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Setting the Record Straight: Cultural Appropriation

By: Christina Lee

The next time I sit down on a chair, I should think about “cultural appropriation.”

That’s the message writer Bari Weiss relays in her 2017 op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation.”

Weiss misses the point in some spots, failing to examine the impact of colonialism, i.e. the inherent power play that does exist within the broad concept of “cultural appropriation,” and claiming that cultural appropriation is what “makes America great” in an eerie echo of hackneyed Trump-isms. Nonetheless, the takeaway that “cultural appropriation” is everywhere, even in the chair I’m sitting on, may seem far-fetched, but it’s essentially an idea that has shaken my worldview ever since, making myself doubt my own stance toward this hot, new term “cultural appropriation” and what it really means for someone bicultural like me to grapple with the ways people are abusing this new phrase.

In her article, Weiss writes that cultural appropriation “is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism—the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones”. To discuss the term as it’s commonly abused especially by young, outspoken social media users today, I would have to say that Weiss has a point: American singer Jessye Norman specializes in the Italian opera and performs pieces written by German composer Richard Wagner; one of the most popular Greek yogurt companies is run by a Kurd born in Turkey who now lives in America; and as for me, Koreans rarely used chairs until they were most likely introduced to them via foreign nomadic tribes who had already made use of stools. This exchange and adoption of various cultures into our own lives is inevitable.

With the prevalence of social media and online communication today, we’ve created an environment in which we learn to empathize with, gain awareness of, and implement new ideas faster than ever, and it’s only appropriate that we have learned to do so considering the abundance of resources at our disposal. However, the consequence emerges where these “advocates” begin to misuse their newfound power, wielding their social media accounts as a weapon to present their indignantly self-righteous cries for restoring justice in niche spaces, only to validate their self-created sense of virtue.

These are the people who blur the lines between assimilation, cross-cultural exchange, Weiss’s so-called “syncretism,” and true cultural appropriation that suggests actually harmful notions of racism, colonialism, and discrimination in the given context (e.g. naming an American sports team “Redskins,” a white individual donning Afrocentric hairstyles without facing the same consequences in the workplace). In that same sense, before examining the dangers of misusing the term “cultural appropriation,” it’s crucial to establish that nuances to this discussion indeed exist. Specifically, this issue extends to the implications of white privilege and the hypocrisy of a dominant culture misrepresenting and exploiting the cultures of ethnic groups that have been systematically discriminated against throughout history. Essentially, context matters. In the United States, where issues surrounding race have continuously marred the country, it’s important to note that “cultural appropriation” can quickly escalate into a denial of an entire ethnic group’s past struggles, the establishment of imperialist sentiments, and blatant racism.

But in examining the pros and cons of being aware of “cultural appropriation” as it’s thrown around these days, it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives.

Following the “logic” of some of these advocates of cultural appropriation’s dangers, I should have been considered guilty of appropriating culture—I’ve been copying and using the cultural items valuable to these nomadic tribes without knowing about their origins because I literally Googled the history of a chair just to write this article.

In this same manner,  the commonly misunderstood version of cultural appropriation results in a slippery-slope argument that could leave me posing endless examples: white people shouldn’t listen to R&B, jazz, or even rock music—if they don’t know the comprehensive history behind these music genres, starting from where and when they originated, their characteristics, and key figures, they should probably just stick to Bach or Mozart.

I exaggerate, but that’s essentially the dangerously flawed message that these advocates portray. These same advocates choose not to speak out so vocally about the exploitation of slaves who worked in unimaginable conditions in salt ponds during the 1800s whenever they pick up a container of salt to season their food, and these same people indulge in music genres that, surprise, have been appropriating the sounds that originates within cultures of people of color.

Perhaps we’re just picking and choosing our own battles for our own convenience and self-conceited sense of righteousness and entitlement without acknowledging the hypocrisy of our flawed logic.

A lurking sense of discomfort emerges whenever someone points out an instance of “cultural appropriation” and calls for the restoration of that particular cultural practice or item to its original place in a context that doesn’t hint at racist and imperialist sentiment. Realistically, the idea of “exoticism” and “otherness” is perpetuated instead, where we enforce the concept that whatever seems foreign and unfamiliar should remain foreign and unfamiliar. In adopting this mentality, we stray further from learning about other cultures and growing closer to them in a healthy way that encourages the unification of people rather than division. Let’s be honest: deeming other cultures “exotic” is frankly outdated. But with these mindless performances of gatekeeping, the discouraging sentiment surrounding the integration and possibility of approaching various cultures evokes the imagery of the past, of segregation, of exoticism, and of discrimination.

Would I be offended if I saw any person who wasn’t Korean wearing hanbok? Probably not. But then again, I’m in no position to speak on the behalf of an entire culture and its people when I myself am a combination of countless cultures integrating and influencing one another.

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The Truth Behind Instagram Account @feminist

By: Cecilia Nguyen

This story was initially reported by Sam Sedlack (@samsedlackcreative) on Medium for Slay The Patriarchy in 2018. At the time of writing this article, Sedlack’s article was used as a source. However, that original article has since been taken down. It has been put back up as of Dec. 9, 2020 on Sedlack’s website. All links that referred to the article on Medium will now refer to this one. 

In a movement that strives to uplift, empower, and encourage women to challenge and fight against systemic inequalities in place, it’s disgusting and disheartening to see two white men profit off of their “activism” under the pretenses of being feminists, while not actually doing meaningful activist work and taking up space from women who do. Not to say that men can’t be feminists, but here’s how not to do it.

