Cultural Appropriation on the College Campus

In the past year, there has been a lot of discussion in the media about cultural appropriation; it's become something of a buzz word. The press criticized pop star Katy Perry for dressing like a Geisha, fashion designers were censured for having Native American headdresses on the runways, and there is still much debate on whether the Washington Redskins should change their name.


Cultural appropriation, in its most basic definition, is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. In current media discussion, such as the above examples, the term specifically refers to the use of elements of a minority culture by a dominant culture; most often, these elements are misused or taken from their original context. 


While cultural appropriation is a more widespread societal issue, it also occurs frequently on college campuses, specifically within the Greek community. More and more, we're seeing instances of fraternity and sorority members wrongly using cultures for party themes and costumes. And ever so often, a party makes headlines for incorporating offensive and racist material. Each time this happens, no matter the organization, the entire Greek community is cast in a bad light.


Most of the time, the issue isn't that members are being intentionally racist. Often, participants either took a theme idea too far or didn't fully understand that the material is viewed as offensive. But after several inappropriate themes reoccurring in Tri Delta chapters, it's time for our collegiate members to reevaluate how they plan their themes and look at why culturally-based themes are inappropriate.


Misappropriation and Misrepresentation  


The problem with culturally themed parties is that far too often these events rely on cultural stereotypes as a way to illustrate the theme. The two inappropriate themes Tri Delta has seen most often are the Mexican "fiesta" theme and the Native American "tribal" theme.


Usually, these offensive themes are not intentionally racist or malicious. Often, participants haven't taken the time to think through how a theme will look to others and the effect it will have on members of the culture represented.


In fall 2013, several tribal-themed Tri Delta Bid Days showed up on different campuses. These Bid Days not only incorporated the idea of Tri Delta as a "TRIbe" but also included members with painted faces, wearing feathers or headdresses and displaying other "Native American" traits. Sometimes props were involved: a bow and arrow and a teepee. The purpose of these Bid Days was not to denigrate Native Americans or their heritage, but they were still offensive.


Here's why: Outsiders to a culture aren't always able to grasp the significance of certain symbolism, dress or traditions and how important these things are to a person of that culture. And by chapter members using what they think are Native American characteristics, they are both misappropriating and misrepresenting that culture.


One example is the choice to wear feathers and headdresses. In Native American tradition, feathers are sacred items that hold a lot of meaning. There are also different types of feathers worn under certain circumstances, and some tribes have specific rules about who can wear what types of feathers. A non-Native American wearing generic fake feathers to appear "native" is not only culturally inaccurate, but it also contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypes. On top of that, there are hundreds of different tribes, each one carrying its own set of traditions. These differences weren't represented by how the Bid Day participants chose to illustrate the tribal theme. Instead, the entire Native American culture was inaccurately portrayed by a few common stereotypes.


Jason Rodriquez is the Director of Multicultural Programs at Linfield College in Oregon and is a member of Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity. He explains: "The tribal pattern is really popular right now. You can go to store and buy all these different patterns. But the patterns themselves aren't the problem; it's the way people are using them." Jason adds that incorporating a tribal pattern by itself would have been ok, if members had stopped there. However, when participants start adding braids, fake feathers and face paint, it becomes a problem because it turns into an exaggerated, cartoon-like stereotype. Jason adds, "[Native American] is not a cartoon culture; it's real. And seeing all the fakeness of it is really hurtful."


Another often stereotyped theme is the Mexican fiesta theme. It's one thing to use Mexican-inspired prints and patterns or to serve Mexican food, but when people start incorporating other "Mexican" traits (that are not actually traits but stereotypes) or begin dressing up as Mexican people, they are misappropriating and misrepresenting an entire culture. Just think about how many times a fiesta theme has included ponchos, sombreros, piñatas and fake mustaches. Again, adding these elements contributes to making the culture seem cartoonish and over the top.


In most cases, a person's cultural background makes up a large part of their self-identity. And while party-goers may think dressing up as another ethnicity is harmless fun, basing themes and costumes on another culture trivializes what it means to be a member of that culture as well as that culture's place in society. It is both insensitive and disrespectful to these populations.


What Would Sarah Ida Shaw Do? 

 

Another problem with using cultures as themes is that they aren't congruent with Tri Delta's values and our Purpose. There are many party themes out there that so clearly go against this organization's values. In the same way that a sexist themed "Bros and Hos" party doesn't support the values of this organization, neither does a culturally insensitive theme. One is degrading to women; the other is degrading to other minority populations. Neither is upheld by the Purpose.


Dr. Mari Ann Callais, senior director of development for The Center for Living, Learning & Leading, explains: "Part of the Purpose of Delta Delta Delta is 'to promote and develop mutually beneficial relationships between the Fraternity and the colleges and universities where the Fraternity has established chapters.' The Founders put that in there because women were not seen as important on college campuses at that time. The Founders wanted to make sure we were going to be respected."


One way for Tri Delta women to be respected is to be engaged on the college campus where Tri Delta has a chapter, to bring the Fraternity's values to that campus and add meaning to the collegiate experience. But, as Mari Ann notes, "When we degrade a culture or a subset of our population, we're contradicting what [the Founders] fought to do: to be seen as valued."


To ensure a chapter's themes and costumes are appropriate, place that idea side by side with the Purpose. Think through what the theme will look like in its entirety and what it will represent: How will people dress? What kind of activities will there be? Do those things match the values upheld in the Purpose of Tri Delta?


How does dressing as a cultural stereotype contribute to developing a more womanly character? How does it promote a devotion to moral and democratic principles? Simple answer: It doesn't.


If chapter members find that they're unable to rationalize a theme with the values of Tri Delta's Purpose, then they should go back to the drawing board.


Mari Ann points out that, "People come up with inappropriate themes for the same reason why people haze; they do it because it's easy. They can easily come up with ideas that are contradictory to our values, but it's more of a challenge to come up with ideas that are actually in line with our values."


"People just need to take a moment and reflect," says Jason. "If something about a theme seems like it might be offensive, then it probably is."


For Jason, educating members and helping them understand why using a culture as a theme is inappropriate is the best way to confront the issue. "I want exposure, and I want people to learn. It's especially important for chapters to recognize that [cultural misappropriation] is an issue. Be intentional [with your theme] and really think about it."


Sarah Ida Shaw's reason for creating Tri Delta was to "found a society that shall be kind alike to all and think more of a girl's inner self and character than of her personal appearance." That quote conveys the idea that Sarah would have looked at people, not because of their ethnicity, but because of what value they would hold. Having chapters devaluing a culture or race through a distasteful party theme ultimately devalues Tri Delta as an organization.


There's a lot of discussion about what is and is not considered cultural appropriation, and the main issue of cultural sensitivity can get lost in the debate. Tri Delta isn't trying to play the role of the "P.C. Police," but we want our members to be aware that culturally insensitive themes are a reoccurring issue in the Greek community. The most important thing is for chapters to be mindful of their themes and how those themes affect others.


Above all, members should be respectful of all people with their actions and how they present themselves on campus. Treating people with respect means being sensitive to what's important to them, and this understanding and sensitivity is all part of developing a more womanly character.