Edit desk: Appropriation or appreciation?


Danielle Bettermann

Two American girls visiting a Maasai tribe in Tanzania, clothed in traditional Shukas, questioned by peers about inappropriately trying to “fit in” with the the indigenous culture.

An African dance team, consisting of a mix of races and ethnicities, practically booed off stage by a majority black crowd while performing their set.

Are these instances of cultural appropriation?

Take a look at two more examples.

Lehigh students at a themed “fiesta” party wearing outrageous sombreros and mustaches, trying to out-do each other’s costumes.

President Donald Trump attempting — repeatedly — to pronounce Puerto Rico in a “Spanish” accent during a Hispanic Heritage Month event at the White House, drawing laughter from the audience.

Did the latter examples make you change your mind about the former?

The first two anecdotes show people accused of cultural appropriation doing the opposite — celebrating a culture they worked to understand and become acclimated to in some way. They are acknowledging the culture and its customs without belittling those belonging to the group.

The last two situations are, in fact, cultural appropriation. Surprised?

As college students, we often act without thinking of the consequences when choosing a party theme or dressing up for Halloween. Our choices might be offensive to the cultures we are misrepresenting.

The final example might not be “traditional” cultural appropriation, but some people of Puerto Rico were offended by the president’s actions. Trump adopted a Puerto Rican accent, seemingly to poke fun at Spanish pronunciations rather than to celebrate the culture.

Why were the first two looked down upon when, at some point, the last two were accepted?

The answer is simple: People have a warped view of what is offensive toward a culture versus actions that are performed in appreciation.

There is often a blurry line between what is considered cultural appropriation and what is not. A clear definition doesn’t seem to be established, and through personal experience, I learned the potential harm it can cause.

Last semester, I studied abroad in Tanzania for three months, spending countless hours interacting with my school’s professors and staff, the majority of whom were Tanzanians. We would venture daily into the local Maasai village, as well as several other tribes, to get to know the people’s way of life. I spent 10 whole days conducting interviews on the livelihood of farmers and herders in neighboring villages.

These people wanted to understand my culture just as much as they wanted me to understand theirs. They included me in their daily activities and tailored traditional clothes for me. They taught me how to construct their homes, tend to their fields, care for their animals and craft some of their traditional art pieces.

The locals appreciated when we wore their traditional clothes as everyday outfits or when we adopted some of their behaviors. They wanted us to assimilate their culture and to learn from one another.

When I returned home, I hoped to bring what I learned from the Maasi back to America. However, I had to keep in mind times when it might be inappropriate to don these items.

Halloween week provides one of the best examples where I, as well as my peers, must consciously avoid cultural appropriation.

In past years, students have worn costumes to Halloween parties that, in one way or another, misrepresented Mexican, Native American and African cultures, among others. They often exaggerated the culture’s practices and customs.

By adopting a part of another group’s culture without appreciating the richness of their history, even for one night, we can offend people by jokingly acting and dressing “the part.”

The locals I met abroad were happy to share their culture when people gave an honest effort to learn. I’m sure they would not appreciate seeing their customs misrepresented by a group of drunk college students.

As you are planning for each night this week, keep in mind the different ways your costume could be offensive to different groups — culture, ethnicity, ideals, race and religion included.

If you are questioning your costume, you probably shouldn’t wear it. Halloween is a time to take on a new identity for the night.

Do so respectfully.

Danielle Bettermann, ’18, is the deputy lifestyle editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]

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1 Comment

  1. Robert Davenport on

    It seems as though most people are quick to take offense at the actions of others. When a person chooses to wear particular ethnic clothing I doubt if anyone has any inkling of why the clothing is worn. It is typically american to pick up portions of the cultures of others that suit them.

    Give people the benefit of a doubt.

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