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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Cultural Appropriation (Or Why That Bindi is Racist)

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, I do not want my travel blog to simply be about Insta-worthy pictures and food porn. My goal from the very beginning was to use this blog as a resource and vehicle by which to educate myself and others on issues entrenched in the tourism industry (and society in general). The issues I have discussed in the past – see feminism and why tourism is political – are prime examples of how travel and politics are not mutually exclusive. This latest article is one I have been wanting to write since the inception of this blog.

Culture not costume. Artwork courtesy of the Odyssey Online.

If you’re a follower of pop culture – or you use the internet – the chances are that the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ would have emerged once or twice in the context of someone such as Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry.

In short, cultural appropriation can be 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”.

Cultural appropriation is largely misunderstood owing to a lack of critical discussion and the fact that you won’t actually find the term in a dictionary. (I also think it isn’t given the time of the day because lots of people deep down know they are guilty of it – and ignorance is bliss, amiright?).

Everyday Feminism summed it up quite nicely by saying that it is often taken to mean, “the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy”. Whilst there exists a rather objective definition (as written above), people can also take C.A. to extremes. Some people believe that everything is cultural appropriation, whilst some believe that nothing is at all. Whilst I certainly think that some critics of C.A. can get a bit carried away, I also believe that it is a complex idea that plays a different role in different scenarios. I believe that the issue becomes about learning and educating ourselves about it so that we can identify instances where it is not okay.

Model Gigi Hadid was criticised for wearing dreadlocks on the runway. Photograph courtesy of the Daily Beast.

Some Examples of Cultural Appropriation…

  • Bindis
  • Cornrows
  • Dreadlocks
  • Indian headdresses (I’m looking at you, Coachella)
  • Pretty much 99% of all cultural Halloween costumes
  • Basically Rachel Dolezal’s entire existence

Photograph courtesy of Marion Cameleon.

A common defence people employ when confronted about appropriating behaviours is that they’re simply celebrating another culture. After all, if they can’t participate in a tradition belonging to someone else, then how are we meant to share cultures? Isn’t that the very foundation of a more equal and humanitarian world? And then there are the people who get straight up offended.

The reality is that cultural appropriation plays a significant yet dismissed role in all of the inequalities people face today. To understand C.A. demands a comprehension of intersecting frameworks of oppression (shout out to intersectional feminism) and power dynamics. The key idea is that C.A. simply doesn’t go both ways; if it did, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But instead, the nature of a more privileged group of people borrowing cultural elements from a less privileged group is a one way street.

Amandla Sternberg delivers a crash course on cultural appropriation in ‘Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows’

This next part can sometimes be a little more complicated to get your head around. I know it was for me. Take the example of white girls braiding their hair into cornrows. That’s not inappropriate, you might respond. Black girls straighten their hair all the time! But what needs to be discussed here is that historical context is incredibly relevant. Consider the history of the United States; black people were discriminated against whilst white people reaped the rewards of a white supremacist society. As Everyday Feminism accounts, “when people of colour… conform to what the U.S. society considers ‘normal’, they’re often doing it for the sake of survival”.

“Assimilation doesn’t have the same impact as appropriation.”

Expressions of cultural appropriation. Photograph courtesy of Sikh Philosophy.

Cultural appropriation isn’t about memorising an infinite list of things that could offend people. There’s no value to that. Instead, it’s about “taking responsibility for your own actions that can cause other people harm“. I myself took responsibility after a phase where I insisted on wearing part of my hair braided into cornrows. At the time, I wasn’t aware that I was inadvertently participating in a culture that had historically – and even still today – been marginalised beneath mine (I’m talking about the participation part, not the historical part). But after taking a gender studies course at university and reading about these systems of social oppression, I realised that my behaviour had been less about how I looked and more so about taking what had never belonged to me in the first place.

The key message I’m trying to get across here, is that you don’t have to own something to appreciate it.

Even with well-meaning, good intentions, cultural appropriation is not something we should take lightly. We’re not just talking about fashion; we’re talking about the lived experiences of human beings. Identity is one of the most central facets of our lives, and for someone more privileged to take that away from us with little regard for who we are is plain discrimination.

“You only like me for my Sari.” Artwork courtesy of Zaiba Khan.

Traveling is a fantastic opportunity to expose yourself to the practices and traditions of different cultures whilst finding the fine balance between appreciating and appropriating. When you are engaging in ethnic activities or find yourself at the counter of a souvenir shop, ask yourself these three questions: does my privilege allow me to participate in this? Will buying this make anyone from this group feel uncomfortable? Am I committing harm to anyone by doing this?

I like to think that most of us are contributing towards a society where all people and cultures are valued and respected. We have made great progress in the last half century, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that we are still a long, long way away from achieving that ultimate goal. To punctuate with the words of the 35th president of the United States…

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Artist Katy Perry is slammed for dressing up as a Geisha in a performance. Photography courtesy of Reaxxion.

If you’re interested in learning more about social issues, then I highly recommend you check out the primary resource for this blog post: Everyday Feminism. Everyday Feminism is an amazing tool for educating yourself on topics such as gender and racial equality, and presents information in an understandable and thought-provoking manner. Find them on Facebook and Twitter.

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