Hoop Appropriation

Pitzer College in California was the recent victim of cultural appropriation shaming.  A group of Latino students was responsible for graffiti painted on the wall of a campus dormitory that made it clear how they felt about what they felt was cultural appropriation.

The Latino students believe that hoop earrings are part of their heritage and as such, white students should not be wearing hoop earrings.  Ever.

I guess no one told these outraged students that hoops have been around for hundreds of years.  Even William Shakespeare wrote of hoops of steel in Act 1, Scene 3 of “Hamlet.”  I suppose the argument could be made that Shakespeare heard about hoops of steel from explorers to the New World upon their return to England if someone cares to make that argument.

Except that even with excluding Shakespeare from the discussion, there are going to be problems justifying how hoops – and most specifically hoop earrings – are the sole property of the Latino culture.

Hoop earrings are found in ancient Rome and ancient Greece.   The earliest archaeological evidence that exists when it comes to hoop earrings date back to Sumeria and 2500 B.C.

It’s doubtful that Sumerians traveled to this continent, saw hoop earrings on women over here, then journeyed back to Sumeria just so they could appropriate culture in the name of being fashionable.

NOTE 1:  According to archaeologists, Sumeria is the name given the historical region of southern Mesopotamia which is now modern-day southern Iraq.

NOTE 2:  Sumerians also were among the first to brew beer so technically speaking, brewers in Europe and North America might be guilty of cultural appropriation as well.

Native American Indians also had a sport with varying rules that incorporated a hoop.  A hoop three inches to a foot in diameter was rolled along the ground and players tried to knock it over with spears or arrows.  Points were scored by how the hoop fell when it was struck down.

And in many cultures, circles – or hoops – have been a part of their identity outside of the concept of jewelry.   You see, the sacred hoop (sometimes referred to as the circle of life) is something that many cultures have at the center of their teachings.

But more importantly, the world is one great big hoop.  So are the other planets.  These planets travel in hoops be they round or oval or elliptical.  The wind whirls about in hoop shapes.  Water drains in hoop shapes.  The seasons form a hoop as they move from one to the other and return to the beginning of the cycle — a never-ending hoop the cycles endlessly through the years.

In the end, hoops belong to us all whether it’s a matter of spirituality or a matter of fashion, don’t you think?

Elyse Bruce








The Coin Conundrum

When it comes to determining what constitutes an Asian-American, the U.S. Census Bureau provided an accurate picture thanks to the 2010 Census.   Asian-Americans were those Americans who were either immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

  • 2% are Chinese-American
  • 7% are Filipino-American
  • 4% are East Indian-American
  • 0% are Vietnamese-American
  • 9% are Korean-American
  • 5% are Japanese-American
  • 3% are of some other variation Asia-American

It’s an insult to insist that those from one group have the same physical features as those from any or all of the other groups.  And yet, CBS News reported on January 13, 2017 that the U.S. Treasury Department is issuing a commemorative coin series honoring the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Mint with a twist.  According to CBS News, the coins will depict Lady Liberty in a “variety of contemporary forms” and these forms would include “designs representing Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Indian-Americans among others.”

The images on these coins will be representative of cultural groups as opposed to being images of individuals as was the case with the Susan B. Anthony dollar or the Sacagawea dollar or the Helen Keller quarter in Alabama or the Eleanor and Virginia Dare half-dollar in North Carolina.  The images proposed for the Lady Liberty coins are generalized images of individuals from groups that are defined by their heritage … more or less.

More or less because the Chinese are as different from the Japanese as the Australians are different from Canadians.  Is it offensive to create a generalized stereotyped image of an Asian-American Lady Liberty and place that generalized stereotyped image on a coin from the U.S. Treasury Department?

And which culture will be excluded from the Asian-American Lady Liberty coin?  After all, she can’t be representative of all Asian cultures all at once, can she?  That being the case, which Asian-American groups will be excluded to make way for the Asian-American groups to be included?

Of the one or more Asian-American groups excluded, will this not be segregation?  The flip side of this coin is that of the one or more Asian-American groups included, won’t they suffer cultural appropriation?

Imagine the uproar when the Hispanic-American coin hits the marketplace.  After all, the U.S. Census Bureau has determined that a Hispanic is “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”  As a side note, did you know that Portugal is part of that other Spanish culture mentioned?  Awesome!

Also, don’t forget that the Western Sahara, the Philippines, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, and Micronesia are all areas with Hispanic cultural influences so that might be another thing that could be considered when creating this coin image. There’s going to be a lot of excluded people with hurt feelings, and a lot of angry included people with watered down culture made to fit a generalized stereotype that fits the overall population’s image of what a Hispanic-American Lady Liberty is supposed to look like!

