Dear accidental cultural appropriators:
My cultural heritage lies in the Western European countries of Germany and Switzerland. I never truly understood how deeply rooted I am in my home countries until I moved away last year and had to face the way other cultures perceive them abroad.
I’d like to make a disclaimer here that I am incredibly thankful to be able to study in this country and explore its culture. I respect America, its history and its heritage, and I would never for a second think to exploit or abuse it for my own benefit, especially not in a way that would cause any anguish to the members of its multiple communities.
I’m afraid, however, that courtesy has not always been extended to me.
Of course, most people have been incredibly kind and respectful, and even those that haven’t didn’t realize the detrimental effect of the claims that they were making, which is why I’m writing this.
So to all the accidental cultural appropriators, I love you dearly, but there’s something offensive about you still thinking I’m Swedish even after we’ve known each other for a year now. No, I don’t live in Sweden; no, I don’t speak Swedish; and no, I’ve never even been to Sweden. It’s actually pretty far from where I live.
I’m tired of my culture being grouped with that of others and disregarded as one large blob instead of a complex and multifaceted culture made up of countless languages, dialects, and traditions. People from Northern Germany will have considerably less in common with people from the Alpine region. Similarly, holidays in the Jura of Switzerland are vastly different to those of the Plateau.
So I request that you stop using aspects of different cultures within this region for your benefit.
Stop using Oktoberfest as an excuse to get drunk off of cheap, terribly watered down beer or to wear our traditional clothes to make your boobs look nice. That isn’t flattering to us; it’s eroticizing cultural traditions that have been around for hundreds of years without even understanding what they mean.
If you ever see someone wearing a dirndl, look at the way they tied the knot on their apron. Women traditionally tie their knot depending on their relationship status: left means she’s single, right means she’s in a relationship, and a knot at the back indicates she’s a widow. If you tie your knot in the back at a frat party I am guaranteed to make a snarky comment.
An argument I often hear to counter this is that the people wearing these clothes are simply appreciating aspects of our cultures and fusing them into their own. But the problem isn’t cultural exchange, wherein someone from one culture adopts an aspect from another, or even lives in a culture for long enough to identify with it.
The issue lies in people who have no relation to a community, and make no efforts to even understand it, who then make a claim to some aspect of it, adopting it in order to reap benefits from some aspect of the cultural “aura.” This is cultural appropriation.
Appropriation is when someone begins to feel as though their culture is not valued by others, but rather ridiculed. If you’re wearing a dirndl for Halloween even though the closest you’ve ever gotten to Bavarian culture is ordering the pretzel bites at the Ram (which are actually, in case you’re wondering, really great), then that shows a degree of ignorance and a lack of respect.
Don’t even get me started on Leavenworth, which is a “Bavarian-style” town founded by people who have absolutely no German heritage. It’s beautiful, and I’m glad the town is experiencing economic prosperity through it, but there’s no doubt that there’s a sense of cultural exploitation happening there.
The act of taking certain “easily accessible” aspects of a country and commercializing them for the sake of tourism is not only cheapening certain cultures by simplifying them, but it’s also turning them into a sort of fake pseudo-culture that is more like a trip to Disneyworld than a genuine cultural experience.
Germans, Austrians, and the Swiss aren’t just happy-go-lucky mountain folk who roam around with their cows and yodel on mountains, but popular culture would have you think nothing more. I’ve stopped counting how many borderline offensive one liners and genuine questions I’ve received. I am not a joke and neither is my culture, and I’m getting sick of always being the punchline.
The problem is apparent back in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany too. There, Bavarian stereotypes are perpetuated despite organizations such as Tour My Country trying to debunk them. Yes, this music, these buildings, these dresses, and these traditions are a part of our life; but we aren’t frozen in time. We don’t all live in wooden buildings and work on farms. We want to be given the room to develop ourselves culturally and have new aspects of that culture just as widely appreciated and respected as older ones. An example is girls in America wearing chokers.
I don’t have a problem with girls wearing chokers, even though they are a part of the traditional dress of Switzerland. The history behind them is really complex and fascinating; women used to wear them because the severe iodine deficiency in the high altitudes of the Alps would cause them to have goiters. In order to hide these lumps or the scars they would receive from having them removed, they adorned their necks with chokers.
That’s why I actually love seeing chokers on women: It reminds me of home and how fashion can be appreciated by people across the world. What I don’t love are the sexist jokes that have begun to surface around them, or the fetishization of them.
This once again reduces my cultural heritage to something erotically appealing, dismissive of an entire history and country. Wear them, but know the history behind the trend, and for the love of God, please do not keep spreading these offensive jokes about women being “whores” for wearing them; it’s dehumanizing, sexist, and ignorant.
So to the cultural appropriator, while I’ve felt the history and culture of my country to be disrespected, fetishized, and ridiculed, I know that this was never directly your intention. I just ask you to do your research the next time you jump on the next trendy bandwagon or make a joke about someone’s heritage.
Reach writer Joy Geerkens at email@example.com. Twitter: @GJoysummers