Cultural Appropriation Panel Reactions

The Dartmouth Review responds.

The Dartmouth Review responds.

Editor’s note: Certain inter-community groups held a panel on October 27 to discuss the specter of “cultural appropriation,” with a theme of “Is My Halloween Costume Okay?” Four of our writers react below.

Brian Chen

There are numerous problematic facets of this notion of cultural appropriation, not least of which is the logical inconsistency displayed by those who decry it. First and foremost, cultural appropriation is predicated on the unfounded notion of cultural ownership. Indeed, a speaker at the panel complained about appropriators who “take what is mine and use it to [their] enjoyment or privilege.” To claim personal offense at cultural appropriation, one must own the culture being appropriated and thus have standing to deem someone else’s use of that culture as illegitimate.

But there is neither collective nor individual ownership of culture. Cultural is fluid. It is not concrete, and it is not clearly delineated. Cultures change, fuse, and meld over time. Indeed, it would do a disservice to the dynamism of different cultures to treat it as a rigid construct that is owned by any one person or group of people. Thus, anyone and everyone has creative license in using or “appropriating” culture for any purpose. Of course, using any culture with the intent to offend is deplorable, but the act of cultural appropriation itself is not what is appalling; the malicious intent is what is problematic.

Furthermore, it is absolutely mindboggling that the recently held panel discussion, which was created by a host of cultural groups, spent an inordinate time discussing what exactly constitutes cultural appropriation. Even the panel members had to acknowledge that there was no litmus test, leaving only the subjective opinions of individual people. Audience members repeatedly asked about hypothetical situations, attempting make sense of this recently constructed phenomenon. Several participants proffered that the economics matter—if culturally significant clothing benefits people of that culture, it is somehow less appropriative—which is a wholly arbitrary distinction. Apparently, it is also possible to appropriate your own cultural background by using it in a way not congruent with the aims of social justice.

All this obfuscation belies the simple truth that anyone can be offended by anything. Dressing up this oversensitivity with racial and ethnic undertones does not make it any more legitimate.

Furthermore, asking individuals to curtail self-expression that clearly does not intend to offend, especially as it relates to an inclusive and universally enjoyable celebration such as Halloween, is unreasonable. Entertaining the notion of cultural appropriation will lead to scenarios where a very small minority or even one person will dictate what is acceptable, allowing an attempt at pluralism to be hijacked by politically correct extremists.

We have already seen the disastrous results from accommodating those who claim offense at the slightest slight. The most egregious example is the now-infamous Phiesta debacle, in which a worthy charitable event was cancelled for complaints of cultural appropriation. And just this summer, administrators cancelled a Canada Day barbeque (planned by Canadians, no less) for fear of the same. So instead of going after silly costumes because of the alleged power structures, racism, and oppressiveness behind cultural appropriation, perhaps it makes sense to focus on some real problems.

Kush Desai

As is often the case, Dartmouth’s campus activists have taken a real and substantive issue and turned it into an easy target for derision. Cultural appropriation is an important issue, and it is an issue that surfaces worst during Halloween. Although rather boring and littered with apocryphal personal anecdotes, last week’s cultural appropriation panel made some important points that we, as an Ivy League campus, ought to consider.

Why is cultural appropriation a prevalent issue during Halloween? It is in the nature of Halloween to wear a costume of something or someone that one is not for this one day. There thus lies a need to dress as something “exotic” or “foreign.” What happens is that this manifests in a cherry-picking of the most sensual or interesting or stereotypical aspects of a foreign culture and their repackaging into an – often grotesque or highly sexualized – costume.

It’s really not hard to see why people of Native American or Hindu or Japanese descent would find a “sexy” Pocahontas, Kali, or kimono costume offensive. These costumes all involve taking one cherry-picked aspect of another’s culture, removing it from its greater context, and commoditizing it into an object of entertainment and, far too often, sex. One panelist suggested an important question people ought to ask themselves – what is the intent of your costume? Again, why certain minority and ethnic groups would find costumes of elements of their culture offensive when the intent of said costume is to “look hot” or “be funny” is rather obvious.

