Students of color speak out against cultural appropriation and celebrate their heritage

On Friday night, students of color proudly strutted the runway in a fashion show celebrating the traditional and contemporary outfits of their cultures.

SGA president James Whitfield, who opened the evening, said that the event was aimed to combat cultural appropriation by showing how the traditional outfits should be worn: by the people from that heritage.

“The purpose of this evening is that we may understand, listen and see what culture means for different people here. It is that we may see how our brothers and sisters in their traditional and modern clothing, and see how they represent and identify themselves in their cultures,” Whitfield said. “It is that we may listen as they share the stories of their experiences and really understand who they are.”

The Pacific Islanders Organization (PIO), who originally had the idea for a fashion show, collaborated with the other ethnic organizations and the Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity (SCRD) on this event. Some of the cultures represented by the students were Filipino, Navajo, Mexican, African and Polynesian.

In the first half of the event, students modeled their traditional garments as the hosts gave a brief history of each outfit and culture. In the second half of the show, the same students hit the runway in modern outfits that represented their unique identity, as the hosts read a short description of how that outfit represented each person’s journey.

One of the models, sophomore biology major Veronica Valencia, said that even different regions of the same country have different cultures and experiences. Valencia represented Guadalajara, Mexico, with her sugar skull makeup and traditional dress to celebrate the “Dia de los Muertos” tradition. Meanwhile, sophomore Sarah Vargas, an acting for the stage and screen major, wore a different traditional embroidered dress and carried a matching bowl filled with treats to toss to the crowd. She represented Oaxaca, Mexico.

Danelle Woodman, president of the Indigenous Peoples Circle (IPC), modeled her own Native American tribe’s traditional outfit in the show. She said that she has seen cultural appropriation on APU’s campus, and she wanted to share her grief with her peers.

“As I grew up on a Native reservation, I always wondered why ‘tribal’ designs were so popular while similar designs such as the ones my grandmother weaved were considered ‘art.’ I knew upon arriving to APU that my convictions were very different than my peers. It’s not easy to point [appropriation] out right then and there and expect people to understand so quickly. It’s a process of give and take and growth that even I am still going through,” Woodman said. “That’s why this fashion show is such a great opportunity to step into that uncomfortable space.”

Woodman shared that the core of this debate is that those who support cultural appropriation don’t understand that costumes are stereotypical representations of vibrant, nuanced, real life cultures.

“First of all, no culture should ever be worn as a costume. It’s not a question of what cultures should be allowed to be worn as costumes, but why are we pretending to be a part of something we’re not? Costumes are fake. [Is my culture] fake? If you want to experience real cultures, then it’s better off wearing the real thing with a correct understanding of what you’re wearing,” Woodman said.

One of Woodman’s pet peeves is when people wear Pocahontas costumes on Halloween. She is not happy that Native Americans are always connected to this portrayal of her and other characters in the movie.

“Pocahontas is a real person, she existed. Her land invaded and she was raped. When you Google Pocahontas costumes, you’ll find a skimpy dress made out of thin, cheap material. I’m pretty sure the Powhatan tribe did not use the same material,” Woodman said. “Each of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. is unique, and the Pocahontas costume feeds into the stereotype that all Natives look like the Powhatans in the movie.”

Woodman gave a few suggestions when debating what costumes to wear.

“Before you try to buy that Pocahontas costume, you should ask yourself: ‘Have I ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned? Can I sing with all the voices of the mountains? Can I paint with all the colors of the wind?’” Woodman said. “If so, then by all means, go ahead and appropriate that culture.”