According to The Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia is proceeding against a fraternity and sorority for “engag[ing] in alleged cultural appropriation” during chapter-sponsored activities. The violations involved students at the Kappa Sigma fraternity dressed as American Indians and members of the Zeta Tau Alpha “wearing sombreros and holding maracas.”
The Facebook message from the Inter-Fraternity Council at UVA referenced “the prejudiced and culturally insensitive attire” worn by students at the functions.
I have admittedly been a critic of some of these claims on college campuses. We discussed a basketball game where a player was attacked due to wearing braids that 20-year-old Hispanic student, Carmen Figueroa, claimed to be cultural misappropriation. Then there was the controversy at Pitzer College where white female students were warned to take off big hoop earrings as cultural appropriation. Then there were the students at Oberlin who declared the serving of sushi as cultural appropriation while a white student was assaulted at San Francisco State University for wearing dreadlocks by an African American student. At the heart of some of these controversies is the claim of exclusivity in the use or enjoyment of styles, foods, art, or material originally associated with one culture.
The problem is both conceptual and definitional. I often disagree with the premise that people are appropriating culture by incorporating styles or foods or art into their own forms of expression. More importantly, this is an ill-defined standard of when a cultural style or symbol or language is deemed appropriative. This is not to say that costumes cannot be offensive and criticized. However, these are all forms of expression and sanctions raise issues of both due process and free speech that are often brushed aside.