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Pop Report: Discussion of Cultural Appropriation in Step Sisters

Last month, for HC ICU's monthly Movie Night, we saw Step Sisters, an original movie by Netflix. I had no prior knowledge of the movie and was expecting a crossover between Pitch Perfect and Bring It On. Well, I wasn't wrong, but it was so much more than just girls having dance battles. It touches upon the forever controversial topic of "What is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation"? 

Background “You let them take stepping from us” -Aisha-

The main character, Jamilah, is a part of a historically Black sorority called the Theta Chi Phi. She wishes to follow in her parent's footsteps by gaining admission to Harvard Law School. She needs a recommendation letter from her boss at the college dean's office to get into her dream school. But, to receive the coveted letter she must help a slightly problematic white sorority group, Sigma Beta Beta learn how to step. Stepping is a percussive dance deeply rooted in African foot dancing and is a tradition for Black sorority life. However, Jamilah's sorority sisters, her mother, and her boyfriend accused her of taking part in cultural appropriation. 

Opinion “Race can’t own things.” -Jamilah-

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Do I think Step Sisters was able to set a clear answer on what cultural appropriation is and what cultural appreciation is? No, I don't. What I do think is that this movie brought various perspectives and was able to create discussions, which is a step towards understanding that the line between appropriation and appreciation can depend on who you ask. Netflix has released a video called Cultural Appropriation 101 on YouTube where Black casts are asked questions such as if they are okay or uncomfortable with non-Blacks using Black speech. Some said they did not mind, while others said that they didn't really like it. Just because someone is Black doesn’t mean they have the exact same beliefs and values, as everyone has different upbringings and experiences. 

In Step Sisters, they introduce three characters who are a part of the Black community, but who all have a different story. Jamilah is from a successful Black family as her parents are both graduates of Harvard Law School. She finds herself needing to prove her "Blackness" as she says, "I joined a Black sorority because I wanted people to stop calling me "white girl" or "oreo." Aisha, Jamilah's best friend, does not agree with what Jamilah is doing as she calls Jamilah "the help" for Sigma Beta Beta and tells her, "If they want to sample the Black experience, let them be slaves and step in chains." This shows her passion for protecting Black Greek tradition. There is also Saundra, the only Black girl in the white sorority who does acknowledge her ethnicity but is not as close to the Black community as Jamilah and Aisha. Jamilah seems to question why Saundra joined Sigma Beta Beta, but later finds out that Theta Chi Phi had rejected Saundra because she was too "whitewashed."

Just because someone is Black does not mean every single Black person shares the same experience, beliefs, and values. Step Sisters highlights the line between cultural appropriation, as it is drawn by each and every individual in which we can't really generalize it. The important point is when you are involved in another culture's tradition, you are to understand its background and to never say you own something when you know it roots in a different community. As Jamilah says "race can't own things." I think this is true to an extent but it can be questionable whether something with history, such as cornrows being used as maps by slaves, could simply just become a part of fashion and style.


I've established that culture can be shared but there are definitely moments when it may not be appropriate. Black culture can especially be difficult because of how intertwined it is with the history of slavery in the United States. Now I want to apply this discussion of cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation to Japanese culture. In 2019, Kim Kardashian was under fire for trying to name her line of "solutionwear" as Kimono. She was heavily criticized by many for being "ignorant and offensive misuse" of kimono, as written in an article in The New York Times. However, what I noticed was that while there were slight voices of objection in Japan, most voices that called this cultural appropriation came from outside of Japan. As a Japanese person myself, I was not offended by her using the word kimono for her clothing line. I am not saying that because I didn't care it was okay for her to use a Japanese traditional clothing name for her brand, but I do believe that there are times when the voices that are most important are drowned out by voices from the outside.


I wrote this article because I wanted to reflect upon my thoughts after seeing Step Sisters and also because I think the issue between appropriation and appreciation of culture is a discussion that can take place in Japan too. We can question why Japanese girls dressing up in Qipao, Chinese dresses, for Halloween is okay. What about Japanese curry and where did that come from? Misia, a famous Japanese singer, who you can see takes inspiration and influence from African culture, appropriating or appreciating the culture? Is it okay for her to have cornrows in her hair if she acknowledges and publicly says she was inspired? 

What is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation for you?


Satomi Hayashi

ICU Japan '22

Hey, I'm Satomi Hayashi, apart of Her Campus ICU Japan! I hope to have fun writing and working with fellow Her Campus members!!
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