100 Days Till the Tassel Turns stirs up conversations of cultural appropriation
On Jan. 31, CNU seniors gathered in the lobby of the Peebles Theater to celebrate 100 Days ‘til the Tassel Turns. The annual event commemorates 100 days until graduation, a milestone in life that every student looks forward to finally reaching.
The evening was intended to be a night of celebration and excitement, and while it definitely encompassed those feelings for those in attendance, its theme also stirred up some somewhat negative reactions within the campus community.
The event was organized by the Office of Alumni Relations and the Student Alumni Association. A promotion sent out to seniors advertised an “Arabian Nights” theme and featured a photo of a golden magic lamp and scrolly fonts. Some students, faculty and staff members have expressed concern about the theme of the event because it could be seen as culturally appropriative and generally in bad taste.
Dr. Danielle Stern, a professor in the Communication department, had some things to say regarding the issue. When I asked her what her initial thoughts were when she heard about the theme of the event, she responded, “The first thing I thought is that this is a conversation that we need to be having on our campus. I just thought, ‘oh, this was a missed opportunity which can now become a learning opportunity to talk about culture, ethnicity, gender expression.’”
As well as the concerns about cultural appropriation, she also discussed with me the “very rigid binary” within the dress code. It initially encouraged “a business suit, coat and tie” for men and “cocktail attire” for women.
Stern mentioned she heard about an amended promotion that subscribed somewhat less to a gender binary in terms of dress code. Initially, the promotion read, “Morroccan themed accessories and attire are encouraged!”
It is no secret that Christopher Newport is a predominantly white institution (PWI). When a PWI engages in putting together an event that has a theme that can be seen as a form of cultural appropriation, it can give the impression of suggesting that ethnicity, race and culture are novelties to some extent.
When asked if she believed the theme was racist, Stern responded, “I want to be very clear that I don’t want to identify anybody as racist because I don’t think that’s useful. My job here is as an educator, and I feel like it’s more useful for me to talk about what are the actions that are actually going on. If we have events that are themed that encourage accessories where you can take on and off one’s culture, one’s ethnicity in the sense of ‘Moroccan-ness.’”
“If you are promoting that you can turn your Moroccan-ness on and off, then that is part of a larger racist system. This is something that matters deeply to my research and to my students, and I think there is a difference between discussing a racist system that leads to cultural appropriation that devalues Persia… Middle Eastern culture and Moroccan culture,” Stern said.
She also added, “For a predominantly white institution like ours, where we know the majority of students that would be there [at the 100 Days event] if they are living up to the theme of the accessories that is cultural appropriation, how is it different from encouraging students to wear blackface?”
My conversation with Stern helped me to understand the systemic roots behind issues like this one.
We must honor and respect other cultures, not reduce them to decorative themes and accessories that can be taken on and off as easily as cocktail attire.
Stern and I discussed the way that non-white individuals can see a promotion for an event like this at a PWI and subsequently see themselves as “othered” in some way — set apart and reduced to a festive event theme. It’s important not to assign blame to any single person for the theme of the 100 Days event and how it was received and interpreted by many members of the Christopher Newport community because it isn’t a decision that just one person made.
It’s the result of a systemic issue that allows for certain communities to be set apart in a way that somewhat alienates them.
I believe productive dialogue came about as a result of the event in terms of how we address certain issues and instances that have to do with gender, race and class representation on our campus.
At the end of the day, these discussions are extremely important to have because they allow us to learn, understand and figure out what to do the next time we encounter a similar situation.
While this instance may not have been handled properly to begin with, failing gives us the opportunity to grow positively from our mistakes.
At Christopher Newport, a place of higher education, we all are integral parts of a community where we are always learning and expanding from our classes as well as from one another.
It is my hope that we will learn from this particular experience and take its lessons with us as we move forward into the most positive future for all of us.
~Anna Dorl, Lifestyle Editor~