it out of respect and not because it’s exotic, it’s not appropriation. Don’t objectify and exploit a culture because it is trendy. Respect boundaries and be sensitive to the people who originated it. That’s  how you stop the appropriation and move to appreciation.