“White Girl, take off your hoops!!!” students wrote on the free speech wall at Pitzer College in 2017. According to one of the students who later emailed the student body, “winged eyeliner, lined lips, and big hoop earrings serv[e] as symbols as an everyday act of resistance.” The students claimed that white girls were culturally appropriating people of color by wearing hoop earrings. Unfortunately, attacking others’ stylistic choices based on their physical appearance has become commonplace at the Claremont Colleges. For the sake of cultural exchange, growth, and sanity, this madness must end.
Claims of cultural appropriation hurt people’s ability to explore another culture. For those who don’t know, the Oxford dictionary defines cultural appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” The restrictive nature of this definition should be obvious. Determining the appropriateness of cultural adoption is deeply subjective.
The subjectiveness of what is and isn’t cultural appropriation makes policing it absurd. Do the “practices” proscribed under the definition above include things like eating at authentic restaurants or enjoying traditional music? Proponents of this orthodoxy have also forgotten one fundamental truth; we all have a universal right to participate in cultural life. Under Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” We have the right to embrace other cultures and enjoy the “arts,” a term that encompasses many aspects of cultural life, including cuisine and style. I have the right to wear hoop earrings since it is considered enjoying the arts of cultural life.
Symbols hold different meanings for different people, so you should not force your interpretation on others. During the hoop incident, a student claimed that these clothing items symbolize an act of resistance. This may be true to some individuals or groups; however, the meaning of clothing differs from person to person. Similar to how religions can interpret the same doctrine in different ways, an individual ultimately chooses their interpretation of a piece of art. If a person embraces a practice or custom from another culture because of some meaning it has to them, people should not criticize them for it. If you attend the University of Texas or you’re a Rock n’ Roll fan, you may know the hand sign, when you extend your pinky and pointer finger while grasping your other fingers, as “hook ’em horns” or a signature Kiss hand sign. Internationally the hand sign and similar hand signs have extremely different meanings. For example, the hand sign can symbolize the devil, a curse, and protection from the evil eye. So one person can freely wear large hoop earrings for style purposes while another person can wear large hoop earrings as an act of resistance for their culture. In that way, we will all learn to respect each other while integrating as a whole world.
By attacking others for embracing a culture, we are promoting polarization and division. We should instead direct our focus on addressing real instances of racism. There is a clear difference between actions intended to spread hate, mockery, and disrespect for a culture and those that offend an individual based on personal beliefs as to what culture should be. Our culture connects us to our ancestors, our past, and those around us. History shows that cultural exchange drives progress and innovation. By continuing to accuse others of wrongfully adopting a culture, we stifle cultural exchange and its positive effects.
Fully adopting the logic of cultural appropriation leads to isolation and even cultural segregation. We could live in a place where only a specific culture, sex, generation, income level, religion, race will be allowed to say, wear, or write about their culture, sex, generation, income level, religion, or race without offending others. It is unfeasible and insane to isolate all of these characteristics in a person to determine if they have the “right” to practice that culture or to identify every feature of a culture accurately. Trying to determine if someone has the “right” to a culture is an exercise in futility when, in reality, we all have a right to explore every culture. America is becoming more diverse every day, and we should celebrate that diversity by allowing others to freely explore other cultures.
The argument of cultural appropriation has even limited our opportunity to experience cultural diversity at the Claremont Colleges. In 2016, Pitzer froze funds for the Reggae Festival, citing cultural appropriation. In 2015, Pitzer denied the approval of the Dreamcatcher club due to concerns over the appropriation of Native American culture. Caitlin Crommet founded this club to fulfill the dreams of hospice patients. Its logo is a dreamcatcher, which originated with the Ojibwe tribe, but this organization has no direct affiliation to Native Americans. The Student Life’s article notes that part of the founder’s family is from the Penobscot tribe in Maine. Still, some in the Pitzer’s senate argued that, since this tribe did not create dreamcatchers, it could lead to people inaccurately grouping Native American tribes or stereotyping different tribes. Caitlin Crommet is also light-skinned and blonde-haired, which could deceive those trying to trace her ancestry through her appearance. For her, the dreamcatcher was a symbol of inspiration, leading her to adopt it as a logo for her club. She is embracing a part of her culture in a club that helps the community.
These events show how fear of cultural appropriation limits genuine cultural exchange. We should not be shaming others for things like wearing hoops or winged eyeliner or participating in festivals and clubs. Style is another expression of culture and identity, similar to art, dance, and food. Festivals are ways to express other cultures and bring attention to their arts. As for the dreamcatcher club, we may not have restricted a critical cultural event. But, because of our fear of causing offense, we missed an opportunity to establish a club that would be beneficial to our community. By calling people out for cultural appropriation, we are setting our interpretations of culture on others. Some people, unfortunately, mock other cultures and disrespect them. But mocking isn’t cultural appropriation; it’s just direct harassment. As challenging as it may be to see another person wear or use something from your own culture for a stylistic effect or inspiration, you should let them. If they are not harassing or mocking a culture, it is important to give others the freedom to express themselves without societal backlash. If you are participating in that societal backlash, then you are harassing someone trying to explore another culture. Although you may have good intentions, you are limiting someone’s exploration into another culture. Regardless of your intentions, by using harassment or hate, it will have similar effects to mocking and harassment. Hate will polarize and divide our world. We should promote acceptance, diversity, and exploration.