The Instagram account @feminist has reached over 5 million followers and is run by two businessmen, Jacob Castaldi and Tanner Sweitzer, Founder and Director of Social Media, respectively, of Contagious Creative, a social-driven agency “responsible for creating and managing a network of over 10,000,000 followers of Instagram communities.” Some other large activist accounts run by Sweitzer and Castaldi include @chnge, @march and @itsfeminism, which can often be seen being promoted in posts across their accounts, expanding their influence within the political sphere on Instagram. They treat these accounts (and their activism) as a business, focused on gaining a mass following and using their publicity to discreetly market their sustainable clothing company CHNGE, where Castaldi is the Founder and Sweitzer is the Chief Marketing Officer.

CHNGE donates 50% of their net profits to charitable organizations and has donated over $200,000 for the Black Lives Matter movement and $250,000 to other organizations. I am not trying to minimize their contribution in any way; Castaldi and Sweitzer are doing more than most fashion brands. But the way they publicize CHNGE on all of their “social activism” accounts, including @feminist, without any discretion that they are run by the same group of people, makes me question the morals and ethics behind it all.

@Feminist is at the forefront of social media activism accounts, but it truly does the bare minimum. Its feed consists of curated content from activists, artists, politicians, celebrities, and everyone in between in the form of graphics, photos, videos, memes, and Twitter threads. The page uses works of marginalized folk for their Instagram content, reposts them verbatim and then makes a profit (both influential and monetary) from its huge following and engagement. In one instance, CHNGE reached out to photographer Lauren (@_portraitmami) and Sancho (@sancho.smalls) after seeing their work in hopes of collaborating on a campaign highlighting LGBTQ couples within the Black community. When asked about compensation and making the collaboration a paid opportunity for the two, CHNGE did not respond.

It has also been said that CHNGE has used “paid media shares” to promote their account, attesting that even Instagram is profiting off these accounts. The original creators and activists don’t receive any compensation. The account is constantly branding themselves by putting their handle on their posts and stories, despite not owning most of them. With the amount of content they repost, it’s questionable if giving credit is enough. Behind the scenes, are they asking permission to repost content?

If you look closely, a majority of their posts are surface-level (skin-deep, if you will). They post empowering quotes and body-positive photos here and there and call it a day. Their “feminism” is shallow, trivial and hardly intersectional. Don’t get me wrong, I also find some body-positive images incredibly moving, but when it makes up half of the account’s grid, it gives the message that feminism is solely focused on how women should perceive their bodies. There are deeper issues that the account can also spread awareness about– child brides, femicide, and maternal mortality rates among women of color just to name a few. 

Sweitzer and Castaldi don’t care about feminism. They care about expanding their brand. Even something as small as their redundant, minimal, or non-existent captions are a clear indicator. With the handle @feminist, the account needs to use their platform to spread awareness about… you guessed it: feminism, and in its entirety. They need to educate about all feminist issues, support and uplift womxn of color, and actually add to the discourse about the movement to truly be called an activist account (if they even care to). 

Instead, the account is used as a marketing tool. The lack of moderation within their comments despite the abundance of hate and trolls the account often receives shows they welcome all and any types of traffic and engagement, as long as it gets people to their account. For those looking for a safe and empowering place, you will only be met with backlash and negativity within the first few comments. The more likes, comments, shares, and follows @feminist gets, the higher the chances a user will also end up following their other accounts unknowingly. And it will most likely be @chnge because of its frequent promotion and mentions; from there, the consumer will probably make a purchase from the company, and the cycle starts again.

I do believe that @feminist provides relatively educational and pallatable information and is a good start for those who don’t know where to start with their activism, but it shouldn’t stop there, and it definitely shouldn’t be your only source. Instead, try to follow actual activists or accounts that amplify marginalized voices. Some of my favorites are @rachel.cargle, @domrobxrts, @chimamanda_adichie, @blairimani, @jordanrisa, and @chellaman.

Whether you unfollow @feminist and any of their other affiliated accounts or not, that’s entirely your discretion, but at the very least, you deserve to know the truth. And it’s not just @feminism; there are thousands of accounts like @feminist on Instagram that post the same content with similar formats, and it would be impossible to target all of them. With social media activism at an all time high, it’s important for us to check our sources, do additional research in addition to what we see on Instagram or Twitter, and hold entities accountable for their performative activism. With @feminist, it’s the lack of transparency, performative activism, and capitalization of the feminist movement for me.

More additional information: https://medium.com/@SlayyPatriarchy/feminist-story-c1cec5ea1c30. [This page is no longer available. Please head to https://samsedlackcreative.com/2018/12/06/2167/]


Since this article went viral on Monday, December 7, @feminist has deleted over 1,300 posts from their feed. Below are screenshots of posts from November 9 and December 2 advertising @CHNGE, but they have since been deleted. 

Many more accounts have been linked to Contagious Creative including @activismfuckyeah and @feminist.lisa. For more information, please visit Talking Circle London’s Instagram post: https://www.instagram.com/p/CIh8R0HnZqY/

This article was updated at 6:53 p.m. PST on Dec. 8 to include screenshots, a link connecting Contagious Creative to CHNGE, and additional information/resources. The exchange between CHNGE and Lauren and Sancho was also added. 

This article was updated at 6:55 p.m. PST on Dec. 9 to include attribution to Sam Sedlack. Previous links referring to the Medium article were also updated.