The recent furor over members of Kappa Alpha Theta dressing in stereotype-based cultural outfits for an Olympics-themed mixer consisted of heated conversations about cultural appropriation and insensitivity. But these conversations and their participants have been remiss in not accounting for cultural learning—a fairly recent and young phenomenon.
Cultural awareness has its roots a millennia ago with the establishment of trade routes, navigation and discovery, and, of course, colonialism. Cultural learning and the level of awareness that we strive for today have primarily been a product of globalization and the information age we live in. Despite the opportunities cultural learning offers, it is crucial to understand that most of us still possess severely limited knowledge of foreign cultures. Given the recency of globalization itself, this is not surprising or terrible.
In its statement condemning Theta's actions, Chicano Caucus stated that stereotypes were used to “oppress” marginalized communities and that the pictures uploaded “caricaturize” Mexican culture and should not be overlooked. They go on to say that the attire “trivializes an entire nation's history, its peoples, and its cultures, reducing them to a mere mustache and sombrero.”
While I couldn't possibly argue against the historical fact that stereotypes can be used for oppression, positive stereotypes can foster cultural engagement and an environment of cultural learning. Furthermore, any single aspect of a nation's culture—no matter how significant it may be—will always be trivial compared to the sheer enormity and depth of an entire culture. The adoption of these symbols demonstrates a major step forward from where we were only a century ago and in many cases, a sincere desire to celebrate and learn about foreign cultures.
The widespread adoption and welcoming of foreign cuisines and the increasing popularity of cultural festivals are a testament to how we can positively associate ourselves with cultural symbols in the learning process. But would our favorite restaurant or any single festival truly be able to capture the essence of an entire culture? Inevitably, no. Why we were so quick to take offense at the “trivializing” nature of the sombrero hat and mustache? Is it truly because identifiable cultural symbols offend us? Or is it because we would like other students to reciprocate the cultural knowledge that we often possess when we arrive at Columbia?
The second question provides some insight into why many may scorn the use of a few symbols as “trivializing.” As an international student from India, I arrived at Columbia with a level of cultural awareness and knowledge about America that far supersedes that of most American students with regard to Indian culture. A product of America's geopolitical and socioeconomic progress, American culture has been extremely pervasive across food, music, and clothing tastes. A lot of my American friends still associate India with curry, cricket, and computer science. These don't necessarily spell insensitivity, but rather, a limited exposure.
The offensive nature of cultural stereotypes lays not so much in the stereotypical symbols themselves, but in the inevitable inference made by those viewing ignorance. But we must understand that the cross-directional cultural awareness we clearly expect has only begun to take shape extremely recently. It may take decades or more until it becomes difficult to select an outfit for a costume party that would easily identify an individual as belonging to a “particular culture” or country without some basic amount of generalization. I would personally be quite stumped if someone asked me to dress up as an “American” for a party. We need to accept that we're simply not there yet with most cultures, including Mexican culture and my own.
Returning to Theta, I can't help but feel that a lot of the outrage seemed to stem from an underlying assumption that the sorority women in the picture did not value, appreciate, or even comprehend the rich history of Mexican culture. Making such an assumption from a picture not only says a lot about the unfortunate perception of Greek Life, but is also highly presumptuous in general.
The only major takeaway was the use of identifiable symbols of Mexican culture. Quite frankly, I think that's OK. McDonald's was one of the first major American firms to enter the Indian market in the 90s. Back then, hamburgers were the major cultural symbol of America in India. American culture, of course, extends a little beyond burgers, as we later came to realize. Identifiable cultural symbols often serve as a safe and recognizable platform for further cultural learning. Cuisines are a perfect example of such symbols. The fact that Chicano Caucus utilized the sombrero hat and mustache as part of its awareness initiative at Glass House Rocks is telling of the power of these symbols as easily identifiable and even inviting aspects of Mexican culture. Many commenters stated the importance of intent, and this is precisely why it matters.
Embracing and adopting easily identifiable cultural symbols often mark the first—sometimes baby—steps toward cultural learning and awareness. If used in the right spirit, it is important to view them as learning, not appropriation. The adoption of such symbols can often enable cultural learning through exposure, involvement, and conversation. Columbia could definitely benefit from recognizing that.
Anirban Poddar is a Columbia College senior majoring in economics-philosophy. He contributes regularly to The Canon.
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