In Defence of Cultural Appropriation

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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Interview: Paper Girls with Becky Finley

Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I’m 22, I’ve spent the last 3 years travelling 22 countries and 20 states in 5 epic vehicles. I love hiking and eating and sitting on a boat in my bikini, and I haven’t experienced a full winter in 4 and a half years. I’ve had 5 tattoos, 2 broken hearts, 14 jobs, and over 100 hours in a plane. I can probably speak like 20 words in other languages.

How do you fund your traveling?

I work like a dog! I work and travel; I arrived in Sydney with around $1200 when I was 19, and my first week was spent exploring and finding a job. I worked at Taronga Zoo for 2 months, and ended up with maybe $4000, which I spent on several months backpacking in Asia. Then I restart and work again. The main thing is I truly believe I can get awesome jobs, so I do. I’ve worked in the zoo, promoting in a bar in Laos, as a rock climbing instructor, an outdoor adventure guide, an artist liaison and music booking agent, renovating a house on the beach in Hawaii… I don’t work for minimum wage because I’m worth more and after a days work my employers believe that.

What would you say are the most underrated and overrated parts of traveling?

The most underrated is the fact that you are only responsible for yourself, and you have so much time to just be whoever the fuck you want to be. You become entirely selfish and it’s really healthy and wonderful. The most overrated is the perception of how expensive and glamorous travelling is. I spend less travelling for a month than most people do at home in a month. Unfortunately, travellers contribute to the glamorous perception of travelling themselves, we all post pictures on yachts, but I’m less likely to take pictures of my hands swollen with bed bugs, or post about shitting my pants, lost on the way home from some dodgy street food. (I always want to post this but don’t want to be overly obscene).

Have there been moments where you have feared for your safety overseas?

In general, no. Mostly I put an enormous amount of trust in foreign strangers, which they totally deserve. I have done same insanely stupid shit though. I only feel scared after when I am looking back at the stories. Like, when I volunteered in Cambodia, it wasn’t through an agency, I just found a handwritten note in a hostel. I got on the back of this boys bike, he had one leg, because he had lost the other in a land mining accident that had killed his brother and sister. The ride alone was over an hour, he could barely balance us both, and he had a helmet but I didn’t. We got to this little village, I had no idea where I was, and no phone. No one had seen a white person for three months, and I was told the road was built on the bodies of those killed under Pol Pot. The boy who picked me up was the only one that spoke English, and when I asked if I could walk through the village, he said yes, but to be careful. The men followed me and leered, and he said some of the dogs were “bad”. I slept in a room in the house on stilts, with a bed frame but no bed, and a rat that scurried up the wall when I entered. The boy said the police came to sleep in a hammock under the house while I was there, because otherwise I wouldn’t be safe. At the time, the experience was really wonderful, the kids were so sweet and all called me ‘teacher’, but looking back, it could have ended pretty differently.

What is your opinion on souvenirs — and how do you regulate the acquiring of keepsakes when you’re backpacking?

I love souvenirs, not so much of places, but of life changing experiences or spectacular people. Regulation is super easy – do I want to carry that? Jewellery and tattoos are my go-to souvenirs. Also little scars and holes in my clothes are always cherished. I do buy souvenirs for other people; a point of pride was managing to bring my brother back a cobra in a bottle.

What is something you have had to sacrifice in order to live a nomadic lifestyle?

This is really hard to put this into words. If you have ever read Paper Towns, you might know what I mean when I say I feel like this lifestyle has made me a paper girl. I guess I feel like I’m often seen as the sum of the crazy experiences I have had, instead of a real life person. I often find myself in relationships where I am put on this adventure-girl pedestal, and expected to do no wrong, because I am just a character. My last ex told me, as I was lying in bed with a broken back after a sky-diving accident, that I wasn’t fun anymore. This sort of thing has been recurring for me; not that I stop being fun, but that I am not allowed to be human, and handle things badly sometimes. I feel like I have to be pretty careful now to select people in my life that aren’t fare-weather friends. Of course, travelling has also given me a family of the absolute best friends I have ever had.

How has traveling impacted your personal identity?

The biggest thing might be the family it has given me. The people I love that inspire me daily to be the best, and feel loved and adored and constantly supported. Travelling allows me to constantly reflect on who I am and who I want to be, as I head to a new place and dream up a new life. I feel like I have lived so many lives in the last four years. I feel like everything is possible, and anything is likely. Functionally, when I left for my first adventure, I called myself a Kiwi, and now I feel like an American. I feel out of place in the land I grew up in, and like I have explored many facets of my identity and found a place and people I want to call home. My travelling also led me to what I am now studying, and I already identify as an anthropologist. I don’t think I knew what anthropology was before I travelled.

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