This week Team Kenan couched on the ethics of cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Our core question was what ethical parameters do people use as guidelines to determine whether a cultural exchange is respectful or a form of appropriation?
Power dynamics came up quite often in our discussions as a primary determinant of appropriation. Namely, many individuals listed examples of privileged subcultures dressing in ways that marginalized subcultures dress to depict what they deemed cultural appropriation. These examples brought about two additional questions: 1. Since privilege and marginalization is dependent on time and place, does cultural appropriation vary across different places and cultures? And 2. If a marginalized subculture were to dress in a way similar to how the privileged subculture dresses would that also be cultural appropriation?
To the first question, most people responded with an astounding “yes,” and then qualified their answer with “and that is why cultural appropriation is so hard to define and is inherently subjective.” One person even said “what is cultural appropriation to one person can be seen as respectful cultural exchange to another.” The implications of this are difficult to manage. Given that cultural appropriation is highly subjective, how can we operate in a multicultural campus in a way that doesn’t offend those around us, noting that the same action can be interpreted in such drastically different ways? Of course, given that Halloween is coming up, one way we could do this is by picking a neutral costume (we all intend on doing so!). But, after Halloween, this point remains a major question on our minds!
As for the second question, Team Kenan received multiple answers explaining that because “cultural appropriation” is linked to power imbalances among different subcultures, it is impossible for a marginalized subculture to appropriate a privileged subculture. That said, according to those we spoke to, it is still possible for marginalized subcultures to engage in problematic actions; however, those actions would need to be called something different.