While Quest boasts an international community (12% of students come from 41 countries aside from the US and Canada), our campus remains predominantly white and North American. We spend lots of time in our classes talking about “other” cultures, and “other” kinds of people. In our non-academic life we (generally) pride ourselves on respecting and appreciating these ideas of “otherness.” Respect and appreciation, however, are not narrowly defined practices. What happens when we want to “respect and appreciate” some parts of a culture and not others? And how does someone “respect and appreciate” a culture fully when they are not truly a part of it? Who has the right to decide who is “truly a part” of a culture or not? And who is to draw the line between “respect and appreciation” and appropriation?
These are the messy questions we dipped our toes into on Wednesday evening in a discussion organized by the Diversity and Equity Committee and the Students’ Representative Council. The event began with a screening of Blacking Up – a 60 minute film that “explores tensions surrounding white participation in hip-hop.” In short, the film is about white appropriation of black culture, beginning with minstrel shows in the 1800’s and following up to modern iterations of considerably similar scenarios: white people “acting black” or otherwise claiming identities of oppressed people as their own – either because it’s “cool,” or simply “for fun.” The discussion that followed was aimed at relating what we saw in the film to our lives at Quest.
Many students agreed that most of the examples of cultural appropriation shown in the film were more blatant than what we see at Quest. However, there was also an agreement that cultural appropriation happens on our campus. One student pointed out that “less blatant” forms of cultural appropriation are not necessarily less harmful, less exploitative, or less racist. The “less blatant” forms of cultural appropriation are, however, harder to define, harder to call out, and much harder to eradicate.
One more agreement was that there is no quick fix for this issue. The complexities of cultural appropriation lay beyond the realm of our 60 minute discussion. However, it is obviously not something that we should give up on for fear that we cannot change anything. The large turnout to the event (even at a busy time of block) was a testament to the fact that cultural appropriation is an issue important to our campus community. Even if we don’t know exactly how to “solve” the problem, we know that discussions like these are key to instigating awareness and change.