Cultural appropriation is a phrase you have most likely seen more on the internet than heard in real life. There have been many an incendiary Facebook status and Guardian article written about the issue, under which there have been large amounts of highly reactionary comments. It has become somewhat a ‘buzzphrase’ in the era of the interweb, and there is intense debate around what cultural appropriation is as well as whether ill intent is a necessary qualifier. With cultural appropriation being such a hot topic, The Saint asked students around campus what they think about it, what effect it has had, and, most importantly, what it means to them.
Dante Blais-Billie, a first-year management and art history student of Native American heritage, said: “Even though I grew up on a reservation surrounded by other members of my tribe, the lack of realistic portrayals in media and widespread misconceptions of my culture has always affected me. I’ve encountered cultural appropriation at every stage in my life… It is frustrating when the only concept of your culture that others have is based off of harmful stereotypes.”
Ms Blais-Billie explained that cultural appropriation occurs “when the wearer abuses something that has great significance to a culture which is not their own. The wearer usually has no malicious intent, but the damage is done all the same.” For example, when someone wears feathers or a headdress with little to no background understanding of their cultural value, offence can be caused.
“Native Americans have been historically banned [from practicing] things sacred to our culture because of forced assimilation by the US government,” she said. “To see such sacred items taken for granted and misused diminishes centuries of Native Americans struggling to preserve our heritage.”
Thadd Hall, a second-year Spanish and Persian student, explained that minorities now “have a space to vocalise their opinion and it is easier for them to speak against the status-quo.” Mx Hall has heritage from a mixture of different Native American tribes such as Mandan, Hidatsa and Hunqpapa Lakota, the last of which is “very nomadic.” Mx Halls experienced cultural appropriation while at Starfields, where they saw a girl wearing a headdress. Mx Hall felt it necessary to confront her about the issue: “She lied and said that she had Native American descent, and the discourse got quite heated because obviously I was upset at her very clear appropriation of my culture.”
Nina Castillo, a second-year student, understands the issue of cultural appropriation differently. “There are nuances, but if you’re going down that route you can pick holes into anything,” she said. “For example you can say cultural appropriation is going up to someone in Iran who is wearing Zara and saying that’s a Spanish company – why are you wearing it?”
Mx Hall, however, disagreed: “Zara is a western company whose sole purpose is to sell its goods… Saying to someone that they can’t wear it because it’s a Spanish company and therefore cultural appropriation is inane and a strawman argument because it’s drawing a false comparison between something that exists to unite people under a form of oppression and a purely capitalistic venture… Wearing Zara if you are not Spanish is as much cultural appropriation as an American wearing Primark is.”
Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, argued that, ultimately, whether something is an example of cultural appropriation depends on the “context, intention, and execution of it” and that people who feel like their culture is being appropriated “should not react with aggression or hatred because a back and forth is not constructive to helping heal the divides over the issue that exists.”
Second-year philosophy student Tasnim Siddiqa Amin believes that as a liberal campus, St Andrews is sometimes too quick to filter and censor discussions about topics such as race and cultural appropriation. This “drowning out” is something that she feels strongly about since she felt it happened to her while advertising an exhibition on black culture that she had organised.
Her posters called for “coloured models” and for art submissions from people of colour, but Ms Amin received backlash from white students who felt that the term “coloured” was archaic and offensive. She was asked to take the posters down.
“In St Andrews people are too ready to be offended, and this makes people more cautious when it comes to expressing controversial opinions,” she said. “People can’t be wrapped in cotton wool. This comes down to there being a lack of diversity at the University, which, despite it being very international, is a specific kind and subset of the term international.”
Ms Amin was accused of cultural insensitivity and appropriation by someone who was upset at her Colour Me Black exhibition, which took place last December. She was told she had “no authority” to do what she doing because she was not black herself. Ms Amin retorted that students were “missing the point entirely” as the exhibition was about “celebrating diversity and was in celebration of black history month.” This is especially important in a place like St Andrews, she said, where “many people don’t have exposure to minority history, as it is all told from a white perspective which skews narrative and makes it understandable as to why people culturally appropriate.”
When asked about her experience of cultural appropriation on campus, fourth-year anthropology and IR stu- dent Maya Kadirgamar said that she has only seen isolated instances, such as at a hip-hop themed party where many guests were wearing “grills and chains.” She also added that certain elements of Sitara, the Southeast Asian-themed fashion campus, can definitely be perceived as “problematic – especially the My Mahal shoot.”
A student who asked to remain anonymous agreed and said that there was definitely an issue with “cultural commodication” and that the Sitara committee was guilty of this. The student was disappointed that Sitara had used white models, which she thought gave out the message that South Asians were not confident enough to portray their culture. She suggested that using an exclusively brown cast would have made a more “powerful” statement.
Third-year English student Daniel Granville said that Bongo Ball, an ‘African’-themed ball to which students turned up wearing zebra and giraffe themed costumes and where music from The Lion King was played upon request, was another example of cultural misinformation on campus. Mr Granville says that he is glad that the “monstrous” title has now been changed.
Recently, the women’s rugby team caused controversy when it hosted an event with a cowboys-and-Native Americans theme. The event sparked considerable debate on Yik Yak and outraged Mx Hall. The rugby team quickly apologised and issued a statement in which they explained they had not intended to cause offence. One Yak in particular epitomised the lack of consensus on cultural appropriation on campus. It read: “Cultural appropriation is a myth. If I want to dress like a f****** redskin I will.” The rugby team, upon being contacted by The Saint, declined to comment further.
Tyler Anderson, a third-year Biblical studies student, said that the primary issue in St Andrews is the lack of cultural awareness “prevalent” among the student body.
She said, “The fact is that St Andrews has a great amount of liberals and this allows [students] to forget that they have white privilege, which then manifests in a co-optation of style and language. It’s offensive because white people see cultural appropriation as positive culture sharing but that assumes that there’s no systematic oppression – it’s a washing of hands.”
Ms Anderson has said that not culture sharing does not exist without acknowledgement of the history and of responsibility. “You can’t share cultures if you won’t share in the oppression,” she said.
It has become common ground for people to respond to accusations of cultural appropriation being levelled at them or others by protesting that they are being too “politically correct.”
According to Ms Anderson, however, you can “never be too politically correct” because to say so would be to say that you can be “too respectful of oppressed peoples.” She added, “It’s just another way for people with white privilege to talk over the marginalised and not listen to them.”