The Fine Line Between Appreciation And Racism

By Camilo Echeverri Bernal on July 14, 2014

You’re probably wondering what I am even referring to. Yes, you see influences from a bunch of cultures and backgrounds everywhere around you. In the food you eat and in the clothes you wear. You might even say that being a part of such a diverse society allows you to see the value in multiculturalism.

Why, then, should some people get upset over being made into a caricature for the purposes of creating a team mascot? Allow me to show you some ways in which appropriation isn’t always appreciation and that there is a fine line between homage and racism.

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I hear you, somewhat politically and culturally aware person. You aren’t all like that. You aren’t all belittling other people’s cultures and traditions. I hear ya.

What about when you participate in that fun event that has come to be known as the Color Run? Well, that’s a bit iffy. People will say that it’s got nothing to do with Hinduism or traditionally Indian spring festivals, but the thing is that it has been commodified and stripped of all meaning. Religious, cultural and historical significance  were just erased to make it a carefree, palatable event for American tweens. It’s even gained popularity in some South American countries. No harm done, right?

You might be a little wrong there. When you wash a holiday so important to Hinduism, you rob the people who practice it as well as their history so that you can feel unique and have a laugh. Days of such importance should keep their original intent and origins. It’s not Halloween. You cannot steal something from someone else and say you made it up. That is cultural plagiarism. It’s called Holi: remember that.

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Another example of cultural plagiarism is black culture. Their music, slang and manner of dress is passed off as cheap, insulting and just plain vulgar. But when a rich white girl like Miley Cyrus adopts twerking, all of white America wants to do it too. They want to be gh*tto and r*tchet because it’s in. You know, because before it wasn’t, and thanks to Cyrus, it’s the latest fad. Like it didn’t exist before, but it was made trendy by someone who does not understand the history of twerking, or its African roots.

Kind of like when Columbus claimed to discover the Americas. In a sense, appropriating cultural traits and stripping them of their history is a form of Columbusing. Claiming that twerking didn’t exist before Cyrus, or that rap has only existed since white rappers like Eminem or Macklemore is just plain disrespectful.

There is indeed a thin line between homage and racism. By taking only certain elements of a culture that one regards as trendy, one is reducing an entire culture to a fashion statement. Wearing a bindi or a headdress for sheer fun, or getting dreads and forgetting the religious implications of all of the above isn’t just having fun. It’s taking what you want and making it into a caricature of that group of people.

Take a look at some Coachella fashion, and look how this uber-Hipster festival seems to give leeway for just about anyone to sport whatever they see fit. A headdress is earned, not just bought at a souvenir shop for you and your racist hipster friends. Coachella is also guilty of renting out tipis to give people the full native experience. How nice of them.

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Hold up, you say. They really don’t mean anything by it. They’re just cool and edgy kids who want to look cool and edgy. Yeah, that’s the problem. In their attempt at uniqueness, they are mocking and openly belittling something that is very important to some people–something that to some is not only sacred, but to see it used in such a manner is almost akin to sacrilege.

When you dress up as a native for Halloween, you’re again reducing people to a costume and to a romanticized version of what you think that group of people are. There’s a reason why you don’t do blackface or yellow-face anymore without getting called on it, and why many colleges are cracking down on such blatantly racist behavior.

But as long as you do it under the guise of Halloween and dressing up for that awesome costume party your friend Mike is throwing, who could say anything about it, right? If they do, they’re being oversensitive and PC and you’re just going to laugh at them. Look at how awesome you look.

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Why, you ask, do people care about how other cultures and minorities are represented and perceived as by the public at large? Because it says a lot about how said group will be treated in society–that their culture is disrespected and they are made into jokes or costumes tells us that they are not being taken seriously.

As long as cultural theft and appropriation and ridicule are glossed over, racism and ethnic bias aren’t likely to end. When you have Japanese culture reduced to Anime/Manga and people claiming to know the culture as long as they read about a very narrow aspect of it is plain ignorance. And that is where it stems from: ignorance and white entitlement.

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I ask you to understand, then, why non-whites and natives will get upset and demand that others stop turning that which defines their rich history into something to make a profit from: festivals and celebrations that are white-washed, musical and dance genres that are completely and utterly re-made and only pushed into the spotlight by white artists and an entire society reduced to cartoonish depictions of its people and its customs.

When they ask that you don’t call natives the r-word, they mean it. When Rroma cringe at the sound of the word g*psy it’s because those are slurs used against them for centuries. They aren’t asking the impossible. They are simply asking respect and recognition. Not erasure. Not being bought or sold.

Cultural appropriation isn’t appreciation. If you like a particular culture, group of people or ethnic minority, learn about them, don’t just try to pass yourself off as one of them or dress in their traditional clothing for your own amusement.

Let actors of that group play roles that require actors from that group. Don’t cast Johnny Depp as Tonto, an already cartoonish depiction of natives to begin with.

It’s not that difficult.

I am a graduate from the University of Central Florida. I care deeply about LGBT issues as well as animal rights. I lead a vegan lifestyle and I stay on top of news pertaining to health, medicine and the political sphere.

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