Cultural appropriation is real: Wearing a sombrero is not the same as a cowboy hat

I’m not saying the football team shouldn’t be allowed to wear sombreros

Yesterday Cornell football coach Roy Istvan tweeted a picture of two team members wearing a large red sombrero, and captioned it “Eman & Fosta! THE BIG SOMBRERO!”

Many reacted in outrage at this display of cultural appropriation – first reported in The Tab – specifically a Chicanx cultural group on campus called MECha de Cornell. Coach Istvan ultimately removed the tweet and apologized for insensitivity. However, certain members of the football team spoke out in defense of the tweet, specifically one comment which said: “If I took a photo wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, would you have the same reaction? Don’t think so.”

Here’s the thing: I believe that this incident was somewhat blown out of proportion, and that no genuine harm was intended. I also believe that inter-cultural spread of ideas and traditions is extremely important, and the “fun” side of a culture is often what draws people in to learn more. However, the issue lies not with the sombrero or the tweet. Regardless of the specific situation, the fact remains that most people don’t truly understand the significance or the meaning of cultural appropriation at all.

The comparison to wearing cowboy boots pinpoints a perfect example of this. Cultural appropriation is a problem specifically because individuals attempt to prove its nonexistence by claiming that some sort of “reverse” situation would not have caused controversy. In reality, cultural appropriation became a problem because certain cultures have been disregarded and suppressed for centuries, while others have consistently reaped the benefits of this suppression. When one culture is historically more privileged than another, the argument of equality goes out the window.

Mexico, the country of origin for the sombrero as we know it, has experienced a long history of suppression by Western influences, beginning in the 15th Century (the same era during which the sombrero appeared, used by ranchers and peasants to protect from the sun) with the arrival of Cortés and the Spanish empire. For centuries, Western culture enjoyed the benefits of Mexican land and years later, “cowboys” in the United States would adopt the sombrero and transform it into the very “cowboy hat” mentioned (see Encyclopedia Britannica). Meanwhile, few remember that as Westerners began to wear the Aztecan sombrero, they were also destroying Aztecan cultural buildings, enslaving natives, and introducing foreign diseases that would kill thousands of the Aztec tribe members.

Again, I don’t feel that I can pass judgement on those who posed in the picture. It’s genuinely not unlikely that these young men are aware of the history behind the sombrero, that they really were appreciating an aspect of Mexican culture, and attempting to incorporate it into their own team tradition. In a perfect world, we could assume this about everyone who wears a culturally-specific item. Yet, the issue lies not with the wearing of the hat, but with the ignorance of so many who defend the act of doing so. Would there be a controversy if Rodriguez posted a picture of himself in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots? No, because the history behind the cowboy is not stained with being conquered and suppressed, but is instead rich with privilege and dominance.

In short, cultural appropriation is something that, as unfair as it may seem, simply does not work in the reverse. It is the result of mistakes made by our ancestors hundreds of years ago. No, they are not our own mistakes. And yet they were made, and some still feel their effects today.

As civilized, socially-conscious citizens, perhaps we can take a little annoyance, a little overreacting, in exchange for the centuries of pain and disregard suffered by those we never knew.