Behind Cultural Appropriation Controversies: The Real Issues

August 31, 2017
By NoRomeoNeeded SILVER, New York, New York
NoRomeoNeeded SILVER, New York, New York
9 articles 12 photos 0 comments

White students donning hoop earrings became a source of controversy at Pitzer College last month when three Latinx students wrote “White girl, take off your hoops” on the campus’ free speech wall. The situation has prompted debate on whether white girls wearing hoops is cultural appropriation of Latinx culture. In my opinion, a controversy about two pieces of metal you stick into your ears is ridiculous because it trivializes and diverts attention away from the real, underlying issue of people disrespecting marginalized communities—in this case, women of color—and remaining complicit in their oppression.

 What exactly is cultural appropriation? Sophomore Miro defines it as “using something from another's culture without knowledge of its history or importance, in a way that invalidates, makes fun of, or fetishizes it.” In a poll of of fifty-five students, twenty-four of them racial minorities, only three checked off wearing hoops as cultural appropriation. So why were hoops the spark of the Pitzer controversy?

Hoop earrings are one of the oldest forms of jewelry: the Metropolitan Museum of Art showcases hoop earrings dating from 2600 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia up to the 11th century C.E. in Iran, as well as from Egypt to the Roman Empire. Although this history suggests that hoops are widespread and not unique to any culture, fast forward to modern time and big hoops are a staple of chola style. According to Vice Media, “the chola aesthetic was first forged by the marginalized Mexican American youths of Southern California, a culture that dealt with gang warfare, violence, and poverty.”

 Despite this style originating in Southern California, the thin eyebrows, teased hair, and door-knocker hoops that characterize the chola style are common in New York City too. I am very familiar with this look, since I grew up admiring the strong and confident Latina women in my neighborhood dressed in that style. Because chola aesthetic originated from times of hardship, one can understand the Pitzer Latina students’ frustration: they may feel as though their past and present struggles are invalidated by white girls wearing hoops without having experienced the same Latinx-American struggle.

To me, the controversy is totally overblown when critics only focus on the hoop earrings. However, when one examines the subtext of women of color feeling judged for being “trashy” or deemed “ghetto” when wearing the same things that make white women “trendy,” a more relevant discussion of racial equality and women supporting women is brought to light.

 Junior Diana, believes that many Latina women are oversexualized when they wear hoops: “[People see a] woman of color wearing hoops and it’s like ‘Oh, she’s a s***. She’s a w****.’” In contrast, white girls are deemed “cute” when they wear hoops. Rather than policing what people can wear, we should question why people of color are held to a higher standard and not given credit for the things they do.

 The problem is not just about hoop earrings—it’s about granting respect. Junior Ella expressed her experiences with this: “As someone who comes from a culture that started dreadlocks, I have no problem with a white person wearing dreadlocks, just don’t act like it’s your creation.” Nobody should be telling others what they cannot wear, but if marginalized people haven’t been afforded the same rights to freedom of expression then shouldn't we protect those rights? Ella expressed frustration with hypocritical excuses of freedom of speech: “It really irritates me when white people [say] ‘Oh we’re just expressing ourselves’ because I haven’t been allowed to express myself.”

In our ever changing world, we must acknowledge history. Social Studies teacher Michael Turner explains that: “When we talk about cultural appropriation, we must always be attentive to context and the way that cultural globalization cannot be disentangled from historical systems of oppression, like imperialism and subjugation, slavery, war, and bigotry.” It is important to give people of color credit to recognize and empower them. As Ella stated, “You can appreciate the culture, but you also have to appreciate the people! You can wear corn rows but you have to support Black Lives Matter.”

To see its significance, the Pitzer controversy simply needs to be put in perspective. As Miro put it, hoops “are literal rings of metal”—sometimes plastic, sometimes gold, but only objects and far less valuable than a life. Sophomore Tim, who is white and Latino, added: “I think that it's absurd. People like this discredit the movements they represent by going after non-issues like cultural appropriation when they could be going after issues that actually matter.” I could go on for days about the issues that carry more weight than the hoop earring controversy, including police brutality, wage gaps for women of color, and more. It’s laughable to see teenagers from elite universities and elderly Republican journalists alike get heated about a fashion accessory, when many people of color are scared for their lives when they see a policeman on the street or are credited less for equal work.

The discussion moving forward should not be about the hoops or any physical accessory. It must go beyond cultural appropriation as we strive to have more respect for all people, specifically marginalized people. As sophomore Ru, who is South Asian and African American, put it: “If it's just something material it shouldn't matter. Just treat everything [and everyone] with respect!” Imagine that. Being kind and respecting each other! If most of us were capable of doing it in kindergarten with the golden rules, then why the pervasive lack of empathy behind every injustice? What kind of “cherished” values do we teach to our children and then discard easily as adults? Are we so threatened by everyone different from us that we are incapable of respecting what makes us unique and empowering those who need to be uplifted? If only we could save our breath from talking about fashion accessories and focus on one simple problem: the lack of respect and empathy. But, alas, we are human, so everything must be ridiculously overcomplicated.


Names have been changed.

The author's comments:

This article was inspired by the Pitzer controversy around white girls wearing hoop earrings. To me, and to many of my friends of color, this concern did not feel anywhere near as important as police brutality and other travesties that so many people of color deal with everyday. It had to be said, that young social justice warriors get too passionate about nonissues - I am talking to myself too! We need to channel our energy and intensity towards bigger matters first! 

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