There was also a discussion about why people in Japan can wear jeans while it would cultural appropriation for Americans to wear kimonos. “White power structures” is the correct, albeit vague, answer. Consider a counter example. Would it come off as strange for a Japanese person to wear jeans and a T-shirt? The Western world has dominated economically and pop culturally – when we see a Japanese person wearing jeans, the connotation isn’t along the lines of “a foreigner wearing our uniquely American clothes,” but rather, “a foreigner wearing ‘normal’ clothes.” The connotation of an American wearing a kimono is significantly different- it revolves around someone trying to come off as anomalous from “normal” fashion trends.

The purpose of all of this isn’t to say that the fun of Halloween should be taken away. It’s a call to think more constructively about the ramification of a statement one innately makes with his or her costume choice. One can still achieve funny with a banana suit or sexy with, well, a low drift version of anything (including a recent “sexy Ebola hazmat suit”). Would ending sexy Pocahontas costumes result in real change in racial dynamics and inequality? No, but for members of our campus to understand why they’re offensive and to voluntarily do away with the most egregious examples of such costumes would go a long way towards fostering meaningful dialogue and understanding.

Keith M. Stone

Exhibit 3 of cultural appropriation: As you can see by this highly problematic representation of chola culture, cultural appropriation takes many forms and is deeply embedded in our society… moving on…”

HOLD UP! If you honestly think that a Rihanna dressing like a gang member is oppression, then I humbly invite you to take a gander at the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “You can’t compare racism/classism/sexism in America to other forms of oppression now consigned to the dustbin of history!” says the proverbial and quite the rhetorically cooperative. Two things, miss. First, the term “dustbin of history” is grossly overused – consider another metaphor. Second, when nineteenth and twentieth century terms like “proletariat,” “oppression”, and “imperialism” are bandied about like they’re the latest “fetch” term (Gretchen, stop trying to make proletariat happen… it’s just not going to happen). I think it’s fair that we put these same terms within their historical context. The proletariat used to refer to a class that worked fourteen-hour shifts in the coal-mines on Christmas Day. Now, when it is infrequently dredged up from the marsh of history (workin’ on it), the term proletarian just refers to anyone who has Sparknoted Marx, realized the color red looked good on them, and has a fondness for getting into online arguments against their oppressors.

Speaking of, oppression used to refer to the systematic disenfranchisement of vast swathes of our society, to the exclusion or inclusion of individuals due to skin color or gender, and to state-sanctioned genocide. No one is saying that contemporary America as such is the picture-perfect image of the beneficent state, but there is simply no reason to continue with such violent rhetoric, no matter its allure, when the closest thing most Dartmouth students have come to being oppressed is being screwed by DDS ($5.25 for late night? Now that is grounds for regime change!). If you’re not willing to pack your things and start engaging in guerilla warfare throughout the White Mountains, Che Guevara style, in your push for gender inclusive bathrooms, you really shouldn’t be aligning yourselves with the “inexorable march towards global revolution.”

It’s not that there aren’t issues to be addressed, racists to be indicted, problematic elements of our culture to be examined and perhaps amputated. It is also key to note that, these groups have matured much since their more radical elements first boisterously busted down the doors of Parkhurst in all their faux-revolutionary splendor, shouting battle hymns of the offended cosmopolitan as they tacked their vitriolic slogans to the walls and spread out their sleeping bags so as to outlast the malevolent President Hanlon and his fellow bourgeois oppressors. Still, when there arises a question that succinctly challenges the basic schemata of their worldview, there are too many who fall back into the same unfalsifiable bluster of the Octobrists. Dartmouth is better than this, our public forums can be more cross-dialectical than this, and we should be bold enough to delve into the gray areas of a topic as ephemeral as cultural appropriation. Instead, all I saw at the cultural appropriation panel was a vanguard of the “decolonized minds” trying to impress upon the audience their own way of looking at the world.

