About a month ago, I wrote a blog post called Cultural Appropriation (Or Why that Bindi is Racist). Without rewriting the original article, allow me to briefly summarise my key points.
Cultural appropriation is defined as when “people from a dominant culture take cultural elements from a marginalised group without knowing or caring about how their actions affect marginalised people.” I later stumbled upon a slightly more detailed definition that I think also fits the bill: “Cultural appropriation… is a form of oppression for members of an identifiably dominant social or ethnic group to make use of the history, personages and/or habits of another, for the purposes of literature, music, art, entertainment, fashion. In short, for culture.”
Since publishing my blog post, I have shared a number of thought-provoking conversations with friends that have challenged my perspective on the issue. Dissatisfied, I decided to update my opinion — a part two, if you will — and to argue against what I originally wrote.
To begin, I am going to explore the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. There is a tendency to conflate the two, a misunderstanding which is arguably as dangerous as cultural appropriation itself. Whilst cultural appropriation tends to concern the power dynamics between two unequal groups, cultural exchange refers more so to the sharing of practices between two different yet balanced groups. In many — I’d even go as far as to say most — cases, cultural exchange is criticised for being cultural appropriation. Whilst I myself am persuaded that cultural exchange is justified, cultural appropriation is still something of a delicate matter.
Should we amend cultural appropriation to cultural misappropriation? Maybe it is possible that this whole discourse hinges around semantic specificity. From henceforth, I shall use cultural appropriation as somewhat interchangeable with cultural exchange, and refer to the detrimental kind as cultural misappropriation.
One of the central arguments for cultural appropriation is that it offers an opportunity for people to be educated about the rich diversity of human culture. After all, isn’t a more connected and compassionate society an objective goal? The topic of cultural appropriation also opens the door to what it truly means to own something. In my previous article, I discussed how it’s dangerous because it is as though a dominant group has ‘stolen’ a practice that belongs to a marginalised group. But do practices really belong to someone? Cultural practices are meaningful because of the ideas attached to them — can someone really claim ownership over an idea?
“Cultures are not intrinsically valuable, nor should they be preserved by virtue of their uniqueness. Cultures emerge from different groups of people trying to best navigate the world.”
The author of the above quote also put into words my exact thoughts: “… cultural ‘pride’ is absurd… there’s nothing to be proud of. (Cultures) aren’t superior or inferior to any other. You have nothing to preserve.” This message ties into the flaws of group identity. If you consider major conflicts between different groups of people, you’ll observe that that main source of conflict is the (often symbolic) trespassing of identity politics. We cannot abolish this discord without challenging our relationship with cultural pride.
By maintaining the mentality that cultural appropriation is in and of itself a ‘bad thing’, we are only causing further destruction. Through reinforcing exclusivism, some would even go as far as to say that it is as racist as cultural appropriation itself claims to be. If we cannot explore other cultures through participation, how are we — as a collective civilisation — expected to evolve and develop?
Perhaps cultural appropriation is indeed a positive thing, and participation in diverse cultural practices ought to be encouraged throughout society. Perhaps it’s the most constructive path to a more global, shared culture. “It is not an evil but rather a public good when different cultures are assimilated into the mainstream”, writes J. Wilson.
I have expressed why I believe cultural exchange should be condoned, and (hopefully) no one needs reminding that this should always be done respectfully. We know that malicious intent – whether that be through racism or whatever have you – is never acceptable. We know that there’s nothing respectful about dressing up as a ‘slutty Indian’ for Halloween in a costume you bought from Walmart, and we know that there’s nothing respectful about mockery. The key therefore is to strike a balance whereby different cultures are accessible and celebrated whilst still bearing courtesy and consideration for their history.
To what end does maintaining divisions between people serve? Cultural misappropriation can be harmful and leave devastating effects on persecuted peoples by reducing them to an idea. But cultural appropriation might be the answer to societal segregation rooted in identity politics.
Photographs sourced from Unsplash.
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