Cultural Appropriation, or: Why can’t I wear a sombrero?

This post was written for The Protest.

If you’re a Northwestern student, you’ve probably received an email from ASG and Alianza calling for a “respectful celebration of Cinco de Mayo.” The letter explained what the date actually means to Mexicans, and among other things, contained the following statement:

Unfortunately, instead of partaking in these cultural celebrations and enriching their Northwestern experiences, some of our peers choose to throw ‘Mexican-themed’ parties that are culturally insensitive, offensive, and detrimental to the Northwestern community. Drinking tequila shots, eating tacos, and wearing sombreros do not commemorate Mexican culture; on the contrary, that offends, marginalizes, and isolates many of our friends, classmates, and community members, and casts our entire community in poor light.

The letter prompted various reactions from students, ranging from vehement disagreement to passionate defense. The debate, as far as I’ve seen, has focused primarily on the question: “Is it really racist when white people drink tequila, eat tacos, and wear sombreros?” I gather most people’s gut response to this question is “No, what the hell are you talking about?”

This is, I think, a naïf way to look at the question. The purpose of the letter was to guard against what is often called “Cultural Appropriation,” which, in simple terms, is the mimicking of one culture by people of a different culture. It is not immediately obvious why there is anything wrong with this. After all, if I saw somebody at Northwestern having a drink from my home country of Paraguay (as if!) I would probably be insanely happy, not offended.

However, I believe most decent people would agree that there are at least some cases in which cultural appropriation would be wrong. Picture, for example, a fictional scene from the Indian-American wars. After defeating a band of Indians, Americans don native ceremonial garbs, shout gibberish that to them sounds like the Natives’ language, dance, and get drunk in front of a few captured Natives. Moral intuition instantly tells us there is something wrong with this picture, even ignoring the injustice of the war itself. It’s needlessly humiliating to those who are already down. Moreover, it’s humiliating independently of the intention of the Americans. Even if they were just a bunch of young, scared soldiers trying to have a bit of fun, the fact that the Natives would feel humiliated by the act is what makes it immoral.

I think the contrast between this case is very illustrative of what’s at stake with cultural appropriation. There’s nothing wrong in borrowing aspects of other cultures, we all inevitably do it all the time. I eat Italian food, listen to South African music, wear American clothes, and drink Guarani drinks. But there are two differences that the case of the Native garb highlights. The first is that when I wear a baseball cap, speak American English, and eat American food, I don’t do it as an “American costume,” but because it’s practical, or because I like it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s obvious to anyone watching that I’m not doing any of these things as a costume. In the case of the Native religious garb, the soldiers are explicitly pretending to be Native as a kind of game, and the Natives know this. That’s what makes it humiliating, they are mocking their culture by performing a bastardized version of it.

At this point someone might object: “But we wear ‘Irish’ costumes every St. Patrick’s Day, and there seems to be nothing wrong with that.” This objection brings up the second important feature of the case of the Native costume. The American soldiers and the captured Natives are not on equal ground—the Americans are in a position of power. It is this power differential that makes the mocking offensive. To see this, imagine a friend mocking one of your mannerisms, and then imagine a professor doing the same in front of the whole class. Clearly the second is much more humiliating, simply because this person holds a kind of power over you that the friend does not. The Irish haven’t been an oppressed minority in the US for a century, which is what makes St. Patrick’s Day celebrations ok. They are on equal grounds with the people celebrating.

This second point also clarifies why students born and raised in Mexico reacted to the letter differently from Latin@ students born and raised in the US. The people being mocked when Americans “act Mexican” for Cinco de Mayo are not the citizens of Mexico, but those who live in the US, whose families immigrated here in search for a better life, and who are constantly subject to threats and humiliation by the American people and the American state. It’s quite understandable that the average Mexican—especially those privileged enough to be attending Northwestern—would not be offended by someone donning the costume below, as they are obviously not the butt of the joke. Even if they were, given their lack of experience of marginalization in the United States, it may feel more like a joke from a friend, while for a Mexican-American it would feel more like mocking from a bully.

White American “celebrating” Mexican culture. Source:

So in conclusion, there’s nothing wrong with “drinking tequila shots, eating tacos, and wearing sombreros” by themselves. What makes typical Cinco de Mayo celebrations wrong is that these things are done within the context of dress-up parties—often involving fake “Spanish” accents, mustaches, and other Mexican stereotypes. This tradition is humiliating, and perpetuates the oppression of Chicanos in the United States by reinforcing a general culture of disrespect.