How to not Appropriate Someone’s Culture

I’m taking a Concept Development class for media and the arts and have to market a chocolate. Starting with an abstract concept I have to name the chocolate, design a package and ultimately produce a commercial.

My abstraction is feminism and my idea is that the proceeds of this chocolate would go toward aiding female cacao farmers gain economic independence. I want to name my chocolate in line with a mythology and specifically after a goddess because of the role of women in the cacao industry. Most of the cacao beans are grown in Central and South America or Africa and to be accurate I would then choose a goddess from a Central or South American lore or African lore. This, thankfully, got me thinking about cultural appropriation and that if I were to go the route I am considering I would have to do so with care, research and caution.

So, what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when someone takes certain aspects of another culture for their own, without understanding the culture they are using and without asking permission. This occurs when someone, knowingly or unknowingly, believes the culture of another can be used as a trend, a fashion statement, or a symbol without acknowledging the origins and oppression that are ingrained in that culture’s history.

So, here is a quick list of questions to ask yourself if you think you might be in danger of appropriating another’s culture. This is not an exhaustive list and I would love to get feedback and suggestions to expand.

  1. How much do you know about the tradition/fashion/religion/symbol (etc) you seek to use? Does your use align with the original intent?
  2. Why this particular tradition/fashion/religion/symbol (etc)?
  3. Would you feel comfortable with someone using your culture’s tradition/fashion (etc) in this way?
  4. Can members of this culture practice their tradition/fashion (etc) in public without social ridicule/stigma?
  5. Does using this tradition/fashion (etc) in any way rely on stereotypes (positive and negative) of this culture?
  6. Does this using this tradition/fashion (etc) in any way elevate your culture above the one you are representing?
  7. Do you know anyone from this culture who might be able to offer some insight on your idea?

If your answer exoticizes another culture in any way, or places the culture as a trend to be used instead of an ethnic heritage to be understood, you should rethink your idea. Cultural appropriation is racist and even the best intentions are not always free from this prejudice.

Question yourself before you take a racist step. There are ways to learn about the cultures of others and appreciate their beauty, but it is through research and understanding.

Go Alone

Being alone in a public space is heavily stigmatized. From the moment we step into elementary school and are told to be social we begin to understand that to be in a group offers protection, even if it’s just from a school bully. You never want to be by yourself because suddenly, you’re loner or the outsider. It means you are not capable of making friends and being “normal.” On a larger level it sends a message that you have people who care about you and are therefore a more difficult target to threaten.

Public spaces are group spaces. You run errands and it’s fine to go by yourself. But the moment you go to the movies, go out to eat, go to a sporting event, or any other public venue, social structure dictates that you have to have at least one person by your side. I know if I enter a party or a cafeteria by myself and sit  alone I feel as if 100 eyes are on my back. Whispering voices in my head tell me: Everyone else has friends here. Why are you coming alone? The public space becomes hostile. Of course, in reality, people are more concerned with their own lives than watching for individuals to pity or threaten. But still, it’s a stigma to be alone.

However, being alone in public places can be one of the most empowering experiences. Although men undergo the same pressure to be in a group, the pressure does not come from the same cause of seeking protection. Women are not told to be independent like men are and so are doubly under the standard to move in a pack. Women are expected to be protected, either by men (society’s ideal) or by a group of women. So, for women, especially, I recommend taking a trip by yourself and experiencing a freedom most people don’t even realize they lack. This doesn’t need to be a road trip by yourself or something that makes you feel unsafe, but it should be something that makes you challenge your comfort zone.

Yesterday I went ice-skating. I didn’t ask anyone to come, just decided  I wanted to ice skate and left. And it was a frightening experience, not because I felt I would be attacked, but because I was clearly operating against the norm. No one was on the ice when I arrived and no one but the man behind the desk was even in the ice rink building. I feared that when I asked for my skates he could turn me away for breaking the unwritten rule of “travel in a group.” But he didn’t and I spent my time ice-skating alone and it was wonderful.

