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Illustration by Luis Rodríguez

Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation

Context matters, intention matters, behavior matters and external appearance matters.

Oct 14, 2018

Picture this: five teenagers crowding around a phone while watching Cardi B’s new music video, Bodak Yellow. Not too difficult to imagine, considering we've all heard it on the radio, at a party and on various playlists. Behind that image, however, sit those offended by the music video, appalled at the sight of Cardi B wearing a hijab and an abaya, dancing seductively with her face covered and surrounded by hookah pipes, belly dancers, money, loose diamonds and men dressed like sheikhs, all shot in Dubai’s desert.
This video is an evident form of cultural appropriation, defined as the act of adopting elements of a minority culture by a dominant culture, imitating aspects of cultures without their permission. The misrepresentation, discrimination, westernization and ultimately appropriation of a culture presents it as insignificant — the Arab, or minority culture as an “other” to the West, the more dominant culture.
As an Arab woman who wears the headscarf, my reaction to the video was initially one of shock and later disbelief at the false representation of both my religion and my culture. The video is rooted in either complete disregard for Arab culture or just plain ignorance of it — and I do not know which is worse. Its orientalist nature is just one example of how the Arab world continues to be examined through the lens of the West.
Cardi B, a trending artist, appropriated Arab culture — its customs, national dress, religious beliefs and behaviors — disrespecting its history, offending those who identify themselves with it and above all, creating a false image of Arab culture to the international community. But what occurs when the international community integrates? When different cultures interact and coexist on a daily basis ? When 1,355 students from more than 120 countries come together?
NYU Abu Dhabi is a community of unparalleled diversity, made up of different cultures, customs, norms and traditions and therefore particularly vulnerable to the crossing of boundaries. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation appears blurry, yet it’s more clear-cut than we think. We appreciate a culture by respecting it, showing curiosity and investing in it without claiming it as our own.
Can a non-Emirati wear a kandoora? Yes.
Should they wear a kandoora to a bar? No.
Wearing a kandoora is appreciating the culture, but wearing it while doing something that many agree, goes against the fundamental beliefs and customs attached to it, constitutes appropriation.
Context matters, intention matters, behavior matters and external appearance matters.
We appreciate a culture by attending a Bollywood or bachata dance class in the Fitness Center. The context is one of education, with the intention of expanding our worldview, exploring a new culture and discovering our own passions. However, we appropriate a culture by wearing a bindi or a tika to class and by using a meaningful cultural tradition or national dress as a fashion statement.
Herein lies the necessity of understanding the culture one is attempting to appreciate prior to acting on said curiosity and interest. NYUAD is a hub of diversity, made up of different ways of greeting, different foods, national dresses, different celebrations, to name a few. In the simplest form, asking about someone’s preferred way of greeting — a hug, a handshake, a simple wave — is a way of appreciating a person and their customs and abiding by their answer is a way of respecting their culture.
Obtaining knowledge and exposure about different cultures is so easily attainable at NYUAD that it would be a shame not to do so. We are surrounded by teachers every day — from friends and faculty to courses, Student Interest Groups and events hosted on campus. Without knowledge of each other’s culture, we fall within the risk of appropriating it; misinterpreting it, disrespecting it and offending it.
Our cultures are more than a halloween costume, or a music video outfit or a fashion statement. Our cultures are history, ancestry, belief — identity.
Sarah Afaneh is a staff writer. Email her at
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