Cultural appropriation is a relatively new term invented in the 1980s during an academic discussion to describe the inappropriate adoption of another culture’s fashion, customs, or practices. It is a concept that is often brushed off by Western societies and influential figures. There are many Hollywood events and figures deemed controversial on the grounds of cultural appropriation. This Halloween season, communities in the GTA, and across the world, will face the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation when deciding on costumes to wear.
On October 20, the International Education Center and the Caribbean Connections Club at the U of T Mississauga conducted an Anti-O Convos on the topic via Zoom. The event prompted a meaningful discussion about the misappropriation many faces in today’s society. Various activists and members of the UTM community attended the virtual event to understand and spread awareness on issues of cultural appropriation.
The discussion began with the Land acknowledgements, followed by speeches from panelists. Afterward, a poll kickstarted the group discussion, led by Rebecca, one of the event organizers. The first question asked participants how they would describe or define cultural appropriation. While answers differed, the general idea remained the same: it’s a disrespect of minority cultures. The concept of “power imbalance” was also discussed as it goes hand in hand with the process of appropriation and misrepresentation. Power imbalance typically refers to a situation in which one person or party has more power and influence over the other. One of the attendees raised the concern of branding and power, saying, “cultural appropriation is often talked about, and people just think it’s cheating culture and rebranding something for personal gain. However, it’s mostly about power.”
Soon the discussion turned local, addressing popular Toronto celebrities like Drake and how appropriation exists in Toronto. Many of the participants expressed their belief that Drake, being the famous personality that he is, “overtakes” cultures. The majority of the panel agreed that Drake has been using other culture’s practices and slang to gain greater fame, therefore becoming associated with that culture.
One of the attendees drove this point further by saying, “people argue that because he’s biracial—because he’s Black—these things are mutually acceptable things. [Similar to] Caribbean culture or the Caribbean language that just becomes accessible to everyone and particularly those who have a mutual identification with race or ethnicity.” The discussion then moved to Kim Kardashian’s 2018 cornrows hairstyle to emphasize how the hairstyle was not an accessory that could be used in such a way. “That was an example of white people stealing Black culture and calling it their own, while not paying their respects to where it actually originated from,” reiterated the event speaker.
The battle of power and colonization has left a scar on many communities across the globe. “The colonizers are stealing almost everything from Black people,” said one of the speakers. As such, colonization was also discussed during the Zoom event in terms of the discrimination Black and minority groups have endured for decades. Many activists have addressed the concept of Intra-racial cultural appropriation. A few years back, there was a false assumption that it was acceptable for non-white people to use other cultures’ fashion and customs as accessories. However, it is not about skin colour, but the disrespect and ignorance of different cultures’ values and identification. On this point, attendees referred to the Toronto YouTube star and late-night talk show host Lily Singh who has been repeatedly called out for using Caribbean slang and dance in her videos. One panelist also highlighted how Singh tends to use her roots in the GTA area and her many Caribbean friends as an excuse for her behaviour. All panelists also agreed that she appropriated the culture and highlighted that while she is South Asian, she is not Black or Caribbean, and thus, should not be using its cultural practices the way she does. Today, there is little to no awareness about intra-racial appropriation. Being friends with a person of colour or being married to them does not entitle someone the right to exploit other cultures. Intra-racial appropriation emphasizes that the relationship or relatability of two cultures or races does not give a person a pass for appropriation.
Socio-economic differences were also brought up in the discussion. Participants stated that Drake, as an artist and a person who always had financial privilege, does not truly know what the Black community experiences. Many activists also point out that celebrities use the culture as a mask that they wear when convenient and advantageous for them, not caring about the culture or the community it belongs to when it is of no use to them. Yet, the people who are part of that culture cannot change who they are or alter their identity.
It is a fine line that separates the appreciation and appropriation of a culture. However, it is vital to understand and respect all cultures and recognize that each is equally valuable.