UB DifCon Series discusses cultural appropriation

Faculty, staff and students address cultural appropriation


UB faculty, staff and students came together to discuss and share different perspectives on cultural appropriation in the Student Union Tuesday night.

DifCon, or Difficult Conversations, is a discussion series sponsored by the Office of Inclusive Excellence, which aims to bring members of the UB community together to engage in constructive conversations about controversial societal issues. Tuesday’s event featured five panelists who presented their views on cultural appropriation: Allie Ambrosio, a health and human services major in the Social Sciences Interdisciplinary Degree Program; Paul Vanouse, an art professor and director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art; Reinhard Reitzenstein, an associate art professor; and Terri Budek, an associate director of the Intercultural and Diversity Center.

Teresa Miller, vice provost for Inclusive Excellence, moderated the discussion and started the evening with an overview of the historical origins of cultural appropriation. The term dates back to “histories of conquest,” according to Miller.

“It emerged as a Marxist concept of when a dominant class appropriates and defines the cultural heart of a subordinate class,” Miller said. “It is the sense of a relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in a way which the culture of the colonized gets drawn upon and used.”

Budek recalled a story of an African-American student, who talked to her about being told at a job interview that she had to make her hair look more presentable. The student had previously used chemicals to straighten her hair before deciding to switch back to her natural hair.

“Thinking about systems that exist in our society, some see it as a problem of the privileged in different ways doing something that marginalized groups have been oppressed for, and then claim it as being okay because it has become the new trend,” Budek said.

Participants brought up Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial and its representation of minorities as an example of cultural appropriation in popular culture.

Miller feels cultural appropriation is “etched into” today’s society, including college campuses. For example, UB Campus Dining & Shops recently received a complaint from a student who felt UB’s dining centers were appropriating Asian culture, according to Miller. The student felt Asian dishes served in the dining halls are prepared in a way that misrepresents Asian culture and the significance of Asian cuisine.

Ambrosio, the only student on the panel, spoke about how cultural appropriation impacts her daily life; namely Halloween costumes that misrepresent Native American culture.

“Pocahontas costumes, especially during Halloween, represent Native American cultures as a whole whereas there are more than 500 different ones in the states,” Ambrosio said. “That alone is not representation, as it works to erase our rich diverse cultures although they are very much alive.”

Hugo Fernandez, a junior psychology major, spoke about how his fraternity planned a “cowboys and Indians” themed Halloween party. Fernandez felt this theme was disrespectful. He researched the concept online to show his fraternity brothers how some people could be personally offended by the theme.

Miller concluded the discussion by urging everyone in attendance to go back to their homes to think about the things that could potentially offend someone just as Fernandez did.

“Thinking about the narratives of others is the first step we can take to show our empathy to others,” Miller said. “It feeds our empathy but also helps us understand each other better, and that’s what tonight was all about.”

Anna Savchenko is a staff writer and can be reached at news@ubspectrum.com