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The Dark Horse of Cultural Appreciation

May 31, 2017

While I was mowing the lawn last week, I had my headphones on playing my Taylor Swift station on the Pandora streaming service. Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” started playing, and for some reason, I had never really listened to the lyrics to that song until that moment.

 

“Make me your Aphrodite
Make me your one and only
But don’t make me your enemy, your enemy, your enemy

 

So you wanna play with magic
Boy, you should know whatcha falling for
Baby do you dare to do this
Cause I’m coming atcha like a dark horse
Are you ready for, ready for
A perfect storm, perfect storm
Cause once you’re mine, once you’re mine
There’s no going back…”

 

As I was raking the newly cut grass, I thought, what the heck? Why hadn’t I ever realized what she was singing about? I remembered watching the music video (which features Katy as an Egyptian queen using magic to destroy suitors whose gifts didn't earn her approval) and thinking, wow, I feel like her use of ancient Egyptian imagery for this song is kind of weird. But why exactly was her imagery bothersome and verging on the offensive?  

 

I understand the idea of art using metaphor and imagery to evoke a feeling and a mood. But seriously, Aphrodite was a Greek goddess of love and beauty. How did we end up in Egypt?

 

 

Last week I read an article in Huffington Post titled “Katy Perry’s Cultural Appropriation Meat Grinder.” The article criticized her for taking what she wants from various cultures, sugarcoating it with pop rhythms and rhymes, and churning it out again as toe-tapping Billboard hits. She doesn't actually immerse herself in the culture she takes from or demonstrate any true appreciation for the culture. Everything that she does (like most things from the commercialized entertainment industry) is surface level. Without truly understanding the cultures she is borrowing from, she is exploiting them for profit and nothing else. She is not helping to promote cultural understanding or honoring the cultures she borrows from in any way.

 

What is cultural appropriation?

 

“Cultural Appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture.” – Wikipedia

Cultural appreciation is much harder to define because it involves true engagement and investment in the culture you are trying to take inspiration from. Appreciating and engaging with other cultures should have benefits for both sides. For example, when yoga became big in the West in the 60s, for some it became a way to make a profit on exercise videos. Others made a genuine effort to learn about East Indian culture and what yoga meant in its context. Many yogis truly wanted to share their skills and insights, and they were brought to the U.S. and U.K. for that purpose. Both the yogis and their students got what they wanted—and the yogis got paid. Win/win.

 

In, "5 Things White People Need to Learn about Cultural Appropriation," Derrick Clifton said:

 

“A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African, and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.”

 

The difference between ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘cultural appreciation’ lies in how we are engaging with the culture. Are they actually part of the process with the co-creation of music, fashion, or food? Or, are we just taking what we like and mashing it up into some type of bastardized version of a cultural Frankenstein creation?

 

What Logan Albright gets wrong in his Conservative Review article "Why is cultural appropriation a bad thing?" is that he truly doesn’t understand how it affects those from a non-dominant culture.

 

Like Zoya Patel said in“How to appreciate a culture without appropriating it,” she grew up wearing traditional saris and was ridiculed and made fun of for being different. But when Beyonce puts on a sari and wears henna tattoos on her hands, it takes on a different meaning. It becomes a magical and exotic thing.

You’re not truly appreciating a culture when you’re not listening to the criticism coming from the particular culture you are borrowing from--well, more like taking from. Therein lies the problem.

 

America is a nation founded by immigrants from all over the world. There is a mix and match of cultural flavors interwoven into the fabric of American culture. Over time, it's just become who we are, and we have stopped questioning where something comes from and what the historical significance of it is.

 

When a First Nation person tells you that calling your school mascot a Redskin is offensive and perpetuates the bloody history of Native genocide, your response should not be, “We’re showing appreciation for your heritage.” Your answer should be, “I hear what you are saying, and I can see how the name Redskin is offensive to your experience when your ancestors were victims of genocide.”

Not all situations are as clear as this one. What about eating a burrito at Chipotle? Is that okay? Some might feel that a White-owned business making money off traditional Mexican food is exploitation. Others won’t have any problem with it. It’s just a burrito! There’s a lot of gray area in between appropriation and appreciation, and the key is your attitude.

 

Here are five ways that White people can show appreciation versus appropriation (You can find a detailed explanation in Derrick Clifton's article: https://www.dailydot.com/via/5-things-white-people-cultural-appropriation/)

 

  1. Cite your cross-cultural influences publicly and often.

  2. Don’t wear very culturally-specific clothing if you don’t understand the significance.

  3. Speak or sing in your normal voice, not what you think is another culture’s accent.

  4. Stereotypes aren’t your toys. Don’t play around with them.

  5. An authentic cultural exchange should feel free and affirming, rather than plagiarizing or thieving.

 

If you want to truly appreciate and understand other cultures, then do it. Visit a different country, read a book, speak to people from those different countries and cultures, and learn about them. Truly appreciate them. Be an ally instead of a tourist. At the end of the day, how we treat other people is all that matters. As long as we treat them with respect, kindness, and mutual understanding of who they are and what makes them who they are, we should all be just fine.

 

References:

 

Albright, Logan. (May 2017). “Why is cultural ‘appropriation’ a bad thing?” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from
https://www.conservativereview.com/articles/why-is-cultural-appropriation-a-bad-thing

 

Clifton, Derrick. (Dec. 2015). “5 Things White People Need to Learn about Cultural Appropriation.” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from https://www.dailydot.com/via/5-things-white-people-cultural-appropriation/

 

Fragoso, Brianna. (2016). “Cultural Appropriation Vs. Cultural Appreciation.” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from
https://www.theodysseyonline.com/cultural-appropriation-vs-cultural-appreciation

 

Mechanic, Jesse. (2017). “Katy Perry’s Cultural Appropriation Meat Grinder.” Retrieved May 30, 2017 from
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/examining-katy-perrys-cultural-appropriation-meat_us_592464ebe4b0e8f558bb2a3a

 

Mecking, Olga (Nov. 2014). “6 Tips for Appreciating Other Cultures in a Non-Diverse Environment.” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/olga-mecking/6-tips-for-appreciating-o_b_6066274.html

 

Patel, Zoyya (March 2016). “How to appreciate a culture without appropriating it.” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from
https://i-d.vice.com/en_us/article/how-to-appreciate-a-culture-without-appropriating-it

 

Perry, Katy. (2014). Dark Horse. Retrieved May 30, 2017 from https://youtu.be/0KSOMA3QBU0

 

Uwujaren, Jarune. (2013). “The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation.” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/

 

WikiHow to Respect Other Cultures.: http://www.wikihow.com/Respect-Other-Cultures

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