Our University of Texas at Dallas prides itself on ranking amongst the most diverse college campuses in the United States. The university has inspired communication and acceptance amongst its student population. With 300 registered organizations, and a dedicated Multicultural Center, UTD has consistently welcomed students of all backgrounds and successfully found a place for everyone to belong. As May unravels into our last days on campus for the term, we can hopefully expect to see all forms of cultural acceptance and celebration in the month designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May 21st is World Cultural Diversity Day) to kick off our summer vacation.
The Multicultural Center has always been a source of support in mediating cultural diversity through its well-thought-out events, panels, and fairs. It provides all UTD students with the opportunity to learn about and keep in touch with their own cultures as well as many others while maintaining “civility, dignity, and respect.” Even amongst the current tense political climate, and a brief panic concerning white supremacy propaganda found on campus, I believe that the university has done a great service in providing a safe space for all to express and celebrate their identities with their peers.
While this celebration is amazing and we are constantly encouraged to appreciate our heritage as well as that of others, one question must still be addressed in the minds of the student body of UTD. That question is: When does cultural appreciation end, and cultural appropriation begin?
Cultural appropriation is the use, borrowing, or imitation of cultural creations by others. It has become a reoccurring problem within the United States where forms of art, music, and fashion (among other elements of culture) are exploited to the point where cultures are deprived of benefitting from their own cultural experiences. I cannot speak for other cultures, but I can speak about the exploitation of Cinco de Mayo from the perspective of a Mexican.
To speak candidly, there is something cheap about celebrating Cinco de Mayo with a margarita in one hand, and a sombrero in the other. Very often, this holiday is utilized as an excuse for others to party, and only benefits those who feign to appreciate the history of a date dubbed to be “Mexican Independence Day.”
Except, Cinco De Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, and it is not even Mexican Independence Day (September 16th). It is the commemoration of the triumph at the Battle of Puebla, and even amongst my native country the day is celebrated selectively by the people of Puebla. So not only do I not have the cultural right to take the day off and party for Mexican Independence Day, I also do not feel comfortable partaking in a holiday which does not belong to me, a non-native to Puebla. Many other people who take it upon themselves to “celebrate” with a $3 plastic sombrero stimulate the formation of stereotypes and incorrect representation. I do encourage everyone, however, to send their blessings and their good energy to the people of Puebla who will rightfully be celebrating this coming year.
More often, appropriation does not develop from the intention of exploiting a cultural creation, but from plain as day ignorance. A popular form of appropriation is through fashion since it is a very abstract form of expression. In a smaller scale, the 2012 Victoria’s Secret fashion show featured a “sexy native” which (rightfully) received negative responses as the creation of a stereotypical image of a Native American. The outfit’s most offending piece was the outlandishly large, artificial headdress, as headdresses are considered a very sacred piece by many Native American cultures, not to be worn by women and not to be worn in a non-intimate setting.
Victoria’s Secret released an apology, but since then we have still seen offensive material exploiting the sexuality of Native American women. As the end of Coachella rolls around right when I finish writing this article, there is evidence of multiple female presenting people (not evidently belonging to one of the Native American tribes) wearing headdresses made of synthetics and plastics and creating the image of the “sexy native”. Not only is this representation incorrect, morally wrong, and culturally offensive, but if more people knew Native American women have the highest rates of rape and sexual assault — due to the exploitation of their “exotic” nature — I’m sure we would see fewer “sexy natives.”
It is a challenge not to see some form of the Hindu deity Ganesha somewhere in most department store clothing sections including socks, underwear, and most t-shirts. Ganesha is a figure that is worshiped across multiple cultures and his influence extends across multiple religious aspects, so the issue is not necessarily crossing borders and deciding who can worship Ganesh and who cannot.
The issue relies on the fact that American fashion and culture has failed to grasp the respect that a religious figure deserves, especially when other cultures hold specific customs and respect their figures differently. “Jesus is my Homeboy” and the “trendy” treatment to the Christian faith like wearing the cross on a pair of leggings may be all well and good, but the treatment cannot be applied to all religious figures. The truth is that it is offensive to wear Ganesha on feet, or on any medium that can get dirty. In America, it is highly normalized to wear Ganesha on a patterned textile for underwear, but would the same be true for Jesus? Even statues of Ganesha are traditionally bathed multiple times throughout the day because he is held in high regard. To wear Ganesha disrespectfully hurts not only the faith but the people who follow him and created a strong emotional attachment.
Intimacy, emotional attachment, and respect are all factors that I believe many of us should consider when we partake in a culture that we are hoping to celebrate or a religion we are thinking of following or representing. Interacting with multiple cultures is beautiful, and I encourage everyone to expand our understanding of each other, but it requires some finesse. We live in a colorful world that is not afraid to share, but in the process, can become victim to culture erasure. Approaching a new culture requires research and the ability to adjust one’s understanding of celebration. UTD has always celebrated diversity, and encouraged ourselves and others to appreciate each other in our similarities as well as our differences. The Multicultural Center has done a brilliant job of creating events that are open to everyone and do not stimulate disrespect. All I ask of our student body is to take the time to research even a fraction as much as they do. Respect is a priority when we borrow anything from our peers, and it should be the same for something as abstract as culture.