My white liberal professor accused me of cultural appropriation

Plot twist: I’m not white

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A few weeks ago, I encountered the delightful and ever-charming white privilege in the most unexpected of places: my academic department at UC Berkeley. My white professor accused me of cultural appropriation. Now, because of the obvious power dynamics involved, I have chosen to relinquish any specific names, departments, associations, and the like – I cannot forego future letters of recommendation. Why? Because I’m a student at the mercy of these (white) professors.

The problem of white institutions

I took on a new role of leadership. Because I received virtually no list of expectations or club acclimation materials, I assumed my role was completely autonomous. (It was not.) Because of this minesweeper mentality, I received needless criticism at every minuscule step I took: from scheduling meeting times to sending out emails. Apparently, the knowledge to relay any/all email conveyance to the department is inherent knowledge. The final straw was in the release of a logo I helped design, which featured a multi-ethnic image of humans around the world wearing unique ethnic items. This was the spark to light the enormous fire to ensue.

Because of my “harmful logo,” my leadership skills were deeply questioned with no concrete foundations, I faced threats of having my club’s meeting space revoked if I did not conform to the department’s will, and I was spoken to with disdain from the moment I stepped into the club’s offices. As someone who has occupied executive positions of academic clubs and has held numerous leadership-based internships, I was deeply insulted that my qualifications were so easily tossed aside.

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Love the collaborative message!

Details redacted to protect anonymity of professors and the department:

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Cultural appropriation… Of my own culture?

In a tone completely devoid of respect and instead replete with hostility, one of my professors, whose research pertains to predominantly black communities in the USA, quite literally lectured me, via email, on the ethics of cultural appropriation and how this “distasteful disrespect” reflects on the academic department. I was to delete my image immediately.

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The censorship of extreme leftism does not do any good for the empowerment of people of color in the United States. I believe it is called the Horseshoe Effect – this professor attempted to be so politically correct that they ended up degrading my productive creativity, my spirit, and my version of agency. Not only did this person feel that they understood the lives of marginalized communities better than me, a marginalized and multi-ethnic woman of color, but they also felt that, because of my ethnically ambiguous name, they could assume my identity: white.

What’s in a name?

I can tell you. The last names of brutal conquerors are in a name. Sexual trauma is in a name. Changing your identity to better pass-as-white in America in the age of latent racism is in a name. Pain is in a name.

Yet, because of my very non-Korean, non-Mexican, non-Xicano, non-indigenous name, Sydney Moss, I was assumed to be a white woman who failed to acknowledge her privilege as an assumed white woman, and who needed to be “called out” on appropriating a culture not belonging to her. So – how do we see cultural appropriation if it is your own culture?

The boundaries of respect and assumed ethnic identities

While I understand the ethical implications of showcasing cultural and/or ethnic identities in the United States, in part due to its polarized racial divide, I am also of the mindset that, in order for traditionally marginalized communities to move forward, we must retake our culture. In any and all forms. This includes, but is not limited to, garments, foods, music, visual art, holiday traditions, festivals, medicinal practices, and in recognizing the body that is discrete.

To call on academic jargon, I follow the words of Frantz Fanon: it is not enough to feel despair. Mobilize and be creative productive with your pain. Of course, this is a controversial and harsh statement, but one that I believe we are carrying forward.

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I hope that, in the future, we can foster better relationships among people. I wish for a future that allows for people of color to retake their culture in a way that is academically informed, ethically responsible, and above all, creative. This may translate to controversial, but let it be so: in order for a new and effective movement to be born, it must challenge the status quo, and if this status quo is one to challenge the deeply lauded academic, it is all the more necessary.

Note: This experience does not necessarily encapsulate the majority of UC Berkeley or college institutions as a whole; rather, it serves to remind the author that race-based power dynamics exist even in higher education.

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