Some of the more prominent social events held on campus are cultural festivals or awareness weeks. Last semester, my school put on API culture month, dedicated to the history of Asian Pacific Islander culture, through 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 API-identified students; they are 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 culture that emphasizes political correctness, many students are unsure of how to get involved in cultural activities that are not of their own background. Here are some tips for how non-API students can get involved in their school’s API culture month/week, and, of course, these tips can be applied to anyone whenever they enter into a new cultural experience!
Attempt to dismantle your stereotypes
Before attending cultural events on campus, try to get rid of any stereotypes or expectations you may have about the particular culture you are about to engage in. Instead, come with an open mind that is willing to challenge preconceived ideas you may have grown up with. Although people say stereotypes hold some truth to them, a good professor of mine once said it is not stereotypes themselves that are necessarily bad but the fact that stereotypes often keep us from truly empathizing with the other group.
Be respectful 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 are taking up in a cultural discussion. After all, talks and discussions planned during an Asian Pacific Islander (or other) culture month/week are directed at the API experience, so it is only fair to let those narratives take up most of the dialogue. That does not mean that your voice is not wanted or should not be heard, but it should not come first or be the dominant one either.
Try to educate yourself a little first, then ask questions
There is 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 suddenly all kept asking you questions about your English readings and expected you to teach them everything you knew, you would feel irritated and would have liked them to at least look into some common knowledge before asking questions. The same thing goes with people of an often underrepresented culture on campus.
Know what is cultural appreciation versus appropriation
Cultural appropriation can be defined as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” It is especially harmful when the cultural aspects are taken from a historically marginalized or oppressed group. An example of appropriation can be wearing a poorly made version of someone else’s traditional garment and acting in a stereotyped caricature version of that culture 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 a part is permission; if you are welcomed to partake in an API event as a non-API student, then it is not appropriation. In those cases, enjoy and appreciate the opportunity you have to experience another culture.