The Writing Center was busy, people filtering in and out or taking a seat in the lime green chairs to chat with friends. Noise filled the air – laughter, gossip, and the quiet hum of students’ laptops as they worked on homework permeating the open space. Freshman and Black American Joella Asapokhai and I were located in a secluded corner of the room, seated in red cushioned chairs, my laptop between us and the Voice Memos app opened and recording.
It felt like the wrong place to have such a conversation. Cultural appropriation, the appropriation of cultural elements (and, in our case, ethnic features) in a manner that is disrespectful or exploitative, is a touchy topic for many people, and one that hasn’t been discussed nearly enough for it to be as easy as small talk. That’s why I discussed it with Joella and two other women of color in the KO community, in the hopes that it could possibly bring more attention to the issue, especially as it pertains to beauty trends both in KO and online.
Joella mentioned that cultural appropriation feels almost like a mockery. “One minute, we’re saying, ‘Oh, this is ugly,’” said Joella, her copper-rimmed hexagonal glasses catching the light as she spoke. “Having this kind of nose, cause you’re this race, it’s not beautiful or it’s weird. You know, getting ostracized from situations like that. And then now seeing it be popular and people being like, ‘Oh, this is cool. It’s really nice. It’s pretty.’”
Features that have long been the source of discrimination for People of Color (POC) are now being celebrated on the faces of their white peers in the form of excessive tanning, overlining lips or using lip fillers/plumpers, or using tape or eyeliner to make eyes appear smaller and pulled back. “[It’s] annoying and it’s kind of tiring that Black people, we always have things like taken from us and turned into the beauty standards for another group of people,” sophomore and Black American Anissa Lewis said.
As disappointing as it is, this topic has become one that many people of color in America have been somewhat desensitized to. POC children have to bear the weight of dealing with racism and educating others when we would rather be doing something else. Race hangs over our heads, haunting us like a ghost. It screeches for our attention, cutting at us no matter how vigilant we are. Always there and never leaving – like we’ve committed a crime just by being born and this is our eternal punishment.
“As sad as it is, I’ve kind of just gotten used to it,” said freshman and Korean American Julia Sohn when asked how cultural appropriation makes her feel. “When I see it, it’s like, that’s dumb and it’s upsetting, but what can I do about it? Well, just reposting something on my Instagram story or something like that isn’t going to do anything. And even if you take larger measures and maybe, I don’t know, give a presentation to like the school or something about it in your normal life, that doesn’t do much either.”
But why does it feel so hopeless? Why not just ask people to stop, maybe give a five-minute presentation as an explanation, and then boom! Problem solved, let’s tackle the next one. Well, in actuality, cultural appropriation is a lot more widespread than you probably think it is.
Chances are, you or someone you know has done it before, maybe without even knowing. A majority of Gen-Z slang is either based off of or directly taken from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics. AAVE is an umbrella term used to describe varieties of speech patterns used by Black Americans all throughout the USA. “I’ve definitely heard the use of AAVE by people who shouldn’t be using it at KO,” Joella explained.
But then, we are led to yet another question: why now? Cultural appropriation has existed for centuries, but the incorporation of it into an entire generation’s behavior would sound hilariously fantastical if it wasn’t reality.
Julia recalled a time, back in 2012, when a girl on her bus had asked her where her parents were from. When Julia answered that they came from South Korea, the girl had no idea what it was. “And now it’s completely different,” Julia said. “Korea is so mainstream, which I find great and all, like the whole rise of everything Korean: Korean K-pop, fashion, healthcare, beauty brands… just a lot of stuff in the beauty and fashion industry.”
The sudden infatuation with everything Korean caused people on social media platforms like TikTok, starting around late 2020, to use makeup to change their eye shape by either taping their eyes back or using eyeliner to lengthen and make eyes appear smaller, something referred to as the “fox-eye trend”. I remember growing up as a Chinese American, and how friends and bullies alike would pull back their eyes to mimic mine. In a way, the fox-eye trend was a painful reminder of that, even if the conditions of the mockery were different – it felt unfair that non-Asians were able to mimic my features and be praised for it. If it ever went out of style, they’d be able to take it off just as easily as they’d put it on, like a costume.
“I feel like this has been going on for a while, but recently technology plays a big part in it because it’s more broadcasted,” Anissa remarked. “It’s all over. It’s all over social media, and in person you don’t really see it everywhere you go, because you can’t see all of the United States, all of the other countries, but on social media, it’s all right there.” When it’s so easy to create a minute-long video or post a picture on Instagram, research and sensitivity towards potentially harmful trends are often overlooked. Not a lot of people would stop and research before slapping on some eyeliner or lipliner and filming a quick 15 second TikTok.
“It’s able to be spread more in certain trends, like the Kylie Jenner lip challenge,” said Anissa, red and black braids framing her face as she explained how social media perpetuates the appropriation of cultural practices and ethnic features. “That was a really big one and people didn’t really see how harmful that was. It seemed like just an innocent challenge, but big lips have a stigma around it. It was not as playful and unserious as it seemed.”
Ignorance is bliss, but it’s also dangerous. People naturally want to follow trends, but we have to think critically about the things we participate in. Otherwise, we could end up hurting huge groups of people, all while sitting idly in front of a screen.