The Awkward Conversation We Need To Have About Cultural Appropriation

Vanessa's annual Halloween party ???

A photo posted by Ashley Tisdale (@ashleytisdale) on

There's something about Halloween that makes people think they get a free pass to cherry-pick different parts of other cultures to play dress-up with. From celebrities who still don't get it (Ashley Tisdale and Chris Hemsworth, we expected better of you) to actual physical violence erupting around offensive costumes, it's clear we need to have yet another talk about cultural appropriation. This issue has been kicking around pop culture for the better part of the last five years, thanks to social media and more opportunities for people of color to both witness and speak out when others rip off their heritage. Feigning innocence is no longer a viable excuse. (Apologizing after the fact doesn't count either.) At this point, it's fair to assume that most people who commit cultural appropriation are willfully ignorant and choose not to educate themselves on why it might be problematic. Now, I consider myself a woke person. I know that appropriation and appreciation are not the same thing. I know that telling someone they can't "own" a hairstyle misses the whole damn point. I know that not understanding the significance of something just adds to the problem with you wearing that look. I know there is no such thing as reverse racism and only the disenfranchised have the right to speak up about cultural appropriation. I also know that I am Caucasian and do not have two legs to stand on in this debate. As a commenter recently wrote on Facebook in answer to our piece on Kylie Jenner's do-rag, "Here we go again with white folks telling us Black folks what we should be mad about." Bingo. This is where things get a bit uncomfortable: How do white people call out appropriation when they're the ones on the privileged side of the debate? The first step is removing the word "racist" from the dialogue, says Susan Scafidi, founder and academic director at the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University Law School and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. "I think we need to remember that these things come from two very different places," she explains. "Racism comes from a place of division and alleged superiority and fear and hatred, whereas cultural appropriation comes from a place of admiration — sometimes excessively inquisitive admiration, but admiration nonetheless."

The fact that beauty is being marketed as this inclusive and multifaceted thing is super-important, since it's going across all these attainable channels for everyone to get the message.

She adds, "When that admiration for another culture becomes excessively inquisitive in a not too thoughtful way is when we get the problem of individuals from that culture feeling like they are being loved to death, and that they are losing the ability to represent their own culture and to control its representation in some way. [But also] recognize that people who are engaged in cultural appropriation, or even misappropriation, are not intentionally mean-spirited, most of the time." Beauty and fashion have been hot spots for these arguments as they are the most visual, easily identifiable examples. Which is why they are such fertile ground for education and intelligent discourse. "I think we can use beauty to build a dialogue — people shy away from that conversation and political dialogue out of fear," notes teenage artist and cofounder of the Art Hoe movement Mars. Both Mars and Scafidi note that the internet has done a hugely successful job of bringing the concept of cultural appropriation from an academic theory to a mainstream conversation. "We now no longer just speak to one another in our social circles, but we speak in much larger circles," says Scafidi. "The conversations that social media has enabled have also raised issues of cultural appropriation. It’s not that these things might not have been offensive in the past, it’s that people who were unintentionally offensive had no way of knowing it, unless they actively sought out people from the source community and asked. Now, the conversation is much more immediate." Adds Mars, "The fact that beauty is being marketed as this inclusive and multifaceted thing is super-important, since it's going across all these attainable channels for everyone to get the message." Which brings us back to the problem with privilege. Yes, exploiting and appropriating are never okay, but as Mars points out, many Caucasians feel confused and are afraid of speaking up and asking questions because for the most part, when they do join the conversation, they are immediately dismissed or dissed.

[We need to] recognize that people who are engaged in cultural appropriation...are not intentionally mean-spirited, most of the time.

Susan Scafidi
Mars' advice? To use that privilege as a power to support POC and bring attention to their culture. "People might feel they have this responsibility on their back, which they do, but I think we just need to teach people that it's just the right thing to do. Having a dialogue about why we're so different is super-important to understand each other more and being respectful towards each other." For me, that means using my platform to keep these issues at the forefront of the conversation. And while it may sound naive, my hope is that by talking about it more (even when it's uncomfortable), we can bring more awareness, ask questions, and learn from each other, rather than immediately falling into a place of anger. Mars eloquently sums things up: "Rather than policing people, [we should] just present it as a form of education, which is very insightful for people to build a dialogue," they explain. From the mouths of babes. No one likes to be told what they can do — we're grown-up toddlers in that way — but sometimes, it's not about whether you can, but rather whether you should. And in most of these cases, you most definitely should not. So rather than get stuck in this endless loop of blame, ignorance, name-calling, and threats (rinse, repeat), let's save our energy instead to focus on the actual issue. And that's going to mean some truly awkward conversations. No, not everyone is going to be on board (you can't win 'em all), but it's crucial that we force ourselves to talk about it, share our experiences, and try to understand each other's POVs. Bonus points if you take the conversation IRL and not just online.

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series