Michael Matteo: Cultural appropriation or appreciation?

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

When I was a reporter writing stories for a daily newspaper, one of the most enjoyable events that I would cover were multicultural festivals in schools. 

Students would dress up in costumes, prepare special foods and create booths that represented countries from all over the world. It was a great way for students to learn about other cultures and experience them. Today, many on the left want to deny students this wonderful project-based learning opportunity about other cultures, which is the essence of helping students truly understand diversity as well as cultural differences. Yet, the moment that some individuals see a child or adult, dressed in costumes that represent a country that is not of their origin, the first thing on their minds and lips is “cultural appropriation.” 

It is one thing for someone to disrespect a culture by dressing up or acting in a derogatory manner, and that is something that is unacceptable. However, cultural fairs are an exercise in appreciation, not appropriation, and the notion that someone, especially a child, who dresses up to experience cultural nuances different from their own experiences is hardly theft. This is another instance of those on the left finding evil things in innocent actions.  

Those on the left are quick to scream diversity when it suits them, but when it is not their version of diversity, they condemn it. This is interesting especially because it comes from many who have the mindset of fluidity when it comes to gender issues and transsexualism.  They view gender as a social construct, and therefore, it is changeable. If this is the case, why is culture, which is surely socially constructed, not fluid? Given the “woke-logic” about gender, shouldn’t a person have the right to celebrate any culture that they want to celebrate?  Shouldn’t they embrace an individual’s chance to be diverse? 

This further illustrates the hypocrisy and illogical nature of woke thinking. It is only their myopic views that they tolerate and expect everyone to tolerate their intolerance.

I experienced some of this “this is my culture, and you can’t embrace it” attitude with my article praising Dr. Martin Luther King’s efforts during the civil rights movement. An African-American commented that he was tired of white people using Dr. King’s words.  Since when did the words of someone become owned by that race, ethnicity or gender? As we splinter into groups, the term “United” States dies a little more each day because we are deeply divided by things that would be easily explained if people used common sense, however, “common” sense isn’t very common in today’s world. 

Feminista Jones (formerly known as Michelle Taylor) is a writer and speaker who writes about black feminism. Here are her words about cultural appropriation: “Cultural appropriation is about the power dynamic. When people with power and privilege decide to ‘validate’ customs and traditions that oppressed people have long been marginalized for by saying ‘This is the hot new thing,’ then we have serious problems…” 

We only have “serious” problems when someone makes the wearing of an article of clothing or a hairstyle an issue about power. Isn’t it possible that someone just believes that wearing something from another culture looks good on them? Isn’t imitation a form of flattery? Why is everything seen as an attack and an exercise of power? Is someone who is not Jamaican wants to wear dreadlocks, is it seen as theft? Can a culture be stolen? What is the difference between embracing multiculturalism and being accused of cultural appropriation and who is to decide? Should only Italians be allowed to eat pizza? Should Japanese people only be allowed to wear kimonos? These are all legitimate questions that should be examined before anyone makes the claim that someone is “stealing” someone else’s culture.  

While doing research for this article one website I visited had a long list of cultural appropriations that included “the whitewashing of yoga,” “the burning of white sage, by non-Indigenous people,” “the adoption, often by musicians or celebrities of specific elements of Black, Indigenous, or Asian cultures” etc. I never realized that practicing yoga or burning incense would make me a cultural appropriator. 

The same article directed a comment at white people by stating that “Acknowledging all elements of a culture extends to recognizing how white supremacy and racism have played a part in dismantling and oppressing other cultures.”  How to Handle Cultural Appropriation: 16 Examples, Next Steps (healthline.com)

This barrage of hypersensitivity reflected in those who are quick to claim cultural appropriation demonstrates a very narrow view of why people would embrace the art, clothing, writings, or any other aspect of a different culture from their own. These thin-skinned types are quick to condemn, but fail to see that a culture cannot be owned and all cultures are part of the entire human experience. Should one ignore the writings of Confucius or Rumi because they are not of Chinese or African descent? It is not an exercise of power to embrace the ideas or practices of another culture, it is actually a function of education.

Many years ago, I was teaching in a public high school and a black student came to my classroom in tears because she was accused of “acting white” by other black students. This was a very eloquent and hardworking, straight-A student who was criticized because she was acting outside the scope of what others perceived it meant to be “black.” It is this kind of identity politics thinking that forces individuals to be identified by their group instead of their individual characteristics. It is a very real poison that is applied each time someone points to someone else and demands they act in a certain way.  

Accusations of cultural appropriation are another weak attempt to support the narrative of white supremacy, the victim status, and to complain about something that actually brings people together. It is a red-herring in the ongoing cultural war between people whose only reason for living is to find some issue to support the storyline that America is inherently racist and who will stoop to any level to assert this notion.

Isn’t the world a better place when different ideas are shared among people from different cultures?


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Michael Matteo


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