Cultural appropriation is dangerous, harmful

Clare Forrister, Opinion Editor

March 25, 2016

For Guilford students who do not understand cultural appropriation: look no further than your own dorm room.

The average Guilford student has at least one object or habit that, whether they realize it or not, originates from a culture that doesn’t belong to them.

From tapestries, prayer flags and rap music to clothes, slang and religion, cultural appropriation can reinforce stereotypes, spread harmful ideas and allow horrible injustices.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to stop doing everything that could ever be construed as offensive. Instead, do things in a way that is respectful and understanding rather than harmful.

Many white college students listen to rap and hip hop to be cool or rebellious. We might make jokes about gangs and “being ghetto” without facing the consequences of living the black experience. As much as I try to avoid it, I catch myself using products of African American culture in the wrong ways.

Anyone who misuses a genre created by black artists to reinforce stereotypes and inequality instead of to learn more about the experiences of those who make it worsens the problem. And even if some black people don’t care, many do.

The same thing is true for room decorations from India, clothing from Nigeria or slang from Mexico.

By the way, if you don’t know what country your item is from, that’s the first sign that something is wrong.

Using cultural practices and items that you can’t claim as your own is impossible to avoid in such a connected world, so instead, do it respectfully and with an understanding of that culture and know when not to do it. It’s also not necessary to get it right from the start, but you have to begin by making an effort.

Think about the motivation behind your use of another culture’s products. Don’t wear a Halloween costume that uses stereotypes about a particular group for humor. Don’t wear the traditional clothing of another group outside of its cultural context only to seem more accepting.

If you can’t decide whether something is offensive, do research and talk to others about it. Being too ignorant of it to know is probably a sign that it is.

It’s impossible to shun all possessions and actions that have anything to do with other cultures. Avoiding cultural contact in an effort to be inoffensive is not only impossible but also dangerous. We would no longer learn from people with different backgrounds and solve no problems of inequality, violence or injustice.

But when you take advantage of something that belongs to another culture, stop to think about why you are doing it and whether you really understand it.

Sharing experiences with people who are different from you only helps when you’re actually connected to those people, and not just in your mind. Listen to other people about their experiences, then find out what you can do.

The stakes are higher than you think.

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