Cultural Appropriation Fueled by Media

African American culture is not just for black people alone to enjoy and cherish. Culture is for everybody. But there’s a distinction between appreciating a culture and appropriating it.

-Spike Lee

This quote was found on http://www.thedashingfellows.com/when-is-cultural-appropriation-cultural-appropriation/5490

In our increasingly interconnected global world it has become almost impossible to avoid cultural appropriation.  But cultural appropriation is intensified by mass media.  We can consume cultures through media without the risk and benefit of actually experiencing them in person.  If I am interested in a culture on the other side of the world I do not have to have money or time to travel, I can watch movies from that culture, go on the internet to get information, and consume stuff (products) that come from within that culture.  This is great for consumerism and the economy however we lose the cultural meaning of items, situations, and events by consuming them through the filter of the media.  In this post I want to talk about two types of media that can be used to intensify and avoid cultural appropriation.  First we will discuss entertainment media, namely movies.  And second we will discuss online media (especially social media).

Movies are such an important medium of sharing information and understanding the world.  Even though a lot of movies are superficial and do not seem to be giving the audience anything real and substantial, most movies help us to understand people and situations that we either are not familiar or those that we can relate to.   We use the information that we gather from movies (subtle suggestions, situations, imagery) to understand the world around us.  (In media studies these ideas fall under the umbrella of social cognitive theories.)  In movies we often see characters of different ethnicities, nationalities, etc. who’s parts have been written by cultural outsiders.  Oftentimes cultural symbols, styles of dress, etc. are used in generic ways that do not grasp the importance or significance they may hold for that group.  And even more importantly for movies we have to understand that they often reproduce and reinforce stereotypes about groups that are far from accurate.  These generalizations foster prejudice, discrimination, and conflict.  However it can be simple to avoid the overconsumption of these dangerous generalizations and stereotypes.  Here are some quick easy tips you can use to avoid cultural appropriation in movies:

  1. Do not take everything at face value.  (Read between the lines.)
  2. Do some quick research and educate yourself.  (Who is the Producer? Director? Writer?  Do they really know anything about this culture?  Did they use any experts to consult?)
  3. Avoid applying what you see in the movies to everyday life.  (For example: Just because Italians are mobsters in 9 out of 10 movies does not mean that all (or even most) Italians are connected to the mob.)

The second form of media that we are going to talk about is online media.  The internet is such an important part of our modern lives.  (Obviously since we are communicating with you all through a blog!!)  I often see an item (a bracelet for example) online that comes from a different culture and I want to purchase it.  But I stop and think, what is this?  Does this bracelet have a meaning or a history that I should know before I purchase it?  Who or what am I supporting when I buy this item?  And I can get the answers I want with a click of a button.  We have access to so much information; some of it is reliable and some of it is not.  We can learn so much about different cultures through the amazing power of the internet.  Not only that we have the opportunity to purchase things from around the world.  But do we know what we are purchasing, the history behind the item, or the meaning it may have?  One of the biggest downfalls about using the internet is that you cannot always be sure if the information you are reading is accurate and unbiased.  Online media can be a great source of education, there is a vast wealth of information and it is generally free to access.  There are ways of ensuring that the information you access online is reliable, here are some tips:

  1. Find out who the author is. (Read their bio and do some research.  Do they have any biases towards the information being presented?  Are they an expert or professional or just someone who decided to post on the internet?)
  2. Try to find websites and blogs that are affiliated with reputable sources. (Universities, professional journals, major Non-Profit Organizations, etc.)  This may not eliminate bias but at least you have someone who has to be slightly accountable for what they are writing.
  3. Check multiple sources to confirm information.
  4. Use social media sites (FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr, Blogs, etc.) to actually get to know people from around the world.  Thanks to all of this constant streaming personal information we all have the opportunity to get a glimpse of the perspectives of cultural insiders without having to travel.

What we all should take from this is that we consume images and information from exposure to media and it is impossible to distance ourselves from it because our fast paced consumerist world is driven by our constant exposure to media.  What we can do is begin to question the accuracy and intentions of what we are exposed to on a daily basis. We can all begin to discuss what these things mean and how we can begin to move away from the commodification of culture.  We do not have to reduce the value of an item or work of art to dollars.  These things should have cultural and interpersonal value as well.  The purchaser of an item or the audience of a movie does not have to be disconnected from the cultural significance of it.

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