As if that’s not going to be bad enough, that Native American Indian Lady Liberty is going to be a doozie to come up with considering there are 566 Federally recognized Native American Indian tribes in the United States.  As with the other hyphenated-American groups, that generalized stereotype Indian image is going to be a hotbed of problems when Indigenous Lady Liberty gets minted.

Perhaps a subscriber or visitor to the blog has suggestions that will resolve this conundrum.

Elyse Bruce

Melting Pot or Puzzle Pieces

America is thought of as a melting pot by many but perhaps it’s more of a jigsaw puzzle with specific pieces being withheld by some making it impossible to create a complete picture.  If cultural appropriation is to be stopped dead in its tracks, it has to be a complete effort.  It cannot be a solution that is only applied in part when convenient.

If America is to wipe out cultural appropriation completely, perhaps it’s best to begin with the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

First off, the word people has to be removed.  Although it’s a Middle English word, it’s from the Anglo-Norman French word peupel which is from the Latin word populus.  Strike people from the preamble.

Union has to be removed as well.  Although it’s a 15th century Middle English word, it’s from the 12th century Anglo-Norman French word unioun which, in turn, is from the ecclesiastical Latin word unio which is from the Latin word unus meaning one.  Strike union from the preamble.

Don’t worry though.  As long as justice passes the test, the preamble is still workable.  Good news, readers!  Justice is from the 12th century English.  Bad news, readers!  It’s from the Old French word justice (spelled as it’s spelled in English) which, of course, is from the Latin word iustus.  Strike Justice.

Surely tranquility will make the grade.  Except that this word was added to the English language in the late 14th century and was from the 12th century Old French word tranquilité which is from the Latin word tranquillitatem so scratch tranquility from the preamble while we’re at it.

Defense was English in the 13th century but it’s from the Old French word defense (spelled the same way as in English), and that’s from the Latin word defensus and well, there’s no way it can be said to be English.  It just isn’t.

So far, we’re not doing very well with making sure only English words are being used in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America.  Surely welfare is English through and through though.  And finally, we have a word that’s English from the Old English term wel faran that means “the condition of being, or doing, well.”  Okay, so Welfare gets to stay in the preamble.

Blessings is up next, and yes, the preamble gets to keep blessings as it’s an Old English word from the mid-14th century.  Thank goodness for that!  That makes for two words that get to stay in the preamble.

Unfortunately, liberty is out (sorry Lady Liberty and the Statue of Liberty).  While liberty shows up in English by the late 14th century, it was by way of the 14th century Old French word liberté and like so many other French words, its harks back to the Latin word libertatemLiberty is out.

Posterity.  Maybe posterity can join welfare and blessings in the preamble without worry of being from another language.

This isn’t going very well for the English language at all, no matter how you slice it.

The English word posterity is from the late 14th century by way of the 14th century Old French word posterité which is from the Latin word posteritatem.  We’ll have to remove posterity from the preamble now as we continue to sanitize the sentence.

Hopefully the Constitution can still ordain and establish without worry of appropriating some other culture’s words for this.

And the answer is no.  No it can’t.  The Constitution can neither ordain nor establishOrdain from the late 13th century is from the Latin word ordinare by way of the Old French word ordener, and establish is from the Old French word establiss which is an updated version of the Latin word stabilire.

This isn’t looking very good for the first sentence in the Constitution’s preamble, is it?

And speaking of the Constitution, things aren’t looking very good for the word Constitution either.  Yes, it was a word in the English language in the 14th century but it’s thanks to the 12th century Old French word constitucion, and with the French words that have been the basis for English words, it also goes right back to a Latin word.  This time, the word is constitutio.

Before we go any further, I suppose that the first word of that sentence should also undergo scrutiny since it is a very important first word.  We sounds English but if you think it’s English, start to finish, you’d be mistaken.  Some might try to slip it past the etymology magnifying glass by saying the word is from an Old Saxon word wi and by way of justification, since Anglo-Saxons are English for the most part, then the word is English.

Sorry but the Saxons were a Germanic people.  Yes, it’s true that Saxons moved westward into Wales and England, but the fact of the matter remains they were Germanic first and foremost, and they brought the word wi (pronounced the way the word we is pronounced today) with them to England.  That means we has to be pulled as well.

So let’s take a look at that first sentence in the preamble of the Constitution (Americans will have to find a new word for that) of the United States.  Let’s remove the important words that aren’t English then, shall we?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The United States, promote the general Welfare, and secure Blessings, for the United States of America.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.  The first sentence in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, once stripped of words that are originally from other languages and cultures, reads like a poorly written greeting card.

Suggestions for how this unfortunate situation should be addressed are welcome.  After all, if we don’t want to be segregationist and we don’t want to be accused of cultural appropriation, how should society deal with the first sentence in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States of America?  Do we, as a society, give the preamble a pass, or do we insist that all signs of cultural appropriation be scrubbed from this important document?

