Cultural Exchange vs. Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Not a Costume2During the 2001-2002 school year, I was the President of the Student Senate (and Vice President of the Student Body) at North Carolina State University. I attended the Conference on Student Government Associations (COSGA) at Texas A&M University with a group of fellow student government leaders. One night was a thematic night where we were to “dress up” in Texas attire for that night’s festivities. Being a “city-boy,” I only had a vague idea of what that meant. Yet, I had no problem with taking a great deal of liberty “dressing up” like a cowboy, or what I thought looked like a cowboy. It was bad. Think of me, in overalls, a belt around said overalls, Timberland boots, a straw hat, and a plaid shirt. Again, it was bad. I wasn’t the only one, a few others with me were also dressed up in their cowboy best and we all looked a mess. We then proceeded to walk into a local establishment, where many a’real cowboy sat, and walk through as if we would blend in. We did not. In fact, we looked like fools. But that’s OK right? We were, after all, just playing dress up, and knew that we looked a bit foolish anyway – so that didn’t matter much.

What did matter to me was the obvious disgust, hurt, and offense that I saw on the faces that we passed. In that moment, all at once, I realized just how dangerous and hurtful playing dress up can be. We felt so ashamed that we left immediately, and changed clothes. I was embarrassed and hurt that I took what was essentially the everyday experience and culture of another group of people, and knowingly mocked it for my own enjoyment. My people and my culture for centuries have had this very same thing done to them. I knew better, and yet I didn’t do better.

I share this story now after reading an amazing article written by Jarune Uwujaren in Everyday Feminism, on the website Good Men Project. It was written with such care, balance, pace, action-orientation, and tone that I had to write about it and share. The article, What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation?, and its tenets are something that should be talked about in homes, work places, and schools across this country. In particular during this season, when at the end of the month many across the U.S. will celebrate Halloween. College campuses are notorious for hosting parties where people go beyond just dressing up as fictional characters for fun. They take the extra step to make the people with whom they interact with everyday, caricatures for their night of fun and revelry.

This has happened at colleges and universities where I have attended, and worked. I was happy to see students at Ohio University create an amazing campaign a few years ago, where they declared “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.” Cultural Not a CostumeThis campaign beautifully captures the damage that can be done by thoughtless celebration. Check it out, and share it with others. More important, do something about it. Whether you are a student, employer, employee, or volunteer, read the article above, do your own work to gain wisdom and understanding. And please, share this with those who need to see it.

Dr. Anthony

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