Cultural Appropriation on the College Campus
Education, Trident | September 30, 2020

The events of 2020 have caused us all to stop, listen and learn about systemic racism in our society—and within Tri Delta. We are having profound conversations that are educating and inspiring our members to create an environment that is truly welcoming, inclusive and kind alike to all.

One repeated action that has contributed to the systemic oppression of minority cultures throughout history is cultural appropriation. Often, through party themes and Halloween costumes, college students have been active participants in continuing this denigration—taking another’s cultural heritage and using it for fun or fashion. But what is cultural appropriation and why does it matter?

What Is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation, in its most basic definition, is the adoption of specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. More specifically, however, the term often refers to the use of elements of a minority culture by a dominant culture. And most often, these elements are misused or taken from their original context.

Misappropriation and Misrepresentation

The problem with culturally themed parties is that far too often these events rely on cultural stereotypes, often in cartoon-like ways, 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. Let’s take a closer look at the negative aspects of such themes and costumes.

In adopting a Native American party theme or Halloween costume, participants might paint their faces or wear feather headdresses. Sometimes props are involved: a bow and arrow and a teepee. The purpose of a costume such as this is usually not to denigrate Native Americans or their heritage, but it is 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 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 aren’t represented by how one person or a few people might illustrate the tribal theme. Instead, the entire Native American culture is 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 be 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?

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.

How it is kind alike to all? We all know it’s not.

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.”

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. “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.” Having chapters devaluing a culture or race through a distasteful party theme ultimately devalues Tri Delta as an organization.

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.

Questions? Refer to our Choices 101 Flow Chart to help ease your decision.

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In Sept. 2017, Rae Ann Gruver and her husband Stephen lost their son Max to a hazing incident at Louisiana State University. Following this horrible tragedy, they have been instrumental in forming a coalition of parents who have lost children to hazing to provide education and advocacy designed to put an end to hazing once and for all. 

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