Fun in the Sun Friday was the final day of Spirit Week for the 2016-2017 school year, but it didn’t end up being very fun for many people.
Quite a few students came in that day wearing “traditional” Hawaiian apparel, such as leis, luaus, and grass hula skirts. In response, plain posters with text on them were put up in the school’s staircases. They included phrases such as “Hawaiian culture is not your theme” and “Hawaiian culture is not your costume.” Rather than sparking a conversation, the posters ended up creating controversy and exposing deeply contrasting viewpoints. Generally, students that had come in wearing these items felt personally victimized and targeted, and maintained that their outfits were harmless and not at all an instance of cultural appropriation. This raised debate throughout the school about what does or doesn’t constitute cultural appropriation, a phrase which many people understand differently, and the moral values of which are fairly complicated and debated on by anthropologists and sociologists alike.
First, there needs to be an understanding of what the term “cultural appropriation” implies. The word “appropriation” has traditionally been used as a synonym for institutional or widespread theft. The cultural aspect of this has normally been defined as when “members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” In the case of Fun In the Sun Friday, the dominant culture would be mainland American culture, while the oppressed culture would be native Hawaiian culture. It’s important to distinguish the two, given Hawaii’s history.
Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1900 and served as a naval base. Prior to that, though, it was visited by American missionaries and sugar planters, who had established a constitutional monarchy there in 1840, stripping the Hawaiian monarch of much of his authority within his own land. These missionaries and planters brought about many economic and cultural changes, one of the most significant of which was the suppression of Hawaiian culture. Under U.S. policy, the use of the native Hawaiian language in both public and private schools in Hawaii was banned in 1896, which has resulted in multiple generations of Hawaiians growing up without knowing their own language, instead being forced to learn and speak English. Similarly, Christian missionaries in Hawaii ensured that the Christian religion was practiced and enforced. Thus, two very important pillars of Hawaiian culture, language and religion, were diminished. By 1959, after almost 60 years of being under the possession of the United States without having a say in their own government, Hawaiians voted by a wide majority to accept admittance into the United States, thus becoming the 50th, and currently final, state. Almost immediately after this, Hawaii started undergoing rapid urbanization, causing many native Hawaiians to be evicted from their land. The state of Hawaii has also become a major source of tourism, which has resulted in many aspects of Hawaiian culture, which hold great cultural significance for Hawaiians, such as leis, luaus, and grass hula skirts, in being widely commercialized, thus turning Hawaiian culture into a source of profit. Many Hawaiians have found this to be greatly offensive, especially given that they were prevented from practicing their culture by their colonizers, the United States, for so long.
That being said, there seems to be a fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation, the latter being “when one respects a culture enough to take the time to learn about it, interact with the culture, and adapt some aspects of those culture, with the hopes of ultimately better understanding and appreciating it.” This raises the point of cultural segregation. Without the constant interchange of cultures and ideas through cultural diffusion, there arises a level of worldwide cultural stagnation and segregation, and that could end up leading to a world where xenophobia and nationalism run even more rampant than they already do. However, there does need to exist a level of cultural awareness and understanding so that we as a global society we can avoid the stereotyping of oppressed cultures, which means we need to start having more open discussions and debates about topics such as cultural appropriation, and we need to work to be more informed and aware of other people’s viewpoints and ideas in order to one day live in a multicultural, melting pot of a world.