Elyse Bruce

Segregation and Appropriation

People self-segregate because it’s a natural reaction to one’s material and non-material culture.  World views, mindsets, race, class, sexual orientation, and more have always been the basis for human self-segregation.  When a group of people share common interests and values, the tendency is to self-segregate.  Another way to describe this behavior is to say that people form cliques.

Don’t just take my word on this.  Sociology researchers Siwei Cheng and Yu Xie at the University of Michigan conducted a study that proved that when choosing friends, humans usually establish close friendships with those of a similar racial background.  It’s just how we are regardless of our ethnicity.

What does this mean when it comes to cultural appropriation?

It means that we, as humans, have created a situation where none of us can win.  If we keep to ourselves and reject all cultural appropriation, we are segregationists.  If we blend other cultures into our own, we are integrationists and guilty of cultural appropriation.

That’s quite the kettle of fish, wouldn’t you say?

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Kettle of fish is an idiom that originated in Britain and dates back to 1735.

If we are not completely segregationist (which is offensive to society), we are guilty of cultural appropriation (which is offensive to society).  In many respects, the situation is not unlike the oft-quoted double-edged question for which there is no answer, “Do you still beat your wife and children?”

Perhaps the answer is in adhering to a set of guidelines that clearly define what is acceptable cultural appropriation versus unacceptable cultural appropriation, as determined by the majority from which the culture is being appropriated.

Of course, this would require a further splintering and segregating of people for the purpose of ensuring that each group’s voice would be heard and respected.   The problem with this lies with those who are of mixed cultural backgrounds which constitutes the vast majority of people, especially in America.

What about Americans who are naturalized citizens?  Do they get a say in what is and isn’t cultural appropriation when it comes to the culture into which they were born but not about American culture?  Or do they get not say in either the culture into which they were born and the culture they chose?

What about first or second or even tenth generation Americans?  Do they get a say in what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, not only from an American perspective but also from the perspective of the multiple ancestries that may be part of their heritage?

What about those who are hyphenated Americans?  Would they get to speak for two cultures and two cultures only?

And what happens if a common ground for each culture isn’t arrived at in a timely fashion?  Who then decides what is and isn’t cultural appropriation?

With such a complex situation to resolve, an answer will only be found by way of respectful dialogue.  What are your thoughts on this matter?  How would you address the issue of segregation and appropriation?

Elyse Bruce

Cultural Appropriation Cuts Both Ways

Last week, the focus was on cultural appropriation and society from the perspective of the majority raiding the non-material culture of minorities.  This week, the shoe is on the other foot as cultural appropriation isn’t a one way street.

The video from “The Midnight Special” from 1974 shows Redbone performing their hit song “Come And Get Your Love.”  It was a song that climbed the charts all the way to #5, and stayed on the charts long enough to be certified Gold (it sold over half a million copies) because it was catchy and fun.  The band members were Native American Indians, and the New York Smithsonian Institution accredited the group as being the first Native American Indian rock group to have an international hit.


The song made its way back up the Billboard charts in 2014 when it was featured in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie.


The year after that, Netflix used the song as the intro theme for the cartoon series, “F is for Family.”


The song has legs obviously, with as much audience appeal forty years after its release as the day it first hit the airwaves.  But forty years later, there seems to be some cultural appropriation issues with the song.

Redbone’s song lyrics referenced Cajun and New Orleans culture but the founding brothers, Patrick and Lolly Vasquez-Vegas were a mix of Yaqui, Shoshone, and Mexican heritage.  The band was known for playing rock music, R&B, blue-eyed soul, funk, and country as well as tribal music.  There’s no denying that R&B and blue-eyed soul are definitely not from any Native American Indian culture.  And funk, rock, and country music is associated with cultures other than Indigenous cultures.

But wait a minute!  Guitars – acoustic or electric — aren’t traditional Native American Indian instruments!

The first acoustic guitar as we know it was built in 1850 by Spanish guitarist and luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (13 June 1817 – 19 November 1892), based on a design by note Spanish guitar maker Joséf Pagés (1740 – 1822) and Spanish luthier Josef Sebastián Benedid Díaz (10 February 1760 – 20 October 1836).  The guitar had a body that was now able to hold its own with an orchestra without being lost in the other instruments.  Europeans went wild for guitars!

Electric guitars had their humble beginnings at the heart of electromagnetic induction which was discovered by English scientist Michael Faraday (22 September 1791 – 25 August 1867) on August 29, 1831.

