Opinion | The Canon

Appreciating other cultures lies in respect

I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t hurt me to see the pictures of Kappa Alpha Theta members dressed in “Mexican” garb. Now, I know that those students did not dress up in their chosen costumes to hurt me; I think we can all agree that they didn’t intend to hurt anyone. But instead of somehow making their actions OK, or at the very least excusable, to me this indicates simply that these students, my peers, do not see me. They are blind to the fact that I, as a Chicana, am a part of the culture they find so easy to parody. 

Somehow, my culture has been amputated from the idea of me that they have in their minds. This is a problem.

We’re all members of a campus that prides itself on its diversity (a discussion of the reality of that diversity is for a different place and time). We are able to find communities which help us define ourselves, communities that we might not have had access to before coming to Columbia. And, on a daily basis, we interact with people who belong to communities with which we are unfamiliar. The question it seems we’re grappling with is this: How do we go about respecting and interacting with the communities we encounter, especially if they are different from the groups with which we identify? 

The short answer, of course, is not to be an intolerant asshole. But I understand that that’s less than helpful. Still, there is a space between slapping on a sombrero and calling it a day and de facto segregation—a difference that needs exploration. Beyond tolerance and simple coexistence, there is a desire to engage with other cultures and groups in ways that are more substantial than recognition, more meaningful than brushing elbows.

The first realm is that of coexistence—apparently something we’ve yet to master. It is here that I think the time for handling discussions with the proverbial “kid gloves” has come and gone. I will not tell you that it’s OK to dress in insensitive getups, using stereotypes of someone’s culture as a punch line. I will similarly not tell you that it is acceptable to don a bindi because you think it looks cool in the name of cultural “appreciation.” Nor will I say that wearing a burqa for a week is a means of better understanding the lives of your fellow women of color. I reject the notion that being offended by these things is simply “oversensitivity” because the intent behind them was not necessarily malicious. In a nutshell, if we see something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise abhorrent, we shouldn’t silence ourselves simply for the comfort of an offender who may or may not understand why they’re in the wrong. A part of interacting with communities different from one’s own is learning about the values and needs of that community. This includes understanding what they find offensive—perhaps even why it’s offensive—and respecting that. And no one should count themselves immune to that, regardless of the groups they belong to. This is how we might learn to tolerate being around each other. But Columbia’s diversity doesn’t have to—and in fact shouldn’t—work like plate tectonics. We aren’t irreconcilable bodies, divided by jagged faults and joined only through rocky, violent passings.

This is where that second space comes into play, that of cultural learning, or true cultural appreciation. I believe these things exist. I’m studying abroad, for crying out loud. But what I think we need to realize is that it is impossible for us to learn anything if we don’t listen. How can you hear all of the different stories of a culture, after all, if the shriek of your so-called appreciation is the only thing in your ears? I’m of a mind that, in order for us to go beyond coexistence, we need to do more listening. Obviously it’s a pretty simple action, and it isn’t going to solve all of our problems, but given our recent history, perhaps it’s a good place to start.

I believe that you can legitimately and respectfully appreciate a culture that isn’t yours. But I think that it is a quiet action. It isn’t something in which you take center stage. This culture, fundamentally, can never belong to you. There isn’t a place for you within it. Maybe that’s harsh, or disappointing, but that’s how this works. It is not something you get to make your own, playing around in it, glorifying certain aspects of it, dismissing others. Put simply, cultures do not exist for your personal use. 

That being said, I think cultural appreciation and cultural learning are extremely valuable to all of us. Learning about a culture different from your own is a challenging process, yes, but it is also enriching. You are exposed to different viewpoints, different histories, different literatures and artistic movements, different ideas about what it means to be. And call me a humanities major, but I think that such diverse exposure is not only beautiful, but incredibly instrumental to creating a community whose relations are more intricate, more thoughtful, and more critical. This, I think, is how we move away from seeing each other so flatly, how we avoid viewing our peers as isolated from their respective identities, and how we can try to understand one another with a bit more care.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in American studies.

To respond to this piece, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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A Friend posted on

Honestly, this seems to be screaming wanting to be offended. By the same standard, St. Patricks Day is a wildly racist holiday and all those of non-Irish heritage shouldn't celebrate. I may be naive in the idea that these Theta pictures are simply a theme for a party, nothing more. It takes more effort to compute that dressing in another culture's traditional attire is not racist than to get offended at the drop of a sombrero. Greek parties aren't a vehicle to perpetuate racism, that's not the point. Greek parties are there for college kids to get laid and having a good time.

Life isn't the Oppression Olympics, don't make it them.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm sorry, but it's articles like this one that further reenforce my view that society had become to politically correct. You're getting offended because girls were wearing sombreros? You need to thicken your skin because there isreal racism out there that occurs everyday in the form of beatings and other racially motivated crimes. If we were to all have the same mentality as you we might as well all wear plain white t shirts and jeans everyday, wait, sorry that's not including the other colors so it too, is racist. If you don't like the way those girls dressed write a formal complaint to their chapters president detailing an approve list of culturally acceptable attire and I'm sure she'll get right back to you.

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Anonymous posted on

last i knew, a people didn't own their cultures, costumes or used them outside certain regions of the planet. or do they? label these imposters for what they are, imposters and nothing other. such ado about nothing...

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Anonymous posted on

We also have a white trash bash, so it evens it out

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Anonymous posted on

Call me a social science major, but you're completely dismissing the forces of acculturation and the superorganic nature of culture- the latter of which was theorized by a Columbia alumnus named A.L. Kroeber, who would be disappointed by your possessive ignorance. While I do understand that donning burkas and bindis for the purposes of fashion may be offensive to some, you are factually wrong to tell someone that they can never be a part of someone else's culture just because they were not born into it. The interaction of people from different cultures- something you claim to support- will result in acculturation. That said, there is a difference between acculturation and cultural appropriation. So instead of telling people they'll never be able to share in your culture, you'd put your breath to better use by helping others share in your culture in a way that doesn't offend you.

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Marco posted on

Can anyone living in a liberal democracy respect a culture that brutalizes women's rights, gay rights, children's rights, religious right's? Can we respect a culture that forbids women the right to choose a husband? Can we respect culture that has serious punishments for unauthorized sex, or the death penalty for being an apostate?

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