Some of the more prominent social events held on college campuses are cultural festivals or awareness weeks. My school often puts on AAPI culture month, dedicated to the history of Asian American and Pacific Islander culture, offering educational talks, fun food events, and traditional festivals. As an Asian American student, many of the events caught my eye, and I was excited to partake in something that represented the culture I grew up in. Of course, these events are not meant just for AAPI students—they’re for anyone in the campus community, and they’re often an invaluable opportunity to experience a new culture up close and personal. However, due to today’s rapidly changing society that emphasizes political correctness, many students are unsure of how to get involved in cultural activities that aren’t of their own background. Here are some tips for how non-AAPI students can get involved in cultural celebrations and events! And really, these tips can be used in any cross-cultural situation.
Attempt to dismantle your stereotypes
Before attending cultural events, dispel any stereotypes or expectations you may have about the particular culture you’re engaging in. Instead, come with an open mind that’s willing to challenge preconceived ideas you may have grown up with. Although people often say stereotypes hold some truth to them, a good professor of mine once said it’s not the stereotypes themselves that are necessarily bad but the fact that stereotypes often keep us from truly empathizing with the other group. Stereotypes are often used as a means to “other” a certain group of people, but you can’t fully embrace a culture without acknowledging the complexities and widespread backgrounds of its people.
Be primarily a listener during discussions
Although it may be tempting to give your opinions and relate your experiences to the ones being presented, be mindful of how much space you’re taking up in a cultural discussion. After all, talks and discussions planned during Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (or any other cultural commemoration) are directed at the AAPI experience, so it’s only fair to let those narratives take up most of the dialogue. That doesn’t mean your voice isn’t wanted or shouldn’t be heard, but it should not come first or be the dominant one either.
Educate yourself ahead of time and ask questions
There’s nothing wrong with being curious and asking thoughtful questions, but bombarding someone with questions about their heritage can be overwhelming. In addition, it puts the responsibility of educating someone about the entirety of a culture on a select few. Think of it this way: If you were the only English major in your friend group of Physics majors and they all kept asking you questions about your English readings and expected you to teach them everything you knew, you’d likely feel irritated and would want them to at least do some common knowledge research before asking questions. The same goes for people of an often underrepresented culture or background.
Know the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation
Most people have heard the term by now, but it’s still important to remind ourselves of the definition of cultural appropriation, which is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from another culture without permission.” It’s especially harmful when aspects are taken from historically marginalized or oppressed groups. An example of appropriation is wearing a poorly made version of a culturally traditional garment and acting in a stereotyped caricature way often portrayed by the media. Many people have difficulty deciphering if adopting influences from another culture truly represent their appreciation. The main thing that sets appreciation and appropriation apart is permission. If you’re welcomed to partake in an AAPI event as a non-AAPI student, then it’s not appropriation. In those cases, enjoy and appreciate the opportunity you to experience another culture alongside its people.
Participating in events for cultures that aren’t your own is an important part of becoming a well-rounded, more globally and culturally conscious person. While it may seem like precarious footing trying to avoid offending anyone, coming with good intentions and an open mind is all that’s needed. Listen to peers from that culture, be kind and thoughtful in your interactions, and educate yourself on your own time. But most importantly, enjoy yourself and uplift your fellow AAPI students during Heritage Month and beyond.
College campuses offer so many ways to increase your cultural competencies! Check out our blog Fostering Diversity: College Clubs That Welcome Students of All Cultures for ideas to get involved on your campus.