Every now and then cultural appropriation raises a mention in the mainstream media and everyone goes berserk. More often than not it’s raised by a concerned person of colour pointing out a dubious advertisement or public figure who, knowingly or otherwise, manages to cheapen and misrepresent someone else’s cultural heritage for their own advantage. More often than not, the most powerful voices in the mainstream media dismiss it as ‘political correctness gone mad’ or ‘hypersensitivity’. The cultural appropriation narrative has somehow been consigned to the margins. And so, the protests of the very people most damaged by cultural appropriation are silenced and told their voices are irrelevant.
On May 15th, St Paul’s college held a party called Soiree on the Silk Road—featuring vaguely central Asian dancers, dress and a live camel, for their annual Jazz Dinner Dance. This was followed on May 27th by another event called Full Moon Party, whose Facebook invitation read: “I was sitting on the train this morning opposite a really sexy Thai lady. I thought to myself, ‘Please don’t get an erection. Please don’t get an erection.’ But she did.” On May 28th, Women’s college held a formal called ‘Sakura Matsuri’. “Inspired by the cherry blossom festivals held across Japan each spring,” the Facebook event read, “this event promises more pink decadence than the opening credits of Legally Blonde.”
The common thread among all three of these events was that they each took part of another culture and crassly appropriated it. A question often asked about cultural appropriation refers to context. How far is too far? And more importantly, who is arbiter of that judgment? It is inevitable that criticism of these events will be shouted down by people calling for ‘perspective’ (it’s political correctness gone mad!). Hey c’mon, they say, it’s just a party—why are you being so sensitive? You just want to be offended! College parties, as many have pointed out before me, shouldn’t necessarily be treated as anything more than the lighthearted evenings they’re intended to be. Nor should they necessarily be subject to the scrutiny of the wider university community—they are private events hosted in a private capacity on private land. There is some truth to these claims, but they obscure the point.
Cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily fit a traditional model of racism. There are no chanted taunts or vile slogans bandied around by groups dressed in white hoods or branded with swastikas. But cultural appropriation is the symptom of a worldview that says it’s okay to take what you want without considering the immense social privilege behind your actions. Perhaps it never occurred to anyone at St. Paul’s that it was wrong, a college so distant from university life that the creep of institutionalised privilege until now has, at best, gone largely unnoticed, or, at worst, been actively encouraged by a culture that values tradition above progress, lineage above diversity.
These three events are just examples of what passes for normal behaviour at some of the university’s colleges. Remember the famous St Johns O-Week debacle, the St Paul’s ‘British Raj’ dinner, or the notorious pro-rape Facebook group? In a way none of it is surprising—the colleges, with few exceptions, are detached bastions of social privilege where groupthink rules and dissent is snuffed out.
After a long history of controversy, it’s odd that the worst offenders have done so little to avoid repeating their previous mistakes. Without change the colleges will stay the troubled institutions they are, at seemingly any cost.