December 3, 2014

MUÑOZ | Cultural Appropriation: We Are All “Others”

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I’ll admit it: I’m wrong. I messed up, to say the least — but so did you.

Earlier in November, there was an incident on Overheard at Cornell, a popular Facebook page amongst Cornell students. A picture of a girl wearing a sombrero at Loco Cantina was posted; all virtual Hell broke loose.

The issue of cultural appropriation and its many technicalities warrants an equally technical approach — while understandably complex, it is not one to be trivialized. The paradox of the supposed ultimate paradigm of knowledge and progress — this University — fostering ignorance and retrogression is growing increasingly pervasive. With that said, the faults within discourses on cultural appropriation does not lie with the perpetrator or the victim, or what is specifically being discussed; the fault lies with how cultural appropriation is discussed.

The issue either becomes confrontational, or it is neglected, neither of which do anything. Admittedly, I am guilty of the former, while others are guilty of the latter. I get pissed the hell off, while you laugh it off. We’re both wrong.

I only know that cultural appropriation is wrong because it has recently had an impact on me directly. Otherwise, out of sight, out of mind. I cannot expect, however, for others to understand this if it has not been made salient to them if I don’t explain. A burn can only fester if it has touched you.

This is why a sombrero, the “silly hat,” stings: While I am not Mexican, several of my close friends are. I hurt by association. Just as America treats Mexico as their geographical appendage, Mexicans residing in the United States themselves are treated equally as disposable. They feel Othered. I’ve heard stories of how the sombrero and the pancho were “borrowed” by American film, in order to reinvent the Mexican — to literally project the horrendous and far-from-true new Mexican Frankenstein on the big screens. In American film, the Mexican is the Bandito, lazy and good-for-nothing. Recognizing the increasing influence of film and media throughout the 20th century, this American creation, even long after its “death” managed to leave behind a rather sticky residue — a characterization of what all Mexicans must be. While we do not believe it explicitly, rest assured, in a strangely Freudian way, Americans are made to internalize it implicitly.

Because of this, the country is plagued by an intrinsic response towards individuals who are of Mexican descent. A house and a home are two different things.

Attending a predominantly white university at a time where immigration policies are crudely partitioning the country into fragmented pieces, one can only imagine the unsettling heightened feeling of Otherness faced by individuals who’ve never felt at home. Otherness does not only kick the individual out of the house before they’re ready — it makes it so that the individual stays out for good, under the impression that they’ll never find home. It threatens identity.

How infuriating it must be to feel like you don’t belong. To feel like your bookbag wasn’t cool enough, that your lunch box was lame. To feel like you were five inches too short. To feel that because of the God you worship, you’d be the last generation. To feel helpless when, no matter how hard you try, you can’t scrub color off. You can’t clean up your accent. You, too, know what it feels like to be Other.

For this reason, I am guilty. I can’t cool down boiling blood, but it’s time that I do. I need to listen to you, even when you tell me it’s a silly hat. At some point or another, I’m pretty sure we’ve all appropriated; it’s pretty easy to do. Unfortunately, scolding ourselves isn’t so easy — it’s difficult to understand why it hurts. I need you to listen to me too, especially when the topic offends me.

If you listen to me and I listen to you, I can’t promise you that it won’t hurt. I won’t invalidate you anymore. I once was you — you’re not the monster. You didn’t give life to the Bandito, but we’re not doing a good job of killing it either. I say that it will hurt, not because I will indirectly attack you through desperate attempts of debunking every single point you make, calling you out on your perpetual logical fallacies. I’m saying that it will hurt, because growing pains hurt.

This isn’t the White Man’s Burden. Don’t fight for us. Fight with us. I know you know what it feels like to be Other. Like the Star of David for others, I wear my culture. Like the Taino, black and white within me. Please understand that I do, too.

Like President Obama said, “We were once strangers, too.”

Paola Muñoz is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected]. Midas’ Crumbs appears alternate Thursdays this semester.