Christmas Day, 2008. I rush down to the tree, blindly shuffling my hands underneath with hopes of unearthing a present. Victorious, I stand up with my gift and open the attached letter. Santa — it’s from Santa! But wait — Santa’s advice that I “need be better girl” and “listen to mom directions” or else I would receive “no presents more” sounds too familiar …
Impersonating Santa was not the only hardship my mother experienced after moving to the United States. As I grew older, I became less and less blind to the constant stigmatization that my parents faced in society, due in no small part to their language barrier. Waitstaff at restaurants, the clearly-at-fault party in a car accident, stereotype-ridden jokes and impersonations on TV all brushed off my parents as unimportant and unvalued.
I, on the other hand, having learned early on to feel embarrassed about being Korean, begged my parents to pack peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and learned to effortlessly roll American expressions such as “blending in with the crowd” off my tongue, leaving my ethnic roots to be trampled by the same countless feet that constantly stepped on my parents.
When I face these moments of daily open condescension directed at my parents, I think back to the first time I read Santa’s letter with an enlightened eye, and I reflect on the immense effort my parents put forth to bridge our family’s cultural gap. And so I translate at restaurants, explain jokes and cultural references on TV, and step in to stand up for my parents when they can’t.
These efforts taken by my family and other minority groups to assimilate into the dominant culture within a society point to a larger problem of social, political and economic power. The unconscious subtle act of suppressing one’s minority culture through targeted questions, such as “Do you speak English?” or even statements like “You speak English really well,” highlights a bigger issue of cultural appropriation, assimilation and appreciation.
Cultural appropriation refers to the selection of certain aspects of a culture for a trend while trivializing and disregarding the significance and original purpose. Cultural appreciation occurs when a culture is honored, respected and explored in order to gain further knowledge and understanding. In a cultural exchange, people mutually share their cultures with each other; in cultural appropriation, there is a power dynamic factor involved, as the dominant group takes elements from a culture of people who have been oppressed by said group. Cultural exchange, thus, is not the same as cultural appropriation, because it lacks the component of the systemic power dynamic. Assimilation is also not the same as cultural appropriation or cultural exchange, because assimilation occurs when minority cultures are forced to take on certain aspects of a dominant culture in order to fit in, not stand out.
Assimilation is done to avoid discrimination and to survive, just as my parents and I tried to do in order to “fit into” American society. The members of minority cultures who assimilate certain aspects of their culture to fit more in line with the dominant culture do so in order to avoid being discriminated against even more by the dominant group. These people often do not get the freedom to decide whether they would prefer to remain with their culture or adopt the dominant culture, thus not making it the same as cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is a problem; cultural appreciation and cultural exchange are not. Cultural appropriation exacerbates an issue of systemic oppression against people of the nondominant culture. It takes the credit away from the people of the original culture (an example would be Black women getting shamed in the media for their natural hair, while white women are praised as “trendsetters” for copying the same styles). It enforces stereotypes for which the negative consequences only fall on the minority culture, while the dominant group gets to enjoy the benefits. In addition, cultural appropriation trivializes an entire history of violent oppression in which a minority culture has been the victim of slavery, colonization, genocide, etc., which in turn trivializes the resulting trauma that can affect generations of people.
By allowing cultural appropriation to run unchecked, you not only become an irresponsible global citizen, but you are prioritizing the emotions of privileged people over justice for minority groups. You become complicit to an institutional system of oppression against marginalized people, and you are helping to erase their cultures.
Santa Claus began my childhood and ended it. Although he may not be real, he taught me about perceptions more meaningful than Christmas spirit and the fear of coal. Santa’s — or rather, my parents’— greatest gift to me was the beginning of a long journey to realign and act on my morals, which serve as a true reflection of my identity.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected].