About three years ago, I was watching Disney’s animated movie Zootopia©, and I recalled a scene where the main characters walk into a “naturalist club” and meet a yak meditating and saying “om,” with his matted hair surrounded by flies. Another character was naked and performing yoga. The movie portrayed these “naturalist club” members as dirty and ‘other-worldly’, and it appeared to be ridiculing them for not wearing clothes and being free from worldly attachments. I was taken aback that this Disney movie could highlight a character performing yoga while simultaneously ridiculing the characters’ external appearance. In fact, the name of the character doing yoga was “Nangi,” which means “naked” in Hindi. As a girl of color and someone belonging to the 5,000-plus-year-old religion from which yoga and meditation arose, stereotyping these characters and appropriating Indian culture for laughs bothered me.
Accepting someone for who they are is of the utmost importance, but what happens if one takes an element of someone’s background and misrepresents it? That is cultural appropriation, and it represents the inability to understand and respect someone’s culture and misuse a person’s background for your own intent. Someone may feel entitled to take an aspect of a culture without respecting its origins. Appropriation is ignorant and hurtful, especially when a dominant culture adopts from a minority culture. People are often unaware of their appropriation from other cultures. Circling back to Zootopia, the movie proved to be hypocritical. Disney intended the takeaway message of the film as ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and that profiling members of society based on physical appearances is unfair. However, the five-minute naturalist club scene goes directly against this message.
Another example of cultural misappropriation is in fashion. People may love to wear Bollywood-style clothes with a decorative dot on the forehead, or enjoy having braided hair, or perhaps sport a Japanese kimono for a special event. Children may beg their parents to buy them a Moana or Aladdin costume for Halloween. Unfortunately, these trends can slip quickly from acceptance and appreciation into misappropriation if there is no respect behind the choice. For example, while wearing the Geisha kimono, if someone wears make-up to create “Asian” eyes, that is a big problem and stereotype. There are also instances of people darkening their skin color when wearing a costume from a minority culture, which is also a big problem. There is but one thing that can prevent misappropriation, and that is acceptance with a generous serving of respect.
These examples of cultural misappropriation dominate the media and tip the fine balance of acceptance in society towards disrespect. Misappropriation is cause for many controversies, accusations, and destroys relationships. But now that you have a deeper understanding of this topic, you can help the world be more and more courteous towards cultures with meaningful change. This change may include:
- Don’t follow stereotypes: The very root of misappropriation is the false notion that whatever you may hear or see in the media about a group of people is always true.
- Listen and learn: Talk to your friends about their culture and how they feel it is being represented. Actively seek out connections with others in an effort to gain a broader perspective.
- Use your voice as an ally: Call out misappropriation when you witness it! Standing up for the right thing not only empowers you but others as well.
- Apologize and be humble: If your actions are thought to cross the line into misappropriation instead of appreciation, don’t get defensive! Stay humble and sincere. As long as your mind is open and accepting, we can all have conversations in safe spaces for everyone!
Respect is the remedy for cultural misappropriation, and acceptance is the first step in extinguishing it. Cultural appropriation is complicated, which is all the more reason we need to be talking about it and not let fear get in the way of being honest about it. You are already on the right path to being an accepting, appreciative individual just by starting the process!