The Great Debate – Cultural Appropriation, is it a thing?

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Cultural appropriation is a pretty hot topic right now, for a number of reasons. You’ve got high profile stories like the Washington Redskins, an American football team, who have been criticised for using not only a racially-charged name but also a racist mascot. There are ongoing debates, like the discussion on whether it’s appropriate for white people to wear their hair in dreadlocks and increasingly, as with most social issues that begin with good intentions, there’s the group of people determined to make it into a meme.

“My culture is not your prom dress” seems, at least to me, a not unreasonable statement. Cultural attire, from kimonos to sarees, are so steeped in history and tradition that they really cannot be extricated from their native customs. They have meaning attached to them. Disregarding those things isn’t just ignorant, it’s downright disrespectful. Yet interestingly, the people who go nuts over someone wearing a band t-shirt while not being a superfan become wilfully obtuse when it’s suggested that this might apply on a larger scale.

What makes cultural appropriation different from the above t-shirt scandal is the racial factor. When you include the historical (and modern) reality of colonialism in these discussions, it makes the whole thing far more sinister. When minority cultures get mocked for an aspect of their culture, we don’t question that it’s racism that motivates the aggressors. So, when the same aspects they are mocked for start becoming popular among white cultures, and white innovators get the praise, surely, it’s not much of a stretch to say that that’s racially motivated too.

Then there’s the point often raised about “honouring” a culture. If I admire them, and want to look like them, surely that makes it okay? In theory yes- but theory does not very often align with reality. Because you’re not going to tell every person you see on the street “don’t worry! I researched the culture and want to respect it!”. Good intentions are all very well, but the fact is that in public all people are going to see is somebody appropriating a different culture and reinforcing their own ideas that this is okay. Maybe you do really connect with that bhindi or that Native American headdress- but think of the wider impact you’re having. Think, in the end, about the culture and not yourself.

I said earlier that the meme brigade is in full swing on this topic, and I meant it. “My X is not your Y” has become the latest punchline for twitter funnymen and reddit sirs, and as ever all it does is obscure honest discussion and good faith arguments. It’s a great smokescreen- by reducing the argument itself into a joke, there’s no self-examination or genuine dialogue needed. It’s a tool of the lazy, in the end. Political correctness gone mad again, am I right lads? Tsk, those pesky feminists. It’s all a very convenient excuse to avoid having to look oneself in the eye and say “hey… maybe this isn’t all about me.”

Against

“What’s cultural appropriation?”, I doubt you ask. If you haven’t even an inkling I’d be inclined to say you’ve dodged a hefty political bullet, but here I am to steer that projectile right back on course. Well, K. Tempest Bradford argues that “boiling it down to a two-sentence dictionary definition does no one any favors.” And though I appreciate that condensing complex issues into snappy, digestible phrases is often a disservice, I’ve sourced a definition hopefully agreeable to those who believe cultural appropriation is a serious problem. Maisha Z. Johnson writes that cultural appropriation is the act of an individual working within a “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” Surreptitiously inferred in this statement is the idea that certain minorities are owed something, and therefore that someone or some people are to blame. In observing history, one cannot help but notice the unpleasant blights upon our shared past. But, in this acceptance is the corollary understanding that this cannot be undone. It may be the case that white men, for instance, do have an advantage in today’s society. But, like the successors of once Nazi Germany, they do not bear an inherited responsibility to make up for this historic inequality; at least no more than anyone else does. This accusation serves only to resurface historic guilt for a generation who couldn’t make a claim to it even if they wanted to.

The charge of cultural appropriation originates in the misunderstanding of the reason why one might behave or dress in a way that could be considered culturally appropriating; and it seems to me that this can only be addressed on an individual level. To claim, without enquiry, that an individual is behaving or dressing in a way that is for the express object of reducing the value of another culture is, in the first case, condescending, and in the second case, grossly offensive. And, if we could even decide that there exist valid cases of cultural appropriation, who, might I ask should be given this most unsavoury of powers to decide who should be able to behave in a certain way or dress in a certain fashion? Those who truly appreciate freedom of speech and expression will understand what I mean when I say this is ‘an all or nothing’ case. This road does not lead to cultural appreciation and engagement, only to its utter annihilation. If we are to prohibit a single costume for its cultural insensitivity, then we must prohibit them all. I don’t hear cries of complaint from Catholics about the abasement of their celebration, or those of Celts whose festival began that series of cultural bastardisations culminated in Halloween. Perhaps we might conclude that Halloween, along with the rest of our religiously inherited traditions, ought be called off. Though I’m certainly no Christian, I enjoy a good Norse booze-up as much as the next man; but I’m obviously well aware that I should be lashed in the streets for my insensitive pilfery.

The overwhelming majority of individuals’ ‘appropriation’ is rather an act of merriment and good will that anyone should be capable of sympathising with and reciprocating. The decision to be offended by someone’s personal, positive interaction and experimentation with a foreign culture is exactly that- a decision. No-one asked you to be offended for anyone; no-one asked you to defend them. And, assuming the role of guardian of culture does nothing but disempower the individuals whose personal decision it is to identify (or not) with their culture and/or be disgusted (or not) with examples of ‘cultural appropriation.’ These are individuals capable of expressing their own thoughts and opinions, and restricting them to group identity only worsens whatever situation you’ve decided they’re in. To the exponents of cultural appropriation: if you want to respect an individual, treat them like one; and disentangle yourself from the cultural baggage you’ve decided to unload on hapless individuals with the imagined quest for cultural security in mind.

 

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