The Culture of Cultures

Kendall Jenner’s new product, 818 Tequila, hit the market this past February and became an instant controversy. Many have called this an example of cultural appropriation, claiming that Jenner is taking away from local Mexican artisans by profiting from their traditions and competing with their local businesses. Bruno Mars also became the centre of a heated debate when an activist accused the artist of profiting from traditional black music, as Mars is well known for blending elements of funk, soul, R&B, reggae, and hip-hop, which have traditionally and historically stemmed out of African-American culture. Are these controversies examples of cultural appropriation or appreciation?

 

In Canada, we are proud of our diversity. It is inevitable for some cultures to mesh as we see people from different backgrounds interact. However, when a dominant cultural group uses parts of a non-dominant culture in ways that are viewed as exploitive, it is problematic. It is important to understand the following terms in order to fully uncover the meaning of cultural appropriation:

 

Culture: According to the New Yorker magazine, “confusion about culture was just part of the culture this year. People were desperate to know what ‘culture’ meant.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” Traditionally, these cultures would be bound by geographical or religious boundaries, but it is safe to say that cultures are now more complicated as geographical boundaries have become merely political.

 

Appropriation: Again, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines appropriation as “the act of taking or using something especially in a way that is illegal, unfair, etc.” In the context of cultural appropriation, appropriation refers to a dominant culture unfairly using or taking a part of non-dominant culture, and either exploiting it, or misrepresenting it by dwelling on stereotypes.

 

Cultural appropriation refers to the use of elements of a non-dominant culture in a way that disrespects the original meaning, lacks proper credit, reinforces stereotypes, or contributes to oppression. An easy-to-understand example of cultural appropriation is when a person tries to embody an entire culture into a Halloween costume based on stereotypes, with little or no understanding of the culture.

 

The history of colonization and the oppression of minority groups in Canada and in the US has contributed to the normalization of cultural appropriation. Racism is prolific in our society, and racialized people have been historically and systematically discriminated against. When a person from a dominant culture takes advantage of stereotypes or exploits the traditions or values of a non-dominant culture, the actions are insensitive. A common example is people wanting to feel or touch hair that looks different from their own.

 

What can we do? We should be curious and shift towards cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation. Cultural appreciation is the respectful use of elements of another culture with an interest in sharing and enriching one’s experience. This could translate to dining out at an authentic cultural restaurant or learning something from a traditional teacher. It is important to remember that traditional and cultural practices often have deeper meanings for people than what appears on the surface. Therefore, it is crucial to fully understand a tradition or culture before using an element of it, while also ensuring that the roots of the element are fully recognized, given credit to, and not taken advantage of.

 

A strong community is one that is built on the shared values of love, value, and respect of one another without discriminating against the colour of skin or where one hails from. Cultural appreciation grows from our natural curiosity of each other’s cultures. Our understanding of each other is vital to ensuring that we appreciate and not appropriate beliefs or cultures in an exploitative manner. Remember, we all make mistakes, but the biggest mistake is not learning from your own. Keep learning!