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Appropriation vs. Appreciation: An Inclusive Approach to Staying in Your Lane

Appropriation and Entertainment

What comes to your mind when seeing the words “spirit fingers”? Hopefully, it’s the image of teenage Kirsten Dunst and fellow affluent classmates dressed in red and black cheerleading uniforms parading through the air in embarrassment with whimsically wiggling fingers and over exaggerated facial expressions. If not, just know the 2000’s Bring It On gave us our greatest lesson in phalangeal exercise as well as providing a prime example in cultural appropriation vs. appreciation.

To recap, the cult classic tells the tale of cheerleading captain (Dunst), who uncovers her team’s championship dynasty, is the product of stolen routines creatively choreographed by an inner city Black high school cheer squad. Mind you, Dunst’s predecessor made a regular habit out of inappropriately taking the intellectual property of another team simply because the originators couldn’t afford to go to the championship, thus preventing any accusations of stealing and appropriating.

This is cultural appropriation in action. The known or unknown taking of cultural aspects originally derived from a group of marginalized people, by a dominant or entitled class. Although there are ways to incorporate and show appreciation for other cultures, appropriation involves selecting particular elements from a specific culture and ignoring the rest, while condemning the same disenfranchised people of that culture for the ignored and often times even the same elements.

Cultural Appropriation in Western society is seen through every facet of entertainment ranging from fashion, sports, beauty and music. This is not a current trend or an act that is the result of social media, rather it a historic practice that continues to unjustly and even illegally take traditions, speech, beliefs and physical materials that belong to another overlooked group of people.

In keeping with our cinematic comparison, Dunst’s character audaciously offers the opposing Black cheerleading squad a check, given by her rich father, so the under funded team can go to the championship, where the protagonist can sleep better at night knowing her team beat the best. This act of charity may seem like sportsmanship on the surface, but to the rival captain, played by goddess Gabrielle Union, and every marginalized eye the offer was made to solely benefit the main character’s conscience and pride.

I’m fully aware this was only a movie. It’s one of my favorites and resides proudly atop of my Netflix list. However, art imitates life and instances like those from a movie serve as a rose-colored window into other prevailing behaviors that exist within reality and entertainment that fail to recognize or even acknowledge the cultural and systematic disadvantages already present.

For instance, Dunst’s financial offer didn’t bring awareness to the fact the school was underfunded. She might have gotten a pass if the dubious donation benefited the overall need of the entire school or serve as an opportunity to promote inclusivity between the two schools. It was another example of the longstanding backhanded gestures that continuously arise to reiterate the fact that no matter where the talent, ingenuity, cultural practices, or natural physical attributes the self-expression derives, it means nothing until it is adopted and accepted by the White masses.

One of the best examples of arbitrary acceptance by White masses started with Marilyn Monroe and her iconic figure that featured a slim waist with a protruding backside back in the 1950s. Prior to this, female aesthetic traits popularized thinness of waist, nose, lips, and quite notably the buttocks. Her natural born curves changed the standards of beauty for White women, giving rise to the first butt lift in 1969. Fast forward almost five decades later and the Brazilian Butt Lift is fastest growing cosmetic surgery in the nation with 20,301 performed in 2017, and a 19% increase the following year bring the total number performed to 24,099 (Bursztynsky).

Having a big bottom is and has always been apart of the ‘narrative for Black bodies’ where Black women specifically are dehumanized and made a spectacle merely because of something as uncontrollable as genetics. “The ‘othering’ of Black bodies has a very long history, dating back to Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus of the 1800s. Born in South Africa and taken to Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Saartjie Baartman was famously exhibited in London and Paris to White audiences so that they could witness her unusually large buttocks and genitals, which were understood as a sign of her heightened sexual nature (Gilman, 1985; Coleman-Bell, 2006).”

Frankly, I do not care what others do to their body and I am in no way condemning those who go the route of cosmetic surgery. The aforementioned statistic and historical reference simply reflects the more confusing and emotionally harmful aspect of culture appropriation; ethnic heredities are rejected and stigmatized when a marginalized person does it innately, but applause is given to those affluent enough to pay for it. Presently, Black women are looked down upon or viewed in a stereotypical negative way while Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez strut their bountiful booties proudly, thus reaping all the benefits of this standard of beauty without the misconceptions aimed at their overall worth.

Cultural appropriation within Western entertainment doesn’t stop at merely claiming marginalized innovations as their own, but it dives further into the appropriating depths by diminishing the impact of what the originator would’ve garnered through the prevailing act of whitewashing. A commonplace practice starting with the rise of motion pictures, whitewashing in entertainment is the deliberate act of suppressing the true expression of a cultural aspect. Back then it was Elizabeth Taylor’s portrayal of Egypt’s Cleopatra or more recently Tom Cruise as The Last Samurai.

