Australia, Cultural Appropriation and I

For Aphra Magazine: On November 14th, I got a call from conservative columnist Tim Blair while at dinner with work colleagues.

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On November 14th, I got a call from conservative columnist Tim Blair while at dinner with work colleagues. At the time I didn’t know it was Tim Blair or who he was, but I did know why he called. He ranted to me and engaged in a “conversation” in which he primarily talked without much response from me. Yet, here I was, on a phone to another media personality, all because of the cancellation of a party and the aftermath that threw me into the public eye and the prime target for Australian racism.

Rewinding the clock, earlier in the month I was elected to the position of Office Bearer for the University of Sydney’s Autonomous Collective Against Racism (ACAR), working with other People of Colour and Indigenous students in creating safe, racism-free environments in and around our campus. A few days later, I was elected to the Office of Ethnic Affairs at the University of Sydney’s Students’ Representative Council with my fellow ACAR Office Bearers and we were ready to take on the year and continue to promote anti-racist messages and ideas on campus.

Not two weeks later I was interviewed by University of Sydney newspaper Honi Soit about a planned end of year staff party the University was to hold with the dress code: “Mexican Fiesta – bring your ponchos and sombreros”. Having just assumed office, I had no idea what to say to them nor was I briefed on how to handle these circumstances (I didn’t even know there was a staff party happening), but I was pleased that the university had removed the theme. Naturally I saw the issue as something that would pass, as it was already resolved in every way and I was part of the groups that opposed the party.

That’s why it was strange when I got a call from Fairfax Media the very next day about the cancellation of the party. Somehow it was claimed that I singlehandedly stopped the party and was responsible for the whole affair. It was suggested that I had told University officials to remove the theme on the basis of racism, instead of reflecting the vitriol shared by all people on campus. Thankfully education editor Alexandra Smith was fair during my interview and expressed all my beliefs accurately in the article. The following day I was featured in a small article box on page 2 of the Sydney Morning Herald and I officially thought it was all over.

But alas, November 14 rolled along and I got calls from 2GB, the Daily Mail, 3aw, The Project and was bombarded by online hate on Facebook, Twitter and by email. I was accused of reverse racism, apartheid, hating Australia, being a communist, an attention seeker and a liar, while media and random people began investigating into my personal life and my ethnic background. Very quickly, the issue of cultural appropriation, the primary issue at the heart of the “Mexican Fiesta”, was ignored as the witch hunt began.

Cultural appropriation has been a long time issue in Western society but it hasn’t been recognized until lately. It refers to the adoption of elements by one culture by members of a different cultural group for aesthetics or other uses. The main issue with it is that these cultural elements are taken from the minority cultures by members of the dominant culture and use them outside of their original cultural context. This property includes forms of dress, music, art, social behaviour or intellectual property. Through extension, cultural appropriation is very much exploitation of a minority’s traditional and cultural objects.

Use of Mexican ponchos and sombreros are examples of this cultural misappropriation. Reducing their significance to a costume for use in a party, disregards the importance of its place in cultural traditions and beliefs. Unfortunately by trivializing these important parts of one’s culture, it takes it out of the context of traditions and removes its worth. A university party that asks its guests to wear traditional Mexican clothing for the sake of a costume neglects the significance or value to the community it has.

Much of the issue of cultural appropriation is that the dominant White culture is homogenous. Through colonization, White civilization have created a society that, in order to succeed, must be adhered to in every way, shape or form. In this, many Mexican people, and those from other cultures who have their own traditional clothing or cultural items, are urged to abandon them if they are to succeed in the Western world. This is why most People of Colour in the Western world abandon their cultural dress. However, it is then unbelievable when members of the dominant White culture take these traditional clothing that they have rejected, and use them as a costume for fun.

Understandably it was difficult to express this history of cultural misappropriation and oppression with the limited airtime I had in the media. Many times my words were twisted and many accused me of racism myself. In a number of cases, close friends and family were skeptical about my viewpoint and I was accused of being an attention seeker. But many missed the point. Cultural appropriation is a form of modern racism – complete disrespect for minority’s culture and tradition.

What happened on November 14th tested me in ways that I had never been tested before. Online hatred and verbal abuse on the street by the few who recognized me is a small fraction of the iron fist Australia threw when the reality of racism and cultural misappropriation came to the fore. But what I learnt in this time was the power of activism and how educating the public is of the utmost importance.

In the contemporary Australian landscape, the notion of activism is portrayed as a negative one, as is any attempt in changing the way people think. My personal experience allowed me to understand how social justice pioneers and thinkers are blurred out in the mainstream media and how Australia, at my times, refuses to acknowledge its faults and mistakes.

Originally published on Aphra Magazine, 30 April, 2015.


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