If you want to section off a specific set of cultural rituals, privileges, and styles that only you get to enjoy, then I’m sorry to say that you have missed the point of America entirely. To see into the future of America is to recognize its ideal: a land of liberty, popular sovereignty, hard work, secularism, justice, and racial universalism over two hundred years in the making. Of course, that vision cannot be realized if Americans fail to first recognize this country’s record of segregation, racism, sexism, and classism, but so too will the project fail if the sociocultural melting pot congeals in the refrigerator of unchecked multiculturalism, far from the fire of modern patriotism—itself in need of rekindling. My rights don’t end where your feelings begin, and your identity as a member of Dartmouth or even as a member of the human race should supersede your affinity to an ethnic lineage you did not choose to be born into. Period.

Sandor Farkas

The nagging question among those who advance the concept of cultural appropriation is where the line is drawn. This debate begs the question of what line exactly is to be drawn. Some say it is a line between celebrating and lampooning culture, others say it is between exchange and exploitation. Preceding this year’s Halloween, students held a panel on cultural appropriation that focuses on determining the acceptability of “culturally-themed” costumes.

When members of the student panel were asked their opinion on where the line between “appropriation and appreciation” falls, they had a variety of answers. One drew the line at knowledge of the borrowed culture, another at motivation for the use of the culture. She portrayed such reasons as fashion and sexual appeal as clearly wrong. A third panelist stated, “I don’t think that there is a line [between appropriation and exchange]. There is a lot of sophisticated nuance. I cannot provide you all answers. Cultural appropriation is when there is an absence of respect.” Despite this nuanced opinion, the first panelist responded that, “If you ever have to ask a question [about appropriation], you are probably wrong.” What is more important than these individual differences in the language of appropriation is the underlying conflict inherent in the concept of appropriation.

The fundamental clash that can be extracted from these debates is over the divergent liberal values of globalization and cultural preservation. The same people who consistently fight for immigration rights, international collaboration, and even open borders are those who argue that wearing piece of clothing inspired by another (“oppressed”) culture is a crime. This internal debate over the exact definition of cultural appropriation is a reflection of the innate hypocrisy evident in those who advocate dissolving differences among nations and the exclusivity of certain cultures. Taken to an extreme, this is a debate between imperialism and nationalism.

While these two terms carry with them countless connotations and myriad theories, they are relatively simple. Imperialism is advocating for a state with multiple nations while nationalism calls for different states for different nationalities. In a broader sense, imperialism implies globalization, conformity, and collective welfare, while nationalism connotes pride and exclusivity in culture, race, religion, or ethnicity. While imperialism has been associated with fascism and conservative policies, it is the basis for most communist concepts and an emerging liberal concept of the elimination of all national distinctions. While the two ideologies can be combined, their union creates ideological inconsistency, a common theme throughout history.

Those who decry cultural appropriation do not realize that they have fallen into this ideological hypocrisy. They push for acceptance of other cultures and their normalization as part of mainstream American society, while simultaneously attacking every standard means of cultural integration. Their arguments ignore the cultural history of the United States, let alone that of the world as a whole. They fail to see that parody, even in its baser forms, is an intermediate step in the societal combination of multiple cultural groups. Just as America has borrowed from the Irish and the Slavs, she now absorbs the Latin and East Asian cultures as her demographics shift. While such borrowing can take the form of offensive stereotypes and superficial tropes, it eventually leads to normalization of that group’s presence, and eventually deeper inquiry and understanding.

They justify this stance with jargon and abstract theories about “power structures” and “systematic oppress” that seemingly exempt some cultures from the lending side of cultural exchange while giving them the ability to borrow as much as they please. This hypocrisy arose a few times during the recent campus panel and elicited predictable responses, including, “you want to be black for that day but you don’t want any of the repercussions.” Such rousing defenses and abstract theories may be compelling, but they have no place in serious political debate, or in academic debate for that matter.

This leaves the logical, well-intentioned moderate with a dilemma. He too is caught between nationalism and imperialism. Should he support the rights of cultures, including his own, and refrain from borrowing? Should he back free exchange, give in to globalization, and forfeit his own cultural rights? Fortunately, he is a moderate for a reason. He knows that there is actually a third possibility, one occasionally hinted at by his more liberal counterparts, but seldom seriously considered by those who champion the notion of cultural appropriation. He can choose simple to be respectful, to mind his surroundings, to not cross the line of ill-intent, and to be a gentleman.