We still see it today and all the time on social media sites such as Tik Tok with predominately White social media influencers who reeled their way through quarantine and to the bank with toned down versions of trending choreographed dances created by POC. First off, if you can’t do the moves to the “Savage” challenge the way it was intended by creator Keara Wilson, just say that. Simply put, whitewashing on social media and in all forms of entertainment is synonymous to Wilson turning in an assignment for class and gets an F. Meanwhile, one of her White classmates steals Wilson’s version on the bus, hands in an almost word for word copy of it and receives an A. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sit right with my spirit.

Think back to your first research paper and how half the time spent on the assignment was devoted to learning APA or MLA format in order to prevent plagiarizing the thoughts of others. Even paraphrases have their sources documented within the text to show appreciation for the originator. Deciphering whether or not to give credit is the easiest way to developing inclusive traits that will shift behaviors from appropriation to appreciation.

Yes, this country is made up of vastly different people, cultures, beliefs and forms of self-expression. Why do we feel the need to take something in and “make it our own” versus just appreciating the fact that the art exist? Why is the first response imitation instead of inspiration that fosters growth? This is the center of recognizing, knowing and actively demonstrating appreciation for cultural attributions and not appropriating them instead.

Appreciation Through Action

If this seems like an overwhelming eye-opening moment, rest assure that you are not the only one and there are likely many who may feel the same. Take a breath and look at this as an opportunity to clean your slate with the invigorating lemony scent of when you know better, you can do better. Since this may your first lesson in ways to appreciate other cultures or if you’re in need of a refresher, the following sections examine the most common everyday situations and actions where you can appreciate other cultures, increase your inclusivity, and effectively stay in your lane.

Let’s take it from the top and all agree that surviving the last year and a half was hard enough. Collectively, we can also all agree no one should be forced with the cringe of seeing White people with cornrows, du-rags or box braids. It doesn’t matter if you just got back from the islands or a mission trip to Africa. Get a T-shirt as a souvenir and grab some dry shampoo before you head out to do the Lord’s work.

People of color utilize these types of hairstyles to protect their hair from daily damage and breakage caused by hot combs and straighteners needed to achieve workplace and the dominant society’s standards of grooming. Often times, artificial hair is added to cover the braids underneath and it’s okay to take notice of it and like your co-worker’s new longer locs. Appreciation in that moment is a simple as telling Patricia that you like her hair. If the opposite is the case and you don’t like her hair, appreciation also looks like keeping your thoughts and opinions to yourself, respectfully. Another straightforward way to appreciate the relationship between POC and their hair is to support the CROWN Act, which aims to eliminate hair discrimination and allows POC to wear their hair in natural, cultural styles.

Now the following may not be an everyday issue, but every year Americans go to great lengths to show out for Halloween. Some costumes are spectacularly creative while others fall short and definitely miss the mark in terms of appreciating other cultures. Either way, a good rule of thumb is to remember that anyone can dress up like a particular character without the need to make their face darker or change their complexion. I’ve seen countless little Black girls at Disney World who get made up into princesses and not a single one has a white face when they’re done. They’re still capable of showing their love and appreciation for these leading ladies while keeping their own individual identity.

Secondly, it’s imperative to consider Halloween costumes are just that, costumes. Dressing up as a Native American suggests the earliest Americans are merely characters and their scared customs and traditions are at most props for stereotypical representation. Furthermore, cultural garments and headdresses often depict particular personal achievements and have significance that isn’t readily known to those outside of their culture and being ignorant of this is no longer acceptable. It’s natural to be inquisitive of another culture and appreciating their contribution to our society is as simple as learning factual historical content and taking advantage of public resources that shed light into their past. Appreciating other cultures means celebrating them all 365 days of the year and not reducing their entire existence to look cute for pictures.

Unlike the specific customs and traditions that are passed down from parents to child, music is one the most universal aspects of human existence. I made a point to not discuss the appropriation of music because music has the undeniable ability to heal, transform and bring us together. Although there are a myriad of different genres and artists, each one is a derivative of what came before. There are only a limited number of notes humans can hear, so it naturally stands to reason that overlap will occur and styles will further blend together during the art of creation.

Therefore, appreciating music means taking the art for what it is and letting go of the need to use such phrases like, “Elvis is the father of rock ‘n roll”. Not only is it highly inaccurate, but also the lack of inclusivity implies this genre didn’t exist prior to him. In order to best appreciate music it’s fundamental to listen to everything, including works from the past, so the listener can understand how different cultures impact current works by their favorite artists. Emotion is the basis of every song, and it’s true that certain experiences and resulting emotions can be tied to specific cultures. However, it is the emotion itself that allows music the power to convey our differences, which bring us together through acknowledgement and appreciation of our commonly shared experiences.

In summation, cultural appropriation and appreciation are opposite concepts that have to power to further divide or bring us together. Respecting our differences as well as learning about other cultures is how we bridge the gap between them versus we. Understanding that sacred cultural traditions and customs to marginalized people are often the only or last part of identifying to their roots better unifies us all as we continuously strive from inclusivity.


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