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Cultural Appropriation & Stereotypes

Race Themed Parties:

Issues of Cultural Appropriation and Stereotypes:

Recently, here at CSU San Marcos, the issues of cultural appropriation, stereotyping and cultural sensitivity have become hot topics of discussion. The issues arose because of two incidents that occurred in the 2013 spring semester. In one, a small group of students involved in a Greek activity dressed up in a stereotypical manner while portraying a particular ethnic sub-group. There was no stated educational purpose to the activity other than to simply “have fun”. The second involved a graduation party where invitees were asked to dress as a particular racial group. In the second event the participants stated they were trying to honor the culture and not make fun of it.

Although the tone of the two incidents did appear to be different, both offended the ethnic/racial groups they were imitating, and offended many other members of the CSUSM community.  The first event clearly perpetuated negative stereotypes. The second was considered offensive because several cultural practices were erroneously depicted, the event further commodified a culture that has already been severely “mined” for profit, and the event, perhaps unknowingly, also perpetuated a fetishized stereotype.

At CSUSM one of our stated values is inclusiveness. This value requires respecting and understanding individual and cultural diversity, and having some degree of intercultural competence.  It is the University’s goal for our students, as well as faculty and staff, to exemplify this value and to be knowledgeable enough to know when certain behavior is antithetical to it. To be clear, activities that perpetuate negative stereotypes, disrespect cultures, or negate the long history of oppression of marginalized groups, is not in-line with the values and mission of CSUSM.

Some have questioned the harm in holding racially themed parties, that students are just having fun and that people should just “get over it.” The Scholarly research, however, is clear that behavior and events (like racially themed parties) that perpetuate stereotypes and degrade cultures cause more harm than most people realize. Data going back to the 80s suggests that there are thousands of instances of micro-aggressions directed towards students of color each year (Tim Wise,, Majoring in Minstrelsy, 2007).  Research shows that chronic micro-aggressions negatively affects learning, results in “painful psychological stress responses…feelings of anger, disgust, distress…[and] a diminished sense of belonging on their respective campuses” (W.A. Smith et al. 2007 p. 573).  Decades of research has “elucidated how stereotypes unconsciously influence perceptions and evaluations”; student performance (Steele, 1997); and its role in discriminatory behavior, (Bendick, M. and Nunes, A.P. 2012).  Recently a 2010 study also showed that exposure to American Indian mascots increased stereotyping of other minority groups (Prieto, Okazaki, Goldstein and Kirschener, 2010).

The two incidents at CSUSM have raised legitimate questions that should be considered. For example, where does one draw the line when borrowing from or imitating another culture? Dressing in blackface or holding a party where invitees are asked to come as  “illegal aliens and border patrol officers” is clearly offensive.  But is it inappropriate to wear a tie with a Navajo design or to hold a Hawaiian Luau party? There are no clear lines but context is important. Some questions we should ask ourselves when faced with these issues may include:

  • Is there a history of discrimination or oppression, of the targeted group or culture?
  • Is there a power differential between cultural groups involved?
  • Are participants “dressing up” as members of a cultural group different from their own?
  • Does the event perpetuate negative stereotypes of the targeted group?
  • Is the culture being erroneously depicted (cultural degradation)?
  • Is the subordinate culture being “mined’ and “shipped home” for consumption?  Is commodification occurring? (See Wallace & Malm, 1984).
  • What is the purpose of the event? Intent to harm or mock is not determinative, but the purpose for the event could be a consideration.
  • Is a cultural/racial group offended or likely to be offended? (We don’t have the right to tell someone when they should or shouldn’t be offended).

It is also important to note that these types of events not only cause harm to the members of the targeted cultures but can also harm the individuals participating in the events. In today’s era of social media it is not difficult for future employers and graduate school admissions officers to find on-line photos of these types of events. With today’s employers looking for employees who can work effectively in a diverse and global environment, and because of the costs of defending against discrimination claims, participation in such events will not be looked upon favorably.

The Office of Inclusive Excellence (OIE) encourages all members of our campus community to be respectful of one another; and for students to take this opportunity in this microcosm of the larger world to learn as much about the “other” as you can. Keep an open mind, develop your intercultural competency skills, and turn difficult moments into learning opportunities. None of us is perfect and we will all make mistakes. We want our graduates to be competitive in today’s labor market and have the skills needed to be leaders of a diverse and global future.

With this in mind the Office of Inclusive Excellence will strive to make resources available to you on topics of diversity and inclusion on our webpage (coming soon).  We will also keep the campus community informed on the progress of the University Strategic Plan for Diversity; and progress on new initiatives that are responsive to the diversity related needs of our campus, (which also includes responding to the above recent incidents of cultural appropriation).  Visit our webpage for related forums and workshops we hope to be sponsoring throughout the fall semester, such as the one listed below.

Articles and resources on cultural appropriation and stereotypes:

Available Workshops:

The following workshop are available to faculty, staff and students. To request the workshop for your group or organization please call us at 760.750.4039

  • Race Themed Parties: Issues of Cultural Appropriation
  • Diversity…Why Do We Do It? Definitions and Frameworks
  • Bias and Stereotypes – A Primer
  • Search Committee Workshops and Diversity
  • Inclusive Excellence and Perceptions
  • What is Intercultural Competence and Proficiency
  • Search Committee Trainings