I didn’t have to impress anyone. I didn’t have to compare myself to anyone. I didn’t have to consider when someone else wanted to leave. This was self-assurance and independence. All the protection we’re taught to look for by doing social activities in groups, I found in myself. The best satisfaction was knowing that my fears in being rejected for the audacity to go alone had no ground.

Going alone to public spaces is one of the best ways to build self-confidence and start to chip away at both gender norms and over all unquestioned norms of society.

Men’s or Women’s?

In a perfect world of gender equality men’s clothing and women’s clothing would be a laughable idea. We’re all people after all. Yes, we have different body types but gendered clothing’s only real purpose is to “other” women into a separate category. Women can dress in men’s clothing (to a certain extent) without being harassed, but the instant a man dresses in anything even remotely feminine, he is infected with the female gender all its stigmas.

Again, in a perfect world there would be no men’s section or women’s section in the clothing store and people could be free to wear whatever they want, no gender labels attached.

I went out to buy jeans today. I’m in Turkey, still struggling with speaking Turkish, but the man in the clothing store spoke some English so we were able to get by. When I told him I was looking at jeans, he asked me who I was buying them for.

I said: for myself.

Then he asked me: men’s or women’s?

 

I was grateful for this question because it showed a gender consciousness that even though I present as female, I might not want to buy women’s jeans. He treated this possibility as perfectly normal. It was so refreshing to meet someone who did not prescribe to the strict gender binary.

I do buy my jeans in the women’s section, and I buy my shirts in the men’s section and it’s all perfectly normal. Even though this sales representative asked to put me into a category, at least he had the decency to let me decide which category I chose.

 

 

Weapon of Choice

Traveling about in Istanbul, I finally made it to Sulanhamet and then the Topkapi Palace.

                         

Now, while I hate to skip over a description of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, you can find descriptions and pictures of these buildings anywhere. I need to speak not on the sightseeing experience, but one room I saw in the innermost courtyard of the Topkapi Palace: the armory.

The group I was with saw swords that were jeweled along the hilt with stones in every imaginable color. We saw curved swords, impossibly sharp daggers, sheathes that sparkled with gold inlay even under the harsh museum lights. We saw guns over four feet long and strung up behind glass. There were great-swords with hilts over a foot wide and blades at least six feet long. The artistic peak at the top of the helmets never ceased to amaze and armor made for horses lay flat on black velvet, the eye sockets blindly staring.

It was breathtaking. It was jaw dropping. It was violence done up in finery.

You forget (or you make yourself forget) that each of these weapons was a weapon. It’s purpose was never to sit in a museum to but to stain itself with blood or gun powder and always to kill. Even the ceremonial weapons were not innocent because ceremonial weapons exist to perpetuate and glorify violence and war.

I do not seek to make judgments on Turkey’s past or present. But upon exiting the museum, the people I was with began talking about their “weapon of choice” still lost in the fantasy of war heroics and the glory bestowed upon warriors. If it registered with them that these are dangerous objects, I couldn’t tell. The group was irreverent toward the history we saw but burned with desire and laughed and joked about what they could do with their weapon of choice. They chose their swords and their daggers and I had to struggle not to choose with them.

I understand the temptation to equate heroics with violence and I understand that our world showers glory upon the heroism of battle. I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, I know how breathtaking and appealing it can be to imagine yourself as the hero wielding a sword, or a bow or an ax. But this temptation is dangerous and perpetuates the myth of glorious warfare and masculinity on the battlefield.

The exhibit needed to address the wars these weapons were used in. We needed more than a small placard telling us the type of sword and the century. We needed to be turned away from our fantasies with the bloody facts of what war really is.

Museums should value history over violence. Museums should take responsibility to educate its patrons that though violence and history have gone hand in hand, this does not need to be the future and it should be no one’s fantasy.

Ten facts to know about torture

A human rights issue we should all make ourselves familiar with.