By 1919, magazine ads began to appear, offering devices that would amplify instruments, and then came American jazz, country, and blues guitarist and songwriter Lester William Polsfuss, better known as Les Paul (9 June 1915 – 12 August 2009) and American inventor Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender (10 August 1909 – 21 March 1991) who created the electric guitar as we know it today.

Now Les Paul’s ancestry is German thanks to both parents, and Leo Fender’s family is American going back to his great-great-great-great-grandparents.  That being said, the generation before that was from Baden-Wuerttemberg (Germany) and Cumberland (England) and Bethnal Green, Stepney, County Middlesex (England).

The argument can be made that Redbone’s success was due in part to the cultural appropriation of guitars which are obviously part of the English, Spanish, and German cultures.

Some will argue that fiddles were instruments of the Inuit and the Apache however fiddles only appeared after Indigenous peoples had contact with Europeans so it would seem that this may be a case of cultural appropriation.  But even if it’s argued that fiddles are Indigenous instruments, they aren’t guitars, and they aren’t played the way guitars are played.  This means that guitars are definitely not Native American Indian instruments.

Since we know from last weeks’ essay that cultural appropriation happens when one culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, and more are used without permission of the culture from which it is taken, is it not fair to say that Native American Indians have also engaged in cultural appropriation?

And then there’s the Aboriginal rappers to consider.  Have they engaged in cultural appropriation?

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Elyse Bruce

The Conflict of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the use of elements from one culture by members of a different culture.  According to law professors and psychologists, social scientists and politicians, cultural appropriation happens when one culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, and more are used without permission of the culture from which it is taken.  It’s especially hurtful when the culture being appropriated is one that’s been exploited or oppressed by the culture doing the appropriating.

In other words, cultural appropriation promotes the power imbalance of the ruling class over those who have been historically marginalized.

There are two kinds of culture:  Material culture and non-material culture.  Non-material culture is what’s meant when speaking about cultural appropriation since non-material culture deals specifically with intangibles.  Beliefs.  Traditions.  Values.

Of course, within material and non-material cultures are other constructs such as subculture (beliefs or behaviors that are contrary to the majority of the culture’s community) and counterculture (active rejection of aspects that are dominant in the culture’s community).  For the purposes of this essay, the focus is on mainstream non-material culture.

Now psychologists will tell you that culture and the people of a culture have a symbiotic relationship.  Each culture has its unique societal norms by which to live, and members of each culture live by shared expectations and rules that guide and determine their place in that culture.  To this end, people define and refine what their culture is, and culture defines and refines its people.

These days, there’s a lot being said about cultural appropriation.  Some of it is warranted such as the outcry against sports teams using names that are offensive to Indigenous peoples in the Americas.  But is it possible to create art without any cultural appropriation?

Was it cultural appropriation when the Bangles sang about walking like an Egyptian?

Was it cultural appropriation when Carl Douglas let us know that everyone was kung fu fighting?

Was it cultural appropriation when the Vapors thought they were turning Japanese?

Was it cultural appropriation when Steven Tyler and Aerosmith announced that dude looked like a lady?

How about when Toto decided to take on the entire continent of Africa?

This is where the waters are muddy.  If those songs and other art, literature, music, and more is cultural appropriation, where do we draw the line when it comes to enjoying past creative endeavors?  If we’re told to turn our backs on pop culture that draws on other cultures to exist, is it also time to boycott the classics whether it’s literature, art, or music?

Do we turn our backs on Béla Bartók’s Romanian Dances seeing he was from Hungary and not Romania?  Is it time to refuse to attend concerts where Brahm’s “Ballade Edward” is performed because it was based on a Scottish ballad and Johannes wasn’t Scottish?  How about Beethoven’s music based on Welsh, Irish, and Scottish folk songs?  After all Ludwig was German, was he not?

How about all those musicians who aren’t English but who have recorded “Scarborough Fair” or “Greensleeves?”   Should they be forced to make reparations for daring to sing something they obviously appropriated from another culture?

Should “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” be sung only by those of African-American heritage?  And next New Year’s Eve, should the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” only be sung only by those who can prove their Scottish ancestry?

Do we stop children and their grandparents from enjoying a rousing rendition of “Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be?” if they haven’t an ounce of English blood anywhere in their background — or going back at least eight generations?

Where no offense is meant, is any harm done?  Some say yes while others say no.  But if we are to say harm is done, where does this leave the English language which is an amalgam of several languages?  Is it time to dismantle the language to create a language that English-language speakers can safely call their own that doesn’t steal from other languages and cultures?

There’s no easy solution, and this is why we need to speak openly about what is, and is not, harmful cultural appropriation.  Certainly there are ways to draw upon cultures that are not our own without causing insult and injury.  It begins with mutual respect, and this means both sides must be willing to hear each other out before jumping to conclusions.  What are your thoughts on the subject?

Elyse Bruce

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