Last Monday, around thirty people – mostly students of colour – attended the SSMU Equity Committee’s forum on cultural appropriation, which invited students to join the Committee for a discussion of how oppression and privilege leads to cultural exploitation. The forum was held in the AUS Lounge and was facilitated by SSMU Equity Commissioner Sta Kuzviwanza, as well as by Committee members Aishwarya Singh and Roma Nadeem.
Lived experiences with cultural identity
To begin, Kuzviwanza and Singh shared their own experiences with cultural appropriation. Kuzviwanza described her relationship with the music industry, where white artists have for years been appropriating elements of black music that are deeply rooted in culture and identity. “I’ve found a lot of offence in how certain people have taken these elements of music, these elements of people’s identities, and they have made it their own without acknowledging where it comes from,” she said.
Singh described her experience as an immigrant from India who moved to Delaware in the period following 9/11.
“One thing that does go unacknowledged is how much fear there was in South Asian and Middle Eastern communities after 9/11 happened,” Singh said. “Around this time, I got to notice a lot of brown immigrants making an effort to change their image, policing what they would wear so they would look more assimilated. My own mom, for example, wouldn’t wear the bindi anymore, or when we were going out then she wouldn’t wear anything vaguely Indian or South Asian.”
“Now, when I see a white girl wearing a bindi, it’s like, ‘Really? Now it’s okay?’ My mom still can’t go out to the airport wearing Indian clothes without getting a ‘random security check,’ but somehow when the same white people belonging to the same social group who were causing this are appropriating our fashions, it’s somehow acceptable,” said Singh.
Defining cultural appropriation
To initiate discussions on cultural appropriation, facilitators gave attendees a list of terms along with definitions. The list/handout defined cultural appropriation as the adoption of items or elements from another culture that is not one’s own, especially from the culture of a marginalized group, without invitation from the original culture.
“My mom still can’t go out to the airport wearing Indian clothes without getting a ‘random security check,’ but somehow when the same white people belonging to the same social group who were causing this are appropriating our fashions, it’s somehow acceptable.”
However, many participating in the forum had difficulty with the last part of this definition.
“Some people justify it by saying, ‘I have an Indian friend who says it’s okay to wear a bindi, so it’s okay’ – that doesn’t make it right,” said one attendee.
Students also discussed how even if the appropriation is done out of a false sense of solidarity or ‘appreciation,’ it is still disrespectful. “I feel like when people exoticize and fetishize a culture, it really dehumanizes the people that belong to that culture,” said Singh.
“They have the privilege of being the ones who are able to give this perspective of Asia, and a lot of times it’s not accurate of the actual cultural things that are happening in those regions,” said one participant, drawing on the example of orientalism in the 19th century.
Grey areas of cultural appropriation
Throughout the evening, participants found it difficult to explicitly distinguish instances of cultural appropriation from those of cultural exchange, where people of different cultures share their heritage and customs. Some questions that arose included whether using souvenir trinkets, particularly ones with religious or cultural significance, for decor might be cultural appropriation, or whether a person of a certain ethnicity who has never experienced or encountered the culture associated with their people could potentially appropriate their own culture.
One participant suggested that it is important to give weight to certain appropriations over others, and that not all injustices are created equal. “I think it’s very dangerous to say that all of these appropriations are equally wrong, because not all of these cultures are equally treated in society,” she said.
“I could be spat at and told that I’m a ‘fucking terrorist’ because I’m wearing a headscarf, but then some other person could be a) wearing it to be cool and b) wearing it because they find it nice or whatever, and not have that same reaction,” the participant continued. “No one is going to attack you in the street […] for wearing a cross. So even though I do agree with you that whatever religion, whatever culture, it’s always wrong, it’s not fair to say that it’s equally wrong.”
One participant, a first-year PhD student, challenged the entire idea of cultural appropriation. “What has always bothered me about the cultural appropriation narrative is that it doesn’t challenge identities that are thought to be solid. It reapplies them and it polices their borders.” He said that he thought identity should be fluid and that the restrictions discussed at the forum on what a person can and cannot do should be fought entirely.
Other participants disagreed, saying that while the situation he described might be ideal, it is not realistic considering the oppressive and unequal power structures that have been established over time.
Though Nadeem expressed high satisfaction with the discussion overall, one thing she noted was that most of the attendees already had quite a bit of prior knowledge on cultural appropriation. “I know that there’s a huge population out there that doesn’t quite understand these terms and concepts, so I would hope to reach out to a broader audience, and hope they would be able to partake in these conversations too.”
Campaign against cultural appropriation at 4Floors
The forum was held as part of a campaign to raise awareness of issues related to culturally apropriative Halloween costumes in preparation for 4Floors, SSMU’s annual Halloween party.
Last year, SSMU faced criticism for its costume campaign, as it consisted of pictures of people in culturally apropriative Halloween costumes demonstrating how students should not dress. That costume campaign was a response to an incident of blackface at 4Floors in 2012. However, according to Nadeem, the campaign has changed significantly this year, as the photo promotions have not been employed, and the overall push to keep offensive outfits from entering 4Floors has been limited to the forum as well as informative worksheets, definitions, and articles to educate students on cultural appropriation.
According to Nadeem, SSMU executives, Equity Committee members, and volunteers will be present at 4Floors this year to bring people aside if they feel a costume is overtly problematic.