World Without Torture

Meeting new people outside IRCT or outside the circles of human rights work, we’ve found people have a number of questions about what the IRCT does and, more simply, about the issue of torture around the world. “Is there still torture?” they ask, often astounded that there is. For many, the term ‘torture’ invokes ideas of medieval torture chambers and the rack or the Iron Maiden.

Ten of the most common questions we get are the following:

1. Is there still torture today?

Sadly, yes, torture continues as a phenomenon today. In fact, torture takes place in the majority of countries in the world – as many as 90% of countries, estimates former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak. Furthermore, Nowak estimates that in as many as half of those countries, torture is a rampant and systematic problem.

2. Where does torture occur?

Torture most often takes place…

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New Girl: Fighting Sexism with Humor

 

There’s a big difference between sexist comedy and comedy against sexism. Now, I typically avoid comedies as I find them more offensive than funny. But I finally got around to watching the first episode of New Girl and my initial reaction was a very well thought out meh. Could be better could be worse, but at least I didn’t hate it.

However, although I didn’t find most of the jokes particularly funny, I kept turning them over in my mind trying to figure out if the show used sexist comedy or not. I mean, the pilot perpetuated gender roles with Jess being the “emotional woman” watching Dirty Dancing and crying for a week over her break up with her boyfriend. But the show was more than I expected and had more to it than I initially thought.

I’m not going to analyze the entire pilot right now, but rather look at one of the show’s running gags that shows the pilot of New Girl is using comedy to fight sexism, not perpetuating sexist comedy.

If you have not heard of it already, let me introduce to you: the douchebag jar.

Now, as I have only seen one episode I am not commenting on the series as a whole or how sexism is treated even beyond episode one. This is solely a comment on the pilot and the use of the douchebag jar.

What I loved about this gag is that the humor was not when the character Schmidt did something that was sexist and considered “douchebagery” (which would have been sexist comedy) but when Schimidt’s room mates called him on his behavior and made him put money into the jar (comedy against sexism). We’re not laughing at Schmidt’s antics so much as groaning that he has the audacity to act in such a way as to take off his shirt to show off his abs, for instance. Instead, we’re laughing that he gets punished for his behavior.

In short, sexism isn’t the joke and that is the best comedy this pilot could have brought forth.

 

One More Person Against Bigotry

Once you begin to see that sexism is not the boogeyman crazed feminists invented to give themselves a cause to shout about, suddenly sexism is everywhere. It’s on the most mundane commercials, your favorite t.v. show, the clothes you wear, the joking comments your friends and family make, it’s in the grocery store, the pharmacy, the classroom, the office. Sexism becomes omnipresent because you’ve chosen to see how the world truly operates.

When my best friend first started talking to me about feminism years ago, she was so scared and angry about the way she had lived blind for most of her life to the oppression that plagued her and everyone else in her life regardless of their sex and gender. And every so often, my own rage builds up and drowns out all hope that the world can become a world of equality. Because if I’ve learned one thing from being a feminist, it’s that no human rights issue is isolated. I cannot care about women’s issues without caring about queer issues and I cannot care about queer issues without caring about issues of people of color, and I cannot care about issues of people of color without caring about economic justice. And then all of a sudden you’re not just fighting one system of oppression: you’re fighting the entire system.

It feels so overwhelming sometimes.

But just yesterday, I was out shopping with a few other international students and one of them commented that I look young for my age. She said “But that’s good. It’s always good for women to look young. More so than men.” I told her that this says a great deal about the sexist way women are at the center of the cult of youth and beauty. And she said, “I hadn’t thought of that before.”

I didn’t say she was being sexist or that she was bigoted for her comment, I just explained what her comment meant. And because she was open to the idea that sexism exists, even in small offhand comments, it means there’s one more person thinking about sexism and ways to combat it. That means there’s one more person on our side to fight hatred and oppression in the world.

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to bring issues to someone’s attention. And when you do, you don’t feel nearly as if you’re alone fighting against the world.