Point-Counterpoint: Cultural appropriation ignores privilege


Cinco De Mayo is subject to American cultural appropriation. Terry Tan | Staff Illustrator

By Matt Moret / Columnist

Self-expression and American pride are pretty synonymous — along with American stubbornness.

Appropriating other cultures, however, is not self-expression. It is carelessly using others’ expressions as personal emblems without taking into account the meaning those elements have to others.

Not everybody should stick to their own culture. Integrating elements of each other’s heritages and traditions is the crux of the “American melting pot” concept. Bringing people together, however, requires respecting who they are and valuing them equally. That means understanding what matters to them, why it matters and changing when they say you’re wrong.

The problem with cultural appropriation comes down to that dreaded word: privilege.

Having privilege does not mean that you or your ancestors never had to work hard or struggle. It means that you don’t have to worry about being murdered for looking different. It means that your people do not regularly face the burden of being historically treated as less than human. Most importantly, it means that your voice — and the voices of those like yours — are hard to dismiss.

As a white man, my level of privilege is higher than just about any other group — I don’t try to skirt that truth. But when people behave without recognizing the existence of this privilege, they treat all cultures and people as if they exist on a level playing field — which they don’t.

What seems small can have a larger significance than we — as outsiders to the culture — recognize. It may seem confusing to some when Kylie Jenner wearing dreadlocks or Lena Dunham wearing cornrows becomes news. It’s just hair, right?

But for black women, the people from whom these styles derive, hair matters a lot. Their natural hair has long carried a stigma of being unkempt and unprofessional, with preference being placed on styles that they cannot naturally meet. Wearing their hair naturally and styling it in ways that don’t require fitting a western standard of beauty is a major social statement.

People of any other race have no point of reference for the meaning that those hairstyles carry. For white people, adopting those styles is a temporary fashion choice. So who are we to say it doesn’t matter when or how we use them? Telling the members of a culture what should and should not matter to them devalues their collective voice.

Most white people cannot fully understand the struggle minority groups face to be heard by others. We tend to view those realizations as attacks and deflect any real confrontation.

Just look at the Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter debate. Supporters of All Lives Matter, which argues for greater inclusion in the Black Lives Matter movement, scrubbed away the cultural distinction — black — and attempted to appropriate the entire social message. Once the black community protested the alternate movement, they were labeled as the divisive ones holding back social progress — All Lives Matter swept aside the movement’s initial statement and struggle.

When we brush off attempts to defend cultural identity, we are ignoring the social hierarchy. In doing so, we reinforce it. The fact that these historically oppressed people have a voice at all is remarkable. Telling them how to use it silences that voice.

Now, take a person of any race other than Native American. This hypothetical person has no deep knowledge of Native American culture. They are totally unaware of the fact that, according to the Pew Research Center, one in four of these people live in poverty. This person doesn’t know that many of them now live in borderline slums that we forced them into.

When this person wears a feathered headdress at a music festival, it reduces the meaning of an oppressed culture’s most famous symbol of dignity down to its aesthetic value. The people stealing it are exploiting it to look cool, rather than actually sharing in the culture. That is the very heart of appropriation: ignorance of meaning.

Often, we mistake pilfering cultural elements for cultural reverence, when the act is actually exploitative. There is an important line between cultural reverence and exploitation that we should not cross.

In the hip-hop world, there’s a debate about whether white people can appreciate hip-hop culture without appropriating it. They can, if they approach the culture with value and respect.

I believe hip-hop is the best musical genre in the world. I spend hours reading about the history behind its stories and characters. The music is a reaction to the inner-city poverty and violence most artists face, which I will never experience. I sing along with it — not because I can ever understand what it felt like to go through those situations, but because I appreciate the persistence and growth of the culture.

Listening is productive — throwing around dismissive words like “oversensitive” is not. If you take the time to study the cultures surrounding you, you are helping to break down the boxes around us. Invading when convenient and getting offended that people are unhappy only builds up those barriers.

Cultural appropriation is bigger than individual fascination — it’s an invasion of cultural identity.

Matt Moret primarily writes on politics and rhetoric for The Pitt News.

Write to Matt at [email protected]

Editor’s note: This column is part of a point-counterpoint set of columns on cultural appropriation. For the corresponding column, see “Point-Counterpoint: Cultural Appropriation bars cultural appreciation.”