Many of us, as much as we hate to admit it, are not exactly sure what cultural appropriation means. Had it come up in a conversation, we might have made a mental note to “google it” later. Its most basic definition? The unacknowledged and/or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another (typically more dominant) people or society.
When members of a dominant culture appropriate from a disadvantaged minority culture, controversy sometimes ensues (as it did when Katy Perry performed at the 2013 American Music Awards dressed up as a geisha). Cultural appropriation manifests in numerous ways here in the U.S., from movies to fashion to holiday traditions, and often appears to be rooted in a lack of awareness.
It shows up repeatedly in our movies in the form of whitewashing: white Hollywood actors playing characters of another ethnicity. Johnny Depp as a Native American in the Lone Ranger, Robert Downey Jr. as a black man in Tropic Thunder, Jack Black as a Hispanic in Nacho Libre; the list goes on and on, dating back to 1961’s The Outsider, wherein Tony Curtis was cast as Native American.
Most of us don’t live with a direct connection to the past suffering of an oppressed people. If we did, Disney would probably not have gone anywhere near Pocahontas. (She was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman, and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at age 21 – Disney might as well have romanticized the Trail of Tears, or Anne Frank’s diary.) To quote James Allen in The Atlantic: “the Disney movie itself might have been okay, I guess, and the commenters saying it was made with good intentions may be correct. But the actual story of Pocahontas was grim and brutal. Turning a story like that into something fluffy and empowering is just uncomfortable.”
We have desensitized ourselves with our own media and entertainment industry, and we stand ready to consume whatever it puts in front of us, even allowing it to “educate” us. Imagine if Disney made a movie about Anne Frank and gave it a happy ending. Now imagine the movie becoming mainstream German culture’s most widely-known reference for the Holocaust! Talk about creating a subculture of misinformation and going down the rabbit-hole of how insidious our consumerism has the potential to become (a subject for another article, perhaps).
Hollywood seems to possess a severe shortage of ethics, and so its power is often poorly wielded; somewhere beneath its downy-comforter top layer is a bottom sheet that hasn’t been washed in several decades, where the industry goes to bed with U.S. politics (i.e. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Trump. Creepy, isn’t it? Makes me want to move to Canada.)
Hollywood also serves up a double-standard with whitewashing: it claims to honor the culture even as it misrepresents it, perpetuating racial stereotypes and adding to the problem of trying to think for one’s self. Though general awareness seems to be gradually increasing in the U.S. (I am bereft of any concrete facts to support this statement – it’s merely a feeling), we largely seem to remain surprisingly undisturbed by victimization stories.
Another example of cultural appropriation can be found in our Halloween costume choices. People dress up as racial stereotypes without even realizing it. Mothers dress up their daughters as Pocahontas, trivializing violent historical oppression without even being aware that they are doing so. People often think they’re showing love or appreciation of a culture, but they’re actually stoking the fire of oppression. This is usually unintentional, not done out of prejudice. (You go to the Halloween party thinking your costume is awesome, you know?)
It’s not about saying you’re a bad person if you unintentionally participate in appropriation, it’s about cultivating an awareness of whether or not you might be engaging in something that perpetuates oppression and racial stereotypes. It’s about making a psychological paradigm shift, undergoing a transformation of consciousness, thinking outside the box of your cultural myths.
“It goes deeper than what you’re dressed like,” says Henu Josephine Tarrant of the Hopi tribe in an interview with NPR. “When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know they’re all rooted in a historically violent past.”
In so many examples of cultural appropriation, what usually seems to bubble to the surface is either a lack of awareness or a desire for entertainment, not outright prejudice or intended disrespect. Truly a “gray area” in every sense, this topic’s complexities and controversies are dictated by people’s preferences and value systems. What is deeply offensive to one person is “just having a little fun” to someone else. It’s personal. Who’s to say where a line should be drawn between cultural sensitivity and freedom of expression?
One can’t help but wonder when our schools will designate it as required curriculum. You’d sure think it would be, here in America, where multi-ethnic groups of people coexist in virtually every corner.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
- Huffington Post, 2014, Whitewashing Was One of Hollywood’s Worst Habits, So Why is it Still Happening?, Amanda Scherker.
- The Atlantic, 2015, Does Disney’s Pocahontas Do More Harm Than Good?, Chris Bodenner.
- NPR, npr.org, 2019, Cultural Appropriation: A Perennial Issue on Halloween, Leila Fadel.