Thursday, October 15, 2015

Cultural Appropriation and Traveling Abroad

The basis of abolishing cultural appropriation

It is easy to fall into stereotypes while traveling. Often times, because you are so far away from your own culture, people will immediately peg you a certain way. With these generalizations having a bit of merit, you tend to accept the role. As a person from the states with Australian roots, I do find myself falling into little traps. I feel as if I say “howdy,” “y’all,” “I’ma,” “fosho,” and allow exclamations of “your Australian, so you surf (even though my surfing ability is quite mediocre),” to occur more often than I’d like to admit. It happens. But, what I have seen more often than not while being abroad is that what most people believe of culture in the United States doesn’t come from the mainstream majority, but instead, is deeply rooted in black culture.

The fact is, some of the most notable cultural traits that disseminate from the United States are those that are typically related to black culture. When we look at styles, vernacular, and most importantly, music, most of what people learn outside the US, and believe of the US, is directly derived from black culture. When we look at our society as a whole, with how we dress, what we listen to, the words that come out of our mouths, and where we go for entertainment (think popular music, sports, the dialogue in film and TV even if it isn't between people of color), a large part of the overall culture is owed to black Americans in general. People outside the states being exposed to these facets is completely understandable and fair. What isn’t fair, though, is trying to own black culture as American culture, yet still living in a society that is built on systemic racism. 

In the past year and change we have seen some horrific acts occur in the United States, sparking movements such as #blacklivesmatter. While these movements are absolutely necessary, attempting to bring overarching understanding of the deep rooted racial discrimination in our country, we've seen it met with some horrible and unwarranted backlash from non-black communities. Communities, of which, are happy to partake in aspects of black culture, yet show no support. As a caucasian person from the middle to upper class white suburbs, I have the distinct (-ly disgusting) pleasure of understanding where this ignorance originates. I understand it because I grew up in it. I embodied it. As time went on and I was able to leave it, I saw where it was catalyzed. It is an entitlement thing. It is a bubble thing. Most of all, it is a lack of cultural awareness thing. It is directly derived from public schools teaching a single racial and cultural history, further emphasizing the issue of deep-seated racial discrimination. We as a culture are happy to not only associate with, but profit from black culture, yet we aren’t willing to stand up against issues that plague the overall community. We package it and export it, yet we don't support it in our own borders.
A movement started out of necessity, bring to light deep rooted racial issues

As a person who spends most of my time abroad, I have a much better grasp on perceptions from the outside then I do on the inside. I can tell you what aspects of black culture are being portrayed in different countries, and what type of picture our mass media’s portrayal of black culture creates. Here's a spoiler, much like in the states, it isn't always great. I’ve had more conversations revolving around the “N word,” and it’s “appropriate,” usage than I would like to admit. The sad truth is often the outcome is people of multiple races finding no problem with themselves using it because "Kanye West says it." I've also had to explain to people wearing confederate flag attire (which was sold in their homeland outside the states) what that symbol means. I’ve seen predominately caucasian crowds at hip hop clubs worldwide not react to classics like this, this, or even some of the 90’s jams, yet go completely dumb when “N****z in Paris,” came on. While this in itself isn’t necessarily a huge issue, what it does show is that only a small, mass produced portion of an entire culture is being portrayed through a lens of the majority. On top of that, it also shows how the appropriation of the culture is something exported as well. If small glimpses of a culture is all that is being portrayed, how are those on the receiving end supposed to learn and appreciate the culture in full? 
I’m not an expert on these issue, but I am willing to point out a negative occurrence in hopes of making change. The cold hard fact is, unless we as a culture in the United States can at least accept the fact that we have messed up, and there is a hierarchal system which places certain demographics above others, we will never be able to make a change. As well, unless we can treat one another with dignity and respect in our own country, how can we expect folks outside the US to treat our differing cultures with respect? Our media, whether you are cognizant or not, spreads extremely far. What we do in the US, how we treat one another, and what we create in film, music, literature, and news has a large ripple effect. Its wake spreads much farther than most people could ever imagine.
My hope is that if you find happiness in listening to music, using language, or enjoying literature or cinema created by people who don’t share your demographic, you realize that it is a privilege. What makes the US great is our diversity. We are the melting pot for a reason, and without all the cultures present, we would be no where near the country we are today (for better and for worse). The best way to show gratitude for this blessing is to acknowledge we have problems in our country, many of which specifically targeting those outside of the majority, and amend our own behavior. If we want to keep enjoying our delicious, multi-cultural existence, and want those outside the US to see it in a positive light, we need to start taking action that garners equality for every ingredient in the pot.

Is this how we want to portray multiculturalism to the rest of the world?

Photos courtesy of Black Girl Long Hair, Every Voice, and Noisey 

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