it’s not cultural appropriation, but it’s still frustrating
Like many students entering the Brown bubble, I remember learning many new phrases and keywords in listening to students’ casual jargon in my first weeks at school. I quickly picked up the vital ones—“heteronormative,” “juxtapose,” “gender-fluidity”—the list could go on. My first encounter with the phrase “cultural appropriation” was during my freshman fall semester. I was taking a class in American Studies, “Revolting Bodies,” which centered on how media reacted to and dealt with various topics.
Cultural appropriation first came up as a topic while we were watching one of Iggy Azalea’s music videos. In the video for her song “Bounce,” she danced in different colored saris before a backdrop of Indian dancers, and our discussion centered on Azalea’s shameless appropriation of Indian culture. So began my understanding of the varying degrees of cultural appropriation.
The first thing I learned about the term is that many people use it rather carelessly. Anything from learning a language to visiting a country has been deemed “cultural appropriation.” I wish I were exaggerating, but having overheard many a conversation on campus, I know it to be true. Too often students tend to take “politically correct” to an extreme that devalues certain, if not most, terminology.
I say this to buffer my claim. I am not one to point fingers at things I dislike in order to further some sort of political agenda. But I have noticed a trend amongst students learning a new language of engaging passionately with a culture not their own. It is a trend that I don’t think is necessarily culturally appropriative, but it is one that at the end of the day rubs me the wrong way. I have found it frustrating to be on the receiving end when other students—recently returned from study abroad programs and with course level knowledge of a language not surpassing Brown’s “400” level—try to teach me my own background.
More often than not, I am personally flattered when someone is engaged with Middle Eastern culture and excited by what I have to say about my experiences. I think it is humbling to know that there are people who are genuinely interested in my culture, and I admire their diligent efforts in trying to immerse themselves within it.
However, there is a difference between admiring and engaging with a culture and becoming an omniscient cultural scientist who attempts to supersede those who actually grew up in a given society.
For example, a student, who recently returned from Lebanon and studied Arabic, tried to convince me that my grandmother’s Lebanese identity was illegitimate because of the political warzone of the state at the time. They addressed me as if I were the impostor who wanted to tag along—and it felt ridiculous, and uncomfortable, to try to position myself back into my own heritage as if I didn’t really belong there at all.
I felt similarly displaced from own identity when another student came up to me and showed me a song in Arabic with which I was unfamiliar and then mocked me for not knowing my culture well enough. I understand that the intention is not malicious, but when people learn a culture, they must make sure they grasp its breadth and reach. To assume that learning a culture and its language for three or more years makes you a virtuoso creates a separation between the learner and the natives.
While I do not, and will never, see attempts to positively join a culture as culturally appropriative, I do hope that moving forward, those who take on this challenge tread lightly the line of interacting with a culture and overstepping someone’s personal history. Keep on with the admirable efforts, but realize that behind the textbooks and Rosetta Stone clips are individuals who have a thousand different stories and experiences to share if you are honestly willing to listen.