On Nov. 13, Wheaton’s Intercultural Board (ICB) hosted a talk on cultural appropriation as part of their new After Hours series. The students who voiced their heartfelt concerns on the issue indicated that the problems of appropriation are numerous and troubling.
In a broad sense, cultural appropriation is when a group has aspects of its culture, race or ethnicity misrepresented or adopted by another more powerful and privileged group in an offensive or off-putting way. Minorities have often been subject to this misrepresentation in society, and unfortunately Wheaton is no exception.
Students shared stories concerning cultural appropriation, and their experiences often portrayed the perpetrator’s failure to understand its seriousness. Many students told the audience about times when they had been spoken to or treated in an offensive manner. One student recalled being asked, “how can you be Jewish? You’re black!”
Dressing in stereotypical costume is a notorious and visible aspect of cultural appropriation, and it has been encountered here on campus.
One student recalled an event where another student “came to the Latino dance group wearing a sombrero and dressed as a [self-proclaimed] stereotypical Mexican.”
It seems that students tend to shy away from the subject — as one person said, “some kids just don’t want to talk about it.”
The tougher issues seem to stem from faculty; students spoke of a large disconnect between them and their professors on this issue.
“Oftentimes you have a white teacher telling you about the struggles of different races, and when you try to correct them about something, they just try to justify it by saying they have however many years of research,” said one student. “Their first defense is to claim, ‘you’re trying to say I’m a racist.’”
There seems to be a misunderstanding among some members of the faculty about how to go about approaching other cultures. One student recalled cultural scorn from a teacher concerning her ethnicity’s music, “She was teaching kids things she didn’t know about other cultures, saying that the music was too hypersexualized. She looked down on [my culture]. It sucks because these students who don’t know better will believe the professor.”
Another student recalled an event in which there was a discussion about low-income struggles among minorities in her class, and because of her darker skin, her professor singled her out after class saying, “I expect you to have input on this topic, it would make everybody [in class] feel more comfortable.”
The student tried to explain that she had not encountered those income and ethnic struggles and could not relate because her older relatives were mostly Caucasian and thus she associated herself as white. The professor bluntly and inconsiderately pointed out the student’s hairstyle and darker skin tone.
The disappointed sentiment present in the students was summed up by this comment: “I don’t understand how you can be so smart and educated yet so offensive.”
Students are frustrated with constantly having to explain the issues, as one student noted, “sometimes I don’t want to speak up because of the whole, ‘angry black man’ stigma. It just feels weird.”
One student added, “ You don’t want to have to be the spokesperson for your race, it gets tiring.”
While cultural appropriation is clearly not a problem exclusive to Wheaton, it is something that exists here and needs to be addressed. ICB Chair Nani Manan ’15, said that it is an issue that is certainly uncomfortable for most people, but one that should be acknowledged and explored.
“We understand that the Wheaton community tends to shy away from anything that relates to race because it does in fact make people uncomfortable. Yes, cultural appropriation is a hard topic but there are a group of people that are willing to pave the way, to start dissecting this issue,” Manan said.
Manan also noted that larger attendance at discussions would be the ideal way to go about fixing the problem, but change might not come immediately, as “it’ll take time for the Wheaton community to come together as a whole and face this issue head on.”