In my essay, I discuss how culture and identity are tied in a symbiotic relationship, when both organisms rely on each other in a type of partnership. Culture needs identity just as much as identity is helped formed by culture. However, it can be impacted negatively by cultural appropriation.
9 March 2018
“Culture, as defined by the Webster’s dictionary (2007), is the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. It is also the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group.”
From birth, culture has a major role in shaping our identity. We see this throughout our whole lives: a subconscious desire to live inside our groups, define ourselves through them, and even belong to them. People are not born with culture, rather than they are raised into it, for there is no better way to fulfil the need of validity than to be unified as a single group justified through belief. We want to feel as if we are a part of something, because with culture comes presence. It tells the individual that they are supported in what they are doing or how they think. We created culture for this sole purpose, just like race, gender, class, and any other social divider.
This is called Cultural Identity Theory, an umbrella term for a large mechanism with very small gears. Myron Lustig, professor and author of several cultural studies, notes that cultural identities “are central, dynamic, and multifaceted components of one’s self concept” (Lustig, 133). In places like the U.S., where the people are more ethnically diverse from state to state, culture is mostly based on common values, traditions, or heritage. Yet some cultures are considered “unequal” to others. In reality, it is not the cultural identity that is put down, it is in fact the presence of it. That this means is that an identity is not worth oppressing unless it is meaningful. No one cares about who you are until it is a threat to their own power. Unity is powerful and that is what makes culture a danger to some. An example of this control is cultural appropriation, in which “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by said dominant group” as put by journalist Maisha Z. Johnson. We see this within several minority groups such as African- Americans, Native Americans, and even Asian- Americans who all have a history of assimilation or oppression under a dominant race, Caucasian Americans.
This commonly occurs and can be seen at festivals such as Coachella, the Runway, or even your local mall selling cheap “tribal print” clothing. Currently, one of the largest battles has occurred over black hairstyles such as afros, dreads, braids, and even headwraps being portrayed by white models in the media. Defenders of this will bring up women of color straightening their hair, yet they forget pressure of assimilation ("adopting elements of the dominant culture in order to survive conditions that make life more of a struggle if they don’t", another quote by M.Z. Johnson) and how natural hair styles have been and still are considered unkept and even dirty when worn by women of color. During slavery, master and lawmakers alike used headwarps as a term of enslavement and forced black women to cover up their hair. Later, it would also evolve into the stereotype of the "Black Mammy" servant. It wasn’t until much later that African American women would use it as a symbol of pride and courage, creating elaborate and colorful headwraps in defiance. To their descendants, it has served as a badge of their cultural identity and an "absolute resistance to the loss of self-definition", states Helen Griebel from Cornell University. To see the appropriation of these articles on the runway is a direct attack to the identity. It tells other cultures and people of said cultures that they are nothing until the dominant culture says they are, robbing the original for the credit they deserve.
Americans who grow up in diverse communities may pick up the dialect, customs, and traditions of the cultural groups that surround them. Philadelphia as a “melting pot” city is a great example of this. From Chinatown, to South Street, to Mt. Airy, there are vastly different cultures associated with each are, yet they all roll into one big culture as Philadelphians. We can acknowledge that cultural exchange is not the same as cultural appropriation as people mutually share with each other. Systems like that usually bloom into something beautiful in the same way that blue and red make purple. What makes this different is that cultural exchange doesn’t have a systemic power dynamic. One identity is not overtaking another and therefore the presence of both identities are equal.
It is important to the individual to have presence and to have their own unique presence. No one wants to feel alone, just as much as nobody should feel like a direct copy of another. For this reason, no culture is ever exactly the same twenty, ten, five years into the future. It is constantly evolving with the individual identities it is made out of in a mutualistic agreement with all of them. Culture and identity is not an either or scenario. Culture feeds the identity, just as much as identity feeds the culture.
Griebel, Helen Bradley . “The African American Woman's Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols.” The African American Woman's Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols, char.txa.cornell.edu/griebel.htm.
Johnson, Maisha Z. “What's Wrong with Cultural Appropriation?” Everyday Feminism, 26 Oct. 2017, everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/.
“An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses.” âpihtawikosisân, 4 Aug. 2016, apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in-headdresses/.
Myron Lustig. Intercultural competence. Language Arts & Disciplines, 1993.
“Dictionary by Merriam-Webster: America's most-Trusted online dictionary.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/.