The Intergroup Dialogue Project sponsored a student-facilitated and student-led panel Saturday to discuss the thin line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation in the media and on campus.
Jaylexia Clark ’19, co-president for Black Students United, explained that cultural appropriation not only neglects to acknowledge the group of people whose culture or tradition is being imitated, but it also fails to acknowledge the privilege that goes hand in hand with this imitation.
“If you go out in a hoodie and blonde dreadlocks, you’re not going to have the fear of being shot,” she said. “There’s a sense of privilege when you do it that’s not being acknowledged, and that’s why cultural appropriation, even though people don’t think about it, is so dangerous and is just as important to us as any other form of discrimination.”
Barbara Cruz ’19, secretary of MEChA — the Chicano students organization at Cornell — said a lot of people who culturally appropriate do not show support or respect for the people they are trying to represent.
“You can see someone dressing up as a Mexican with a sombrero and it’s fun, but you never see them fighting for the rights of the people who are getting discriminated against because they’re Mexican,” she said.
Vegan Soopramanien ’19, an intern at the Asian and Asian American Center and international student from Mauritius, explained that cultural appropriation does not exist in the same way in his country as it does in the United States.
“[Mauritius] Is made up of Indians, Christians, Asians, Africans, Caribbeans, Muslims, and we all live together as one single people — we just don’t discriminate,” he said.
Soopramanien said visitors from outside of his country were sometimes guilty of appropriation.
“Some tourists come to our island from Africa or Europe, and they want to get the tattoo of the Hindu symbol just because it’s fashion or it looks cool,” he said. “It’s something that’s very sacred, and getting the tattoo of it, you should be able to respect it — when you don’t respect it, I think that’s cultural appropriation.”
As an African American woman, Clark said she sees cultural appropriation happening constantly.
“We’ve been sexualized and objectified for having big features,” she said. “These are features that have been a part of our culture.”
Clark said the issue of cultural appropriation is present in the media as well. She said it is important to hold artists accountable for appropriation, despite the popularity of their music, because many white artists are appropriating black culture without acknowledging problems in the black community.
“They can dress a certain way in a music video, but when you come back in the real world, they’re not affected in the same way,” she said. “This is not a piece of chain or jewelry that I can take off and I won’t have to worry about cops anymore.”
Soopramanien said he was not aware of cultural appropriation when viewing American music videos from Mauritius.
“I never even thought about this because in other countries, we think that America is culturally glued together as one single community,” he said. “When we come here, we see how divisive that community can sometimes be.”
One of the best ways to avoid cultural appropriation is to educate yourself on the internet, Cruz said.
“I’m half Mexican and half Puerto Rican, and I’ve had so many people ask me if my dad came here illegally, but Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens,” she said.
Cruz also stressed the importance of supporting other cultures in times of struggle.
“A lot of people were really hurt by this election,” she said. “Just to have people there to say I understand. Not to say why are you upset, but people to say I’m sorry. I don’t know that everything will be ok, but I’m here for you now.”
Clark agreed, encouraging people to “just ask” when uncertain about “how a certain action will be perceived.” However, Soopramanien clarified that it is just as important to know which questions to ask.
“I’m from the islands, and people ask ‘Do you have an airport? Do you have wifi? Do you have shops in your country?” he said. “Questions can be offensive.”
Clark urged the community to “educate those around you” and “speak up and be an ally.”
The event was created in collaboration with Black Student United at Cornell University, MEChA de Cornell, Asian and Asian American Center at Cornell University and Cornell Alpha Phi Omega.