Cultures as Bridges
by Anika Talia Griffiths | published Mar. 25th, 2018
The recent strengthening of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and other white supremacist groups has put the issue of racism back onto the American table. Is racism returning from the dead? Or has it always been there, and we simply never noticed? The latter seems to be truer. It’s difficult to detect something when it presents itself in subtler ways, especially since it evolved alongside U.S. institutions.
This subtle, lukewarm racial bias that preceded today’s more flamboyant racism (accessorized with confederate flags, swastikas, and black helmets) is the broth inside America's “melting pot.” If you can picture each ethnicity as a different seasoning, we aren’t mixed in very well. Social relations across racial groups has become tense; and in some areas of America, members of one racial group have yet to physically encounter members of another. In spite of this, we are all still intricately tied to one another culturally.
The melting pot we live in has allowed for pieces of each of our cultures to spread rapidly and be adopted into one another’s lives. Let’s again say that we were different seasonings. Essentially, the flavors of other cultures have intermingled with the broth of our country despite racial biases. Now, all racial groups have been influenced and become apart of other identities. Two terms can be used to describe this phenomenon, depending on how that identifying feature mingles with the identity of a person outside the cultural group to which it belongs: cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.
Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Kijana Crawford, who teaches African American culture and minority relations, described the difference between the two.
“Cultural appreciation is a respect, a way of sending dignity to another group’s culture. Cultural appropriation is taking another group’s culture and using it in such a way as to not necessarily advance that cultural group, but to more or less exploit or take advantage, or use it to advance a cause other than the primary group that you are dealing with. It’s a way in which a group utilizes the culture of another group ... to make money off of it, or change it around to the extent that they steal or borrow from it for their own personal gain,” she said.
One example of cultural appropriation would be when non-Natives wear headdresses that are part of Indigenous culture. For the Sioux, the headdresses are made with real eagle feathers and are given out to male tribe members at important ceremonies to symbolize courage in war or other major accomplishments
By wearing it to cheer on your favorite sports team, or to strut down the runway as Karlie Kloss did in the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, you remove the item’s history and subsequently devalue the cultural group to which it belongs.
Cultural appropriation is important to look at because it is a product of racism. To appropriate means that you admire a particular aspect of another culture, but simply refuse to send dignity to the cultural group. In addition to this, groups whose cultures are appropriated are almost always marginalized. Native Americans, for example, have struggled to keep their land, have had their populations decimated and have endured attempts by Americans to strip them of their culture.
All this was done as a means of dehumanizing Indigenous groups. This leads to an important point: a racial group can systematically subordinate or be prejudiced towards another racial group, while still enjoying parts of the culture belonging to them. This phenomenon screams “dissonance” if you ask Jonathan Ntheketha, senior assistant director at the center of first-year initiatives summer bridge program for the Multicultural Center for Academic Success. Sadly, it isn’t rare for bigots to disassociate the "enjoyable" aspects of cultures, such as food or music, from the people they are prejudiced against.
Mixing parts of another culture with your identity can also be classified as cultural appreciation. This means that we can still enjoy one another’s cultures or have other cultural groups influence our daily lives without exploiting the culture. For example, you don’t have to be African American to enjoy R&B and hip-hop music. You can tattoo Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE” lyrics across your chest if you want. You don’t have to be Mexican to grab lunch from Salsarita’s after class. You don’t have to be Argentinian to register for Argentine tango next semester.
These are all examples of appreciating a culture for what it is and not changing the history of the cultural group to benefit yourself. That being said, these things could become appropriation if, for example, you are not Mexican but open a Mexican restaurant and make a profit from the food of a culture that isn’t yours, which completely exploits the culture.
Cultural appreciation celebrates other cultures but can be darkly ironic when exhibited by someone who is racist. There are people who hate Mexicans, viewing them as rapists and criminals, but dream of vacationing in Cancún. There are people who hate black Americans, viewing people of my background as aggressive thugs, but will rap along to 21 Savage. A similar example was brought up by Ntheketha.
“I love the Temptations movie because they show it. You’ve got the Temptations playing and singing. And you’ve got the gym. And you’ve got this line right down the middle. And you’ve got black people on one side and white people on the other. That right there is the epitome of that dissonance. You’re listening to the same thing ... you want this so badly, but racism is a thing that makes you say, ‘You know what, racism is more important, this line — this division I’m trying to create is more important than people communing together off of the same beauty,” Ntheketha said.
When we hold racial biases and actively discriminate against others, we not only limit the group that we hate, but we limit ourselves. Both groups in this example were restricted physically to one half of the gym, and socially to members of only their own race. However, these groups were tied together because they enjoyed the same music. Perhaps the key to ending racial prejudice is simply recognizing that we often do commune together off of the same beauty. Whether you appropriate or appreciate another culture, it is clear that a certain aspect of a culture other than your own is so wonderful that it drew your attention to it. Here lies the opportunity for dialogue.
“How do we solve racism? Dialogue. We have to have honest discussion. There’s multiple ways,” Crawford said.
Cynthia Chu, president of ALANA (African, Latino, Asian, Native American) Collegiate Association, suggests facilitating discussions on our racially biased thoughts and where they come from.
Before such dialogue can happen, we need to humanize racially prejudiced people. Racism is often portrayed as a despicably antiquated mindset. Yes, it has led to overwhelming pain and suffering, but it is important to understand the humanity behind it.
As humans, we can pick up terrible habits and thought patterns simply because they’re common in the community we grow up in. We also fear the unknown, which explains why racist tendencies can be more prominent in groups who have never, or barely, encountered members of other racial groups.
When you grow up with family and friends who are racially biased, it’s hard not to follow suit. Which is why you can’t “fault” people who have been in those situations and are racist.
“But when you honestly look at what was told to us, why we were told it, and whether or not we should continue to believe it — that’s the conversation that needs to be had,” Ntheketha explained.
Chu agreed. “We all come from different backgrounds and some people are raised with that mentality of ‘yeah, those people are bad, and these people are good’ and you have to question what you grew up in,” she said.
For us to start this deconstructive dialogue, we need to use the tools of culture. Cultural appropriation and appreciation are bridges between those who are racially prejudiced and those who experience racial prejudice. The first step is to acknowledge those bridges. After that, we can finally realize that we are a single humanity.