When I was 19, I learned what cultural appropriation was. It was in a classroom at Stanford University in a white professor’s lesson called “Why cultural appropriation is never OK.” The professor presented many examples of how cultural appropriation manifests itself. The one example that stuck with me was one that I had committed many times: wearing clothing with Native American patterns. After that lesson, I immediately went home and threw away the offending blouse.
Now, with Thanksgiving only days away, the revolving conversation about cultural appropriation is revving up once again.
Cultural appropriation is usually defined as the process of taking an element from a disenfranchised group and turning it into a commodity or entertainment. Though scholars and native tribes argue Native American culture is constantly misappropriated in this country, many times we never flesh out what is exactly so wrong with that.
But before we can do that, we must identify exactly what it is. Some notable examples of cultural appropriation from this past year were the mysterious case of Rachel Dolezal, Allure magazine proclaiming how white women can get an afro and Kerry Washington calling a fellow actress her spirit animal.
Defining cultural appropriation is also difficult because our society struggles with determining who is disenfranchised. It is an ideal time to do so on college campuses, though, because many campuses around the country are grappling with inclusion and giving enough voice to minority students.
Furthermore, in our increasingly globalized world in which cultures mesh together, we are exposed to so many concepts and societal elements. Universities are places where we are dedicated to gaining more insight into complex ideas. On campus and within classrooms are opportunities for professors to identify what is cultural appropriation and what is not.
We must widen the conversation around this topic. This conversation cannot take place within a vacuum, but among a diverse group of students like those at USC.
Universities have already started to expand the discussion around cultural appropriation. California became the first state to officially outlaw the use of the term “Redskin” for school mascots. Prior to this statewide decision, other universities have changed their mascots that were deemed culturally insensitive. As a Chicagoan, I notably remember when the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discontinued its Chief Illiniwek mascot. Some non-Native American students and alums had tears streaming down their faces. An end of an era was occurring.
But it also beckoned a new era of better cultural awareness.
It opened up the path to conversation in an academic setting where perceptions could be challenged. More universities should continue pushing platforms of diversity by ridding their sports teams of culturally offensive mascots.
With that said, when it comes to deeming an act or fashion statement as cultural appropriation, we as a society must be slow to judge. We should focus on education. Cultural appropriation is rampant within the United States and will take a while to reverse. Many times when someone seemingly misappropriates a culture, it is out of ignorance and not malice. The role of the university can be to expose its students to more culture.
It’s like when new words are added to the Oxford Dictionary. It is after years of use, but finally academia deems them worthy of official recognition. Now, is the time for us millennials in college to learn what cultural appropriation means and how it manifests itself. The boundaries of understanding are expanding, and with it, so should we.
One way USC can address this is by offering more culturally specific classes that build the conversation about cultural appropriation into the syllabus, instituting the diversity requirement within the general education courses or supporting multicultural groups on campus for students looking to learn more about ethnic groups.
Just like how I was schooled when I sat in on that class at Stanford, more college students can grasp what is meant by cultural appropriation. We just have to give people a chance to learn.
Therefore, students should take this break — in between eating turkey and completing their Black Friday shopping — to step outside themselves and truly learn about other cultures. Cultural diversity is one thing we can all be grateful for during this Thanksgiving season.
After reading “Wait An L.A. Minute” on Tuesdays, join Jordyn Holman in her millennial conversations on Twitter @JordynJournals. She’s a senior studying print and digital journalism.