Cultural Appropriation in Festivals

Over spring break I went skiing in Holiday Valley, Ellicottville. It was only after we arrived that I realized that weekend was an annual “Winter Carnival” event. The aesthetic included some very basic elements of Mardi Gras, such as costumes; a ski lift named Mardi Gras; and plastic beads around necks and tree branches. But what stood out most to me were helmets with fake dreadlocks on them, some even rasta colored (image linked as WordPress isn’t letting me embed). It’s insane to me that African Americans around the United States have gotten suspended or fired for styling their hair in traditional ways, yet nobody bats an eye at these ugly, mocking pieces of foam.

Seeing all of this reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a friend recently. We were talking about “white sports” (e.g. golf, horseback riding, and skiing), sports that are expensive and hard to access, causing more privileged people to be the most common participants. Holiday Valley is a prime example of this: it’s expensive to drive to the location, rent skis, pay for a lift ticket, and drink $7 hot chocolate. So while the crowds of visitors come from cities with mixed populations (such as Buffalo, which is only 50% white), the skiers themselves are generally as white as the snow they’re coursing through. My family did not participate in any of the Winter Carnival festivities as we had just come to ski, however, when I got home I did some reading on it. Linked is a schedule of the weekend’s events, including face painting, “beer/bikini slalom (race),” and wine and cheese tasting. “DJ Dance Party” is the musical feature, which can not possibly hold a candle to the deeply entrenched marching bands, personalities, and cultural talents of Mardi Gras music.   

Overall, it was just a surreal experience to go from thinkING about the struggle of African Americans in New Orleans (particularly how some choose to vent both negative and positive energies into the week of Mardi Gras), to viewing this superficial spectacle at Holiday Valley. I consider the event, and especially the minor aspects such as the dreadlocks helmets, to be examples of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the idea that individuals from non-marginalized groups sometimes pick and choose pretty, funny, or catchy aspects of a marginalized culture. It is significantly damaging because those marginalized peoples are often ridiculed or punished for practicing traditions, while non-marginalized peoples can turn those traditions into accessories.

Music festivals are notorious for cultural appropriation including use of blackface, Native American headdresses, bindis, and henna. I don’t think I have to explain how blackface is a problem (although it’s interesting to read about African Americans reclaiming blackface in modern day parades). But the other examples are less obvious. In many Native American tribes, only the elders can wear headdresses during ceremonies that have been carefully crafted and passed down. So when white girls go to Coachella with their $20 Etsy headdresses and get drunk, it is hurtful to the associated traditions. And said white girls have rights and privileges in the United States that Natives don’t have even though it is rightfully their land.

I’m going to wrap this up by talking about the Mardi Gras Indians, the groups of African American New Orleaners who have given themselves names, tribes, costumes, and songs as inspired by Native American practices. Dr. Adrienne Keene on says, “the history of Mardi Gras Indians comes out of a history of shared oppression and marginality between the Black and Native residents.” Many agree that cultural appropriation, like racism, cannot be enacted against non-marginalized peoples because it is a systematic power construct. Similarly, some argue that one marginalized group cannot appropriate another, since they do not have the power level that comes with appropriation. However, since Native Americans including Keene voiced discomfort over the Mardi Gras Indians groups, I would hope that there would be sympathy and understanding considering that those groups have most likely experienced appropriation themselves.

My apologies if my writing in the last couple paragraphs get confusing. I’d just like to clarify that I don’t think it’s helpful to stick a label on instances of cultural appropriation (especially without input from those who are being appropriated) and ending the discussion there. Culture is far too complex for that. With the advancement of communication and transportation technology, globalization is exponentially increasing. It is impossible to avoid mixing cultures, so it’s important to focus on that mixing being respectful, communicative, and informed.



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