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Understanding Appropriation

Campus event: Restorative Justice Panel Co-run by the Center of Diversity and Inclusion and the Student Government Association. This event was created as a reaction to the orange-jumpsuit-and-chains costume quartet at a Halloween party at Davidson College.

Initially, the attention and burst of emotion that the costumes at the party received left me puzzled. I knew that there was something problematic about what had happened, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why and how clothing can embody such a crisis.

In my Global Politics course in high school, I learned that the profiting of Big-Brand Transnational cooperations, such as H&M and Zara, through their distribution of cultural products is unethical. This is due to the money going to these big (mostly European) brands rather than the culture/people to which these items arose from, or belong. Through Unit 1 and Paper 1, around a month before the incident, I learned about the disproportionate racial layout of U.S.A prison cells. Through class discussions during the week of Halloween, I discovered that the hairstyles and chains worn by the students allude to Black culture in America. I remember how during this discussion my professor asked me how I would feel if a Davidson student “dressed in a Saudi prince costume” for Halloween. I remember feeling strange at the imagery of the statement, feeling that it would be immature and offensive if a student had done that. At the same time, I felt confused, thinking that the on-campus incident is very different from the situation suggested. Yet, my main challenge was that I still could not completely understand what I felt nor how or why I felt that way.

That night at Hance, the line of pale-skinned and substantially yellow-haired Lacrosse players was the center of everyone’s attention. The players were told when to stand and sit, were addressed (at times aggressively and assertively) by students in the audience, and were instructed to share their opinions, apologies and (for a select few) their indifference. One moment that stook out for me was when a student stood up and read a speech she had prepared. I remember her stating that her “incarcerated father is not a costume.” It is through such comments from students that the panel solidified the racial, political, and personal undertones of the jumpsuit incident to me.

In spite of attending the panel, my stance on appropriation remained a blur. I was confronted with this explicitly in a conversation I had with a current humester. Before a plenary session, we both discussed the humester’s personal experiences of wearing items of clothing that belong to ‘other’ cultures. I remember arguing that their choice of cultural clothing did not spark as unethical to me, especially since the student had purchased their clothes from the local markets of the ‘other’ country. However, this changed during the lecture. I remember imagining if the student sat before me was wearing a thobe, a traditional/tribal Arab gown. Imagining the White American humester in the thobe intimidated me, it made me feel like something was taken away from me. This was a very weird sensation to try to understand because, one the one hand, I don’t even wear thobes myself, and on the other, technically nothing was taken from me – nothing that I own at least. The only thing that I knew for sure as I was trying to understand how I felt is that there exists a power imbalance between me and the imaginary thobe-wearing character.

The concept of power thus became central in the formation of my stance on appropriation. The culture of hegemonic and colonial entities is used to dominate the minds and markets of developing countries. Simultaneously, culture, and attempts at its preservation, mark a major form of resistance for (neo)colonized nations. Therefore, even if unknowingly, the incorporation or display of elements that hold cultural value/power to ‘others’ is what I came to define as appropriation. However, through the videos below, I discovered that there exists a grey area when one identifies with or relates to elements of an’other’ cultural tradition. This is the case confronted with the humester I talked to in class, which I initially argued was fine. The people in the first video refer to such cases as ‘cultural appreciation;’ which they define as separate from cultural appropriation. I am yet to identify the line which separates the two; as they both may equally spark the same aftermaths and damage.


Sources consulted:

does citing the culture even make a difference? and how can one do that?

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