When I first encountered the term, ‘cultural appropriation,’ it was in a class of media and society. But as a freshman, and an international student–one who still considered black and white as merely primary colors and nothing else, cultural appropriation held no meaning of interest in my bank of newly multiple discovered terminologies. The second encounter with cultural appropriation was in 2018 when Afropop dance club began at Muhlenberg. The club is the first African dance group at Muhlenberg, and as the founder and a dance instructor I was at the forefront of new membership procedures. Each time a student who didn’t identify as African or African-American pulled on an African costume, I was reminded of both the term, ‘cultural appropriation’ and also my experience with my friend, Sara Panata.
Panata is a white girl who came from France to live in Nigeria for three years. During her time in Nigeria, Sara wore Nigerian Ankara dresses, spoke the popular Yoruba language, ate the Nigerian jollof rice, danced to the Afrobeat music, and was fond of switching accents from her initial, to a Nigerian one, when a trader in the market, overpriced a product to make her pay more, because she is white. I never regarded Sara’s obsession with the Nigerian culture as cultural appropriation, in fact, just like her, I was fascinated to see how the Ankara print balanced differently on white skin. Together, we explored the country, learnt new songs and tried new restaurants.
When I discovered cultural appropriation, it was in America and it involved a controversial discourse that surrounded both celebrities and educational circles; like when Kim Kardashian wore Fulani braids and a white student known as Keziah, wore a traditional Chinese dress for her high school prom in Utah. As an international student with a neutral worldview to the conversations on race, identity and even cultural appropriation in American society, I thought America was a bag of heavy loads, and avoiding the path to conscious awakening to certain knowledge was relevant to sustaining my sanity. I never wanted to look back at my friend Sara and hate all I once appreciated. I never wanted to see her in a light other than what I saw in the past: a friend from France, learning my culture, while teaching me hers.
Managing a club like Afropop dance club in a predominantly white space, in the United State of America, did not permit my avoidance from the term ‘cultural appropriation,’ instead, it brought it closer to my door. Especially when a white student wore beads on their ankle on a performance day. I recollect the experience on the day the first white student stepped into the club– there were whispers, silence and then, non-verbal expressions of avoided questions. The tension progressed from that first day to many other uneasy days that got muddled with multiple other small issues that led to the departure of every Black student from the club. Months later after the club rose again with new members, 95% of the dancers were still white students, reflecting on the majority student body. But rather than approach the white Afropop members to ask about their intentions in joining the club—about the chalks on their faces and the beads on their legs, concerned non-member students responded with silence and nonverbal uneasy gazes that developed tensions at some Afropop performances.
At the 2019 pep rally, the Afropop dance group dancers were dressed in fine colorful African print crop tops and pants, and their faces were painted with white mud chalk. The faces that accompanied each white student (in their African costume) through the doors of the memorial hall were curious, surprised and although, not clearly stated, seem to scream: cultural appropriation. As one of the dancers of Afropop, I felt a deep sense of admiration for the courage of the white students in the club who despite feeling the sting of the multiple gazes, shone through the dance performance. Oftentimes, I wonder if they were ever confronted or triggered to feel uncertain about their choices to join the club, because despite learning the culture associated to the dance, the public only saw the dance, and not the background information of what they learn, and so, it would be easy to term their appearances as cultural appropriation.
Muhlenberg is a liberal arts college and a predominantly white institution, and it is expected that the student groups would comprise of the majority—if Afropop members had more white and non-African than African students, the question on cultural appropriation is prone to arise, and so, would the claim on appreciation of the culture. In a meeting with Robin Riley-Casey, the Director of the multi-cultural center, and Kiyaana Cox Jones, the Interim Assistant Director of the center, they both shared their definition of cultural appropriation, whilst, admitting its complexities. “Cultural appropriation is an act of taking on a particular cultural artifacts; language, music, dance, art, and not honoring where it came from,” said Riley-Casey.
“I normally call it the process of taking another person culture,” explained Cox Jones. “Because, what happens in the process is that at first, it doesn’t look like they are taking it to make it their own, it looks like they’re appreciating it, but at the end of the process, it doesn’t look anything like the way it started out, and they have taken someone’s else culture and begin to adapt it to make it fit their style, to fit their needs. The process of doing so can be very hurtful because people are thinking that they mean well and celebrating them, but they have no idea that they really are taking it and twisting it.”
The majority of the conversations regarding cultural appropriation presented it as a one-sided construction of the dominant group taking from a marginalized group. But a conversation with Professor Robertson Meek expanded on that single belief, to present a more inclusive explanation. “Cultural appropriation is not always about white or dominant culture taking over,” explained Meek, “it is often is, but it is any form of taking over some aspect of someone else’ culture.”
Meek’s response reflected back on my experience in 2015 when I had worn an Indian dress in Turkey and walked around the country feeling like an Indian Bollywood star, without the slightest feeling of repulsion, and without any knowledge of what the dress symbolized. As my knowledge on cultural appropriation progresses, I realize there is a thin line between appreciation and appropriation of a culture. Appreciation did not alter the meaning of appropriation, and because it is easy to confuse and complicate these two terms in self-defense, I searched and encountered Kelsey Holmes’ explanation of the differences:
“Appreciation is when someone seeks to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to broaden their perspective and connect with others cross-culturally. Appropriation on the other hand, is simply taking one aspect of a culture that is not your own and using it for your own personal interest. Appropriation could mean of purchasing a piece of jewelry or clothing that may have important cultural significance to that culture, but simply using it as a fashion statement. It could be taking a photo of a ritual ceremony simply for the sake of getting as many likes on Facebook as possible. Regardless, taking a part of another culture without understanding what it truly means can be harmful not only to those whose culture you are using but also to those with whom you share it.”
Afropop dance club wasn’t the only exception of a space that would open up to members of another culture. Some of the dance classes at Muhlenberg (grounded in its liberal arts nature) promoted learning beyond one’ initial culture. In classes, where activities like dance (from another culture) is taught to the dominant group, Meek explained that “..there should be a complete kind of history in understanding the dance, it’s not simply learning the moves. If students are asked to do a performance for that dance class, they are doing so, grounded in the understanding of where it comes from, what its meaning is, history etcetera. That doesn’t mean that some students may not feel that it’s still cultural appropriation but as a teacher, I would say, no, I don’t think that it is cultural appropriation because they have chosen to understand it much more deeply and so, if they are performing and they are invited in to perform and to wear whatever it is that they are asked to wear, it is very different. If for example, I’m taking a studio class and there is no information about that class culture, and I’m just taught the moves and that’s it, then, that’s not appreciation, that’s when it becomes cultural appropriation.”
While white and non-African students can dance in a club like Afropop that seek to represent the African culture, the interest can be easily classified as cultural appropriation if abused or transformed from its cultural origin to become something else, or if the members barely understand the name and the dance origination. “I think for any ethnic minoritized community or a club,” explained Riley-Casey, “I would hope that it is actually started by people who are actually part of that community and when anyone who is not a part of that community comes in, they are taught the meaning of whatever that particular club represents.”
Cultural appropriation is a controversial and ongoing conversation, and because of its deeply rooted connection to history, it will remain relevant each new day. But especially on Halloween, when cultures are prone to be reduced to costumes.