Opinion

POST #39: Cultural Appropriation

There’s been a few articles in the news recently about Cultural Appropriation in western popular culture. It’s quite a controversial topic; and the question of whether it’s either ‘political correctness gone mad’ or yet another indicator of today’s inequality has been hotly debated.

I did a speech for a scholar’s society meeting at school a few weeks ago, exploring the subject, and I thought I’d adapt it a bit for the blog. The focus here is much more about opening up the question, rather than trying to find an answer – I’ll leave that part for you to decide!

So, first off, what is Cultural Appropriation? Wikipedia(one of my favourite websites) calls it:

The adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation may be perceived as controversial or harmful, notably when the cultural property of a minority group is used by members of the dominant culture without the consent of the members of the originating culture. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures’ traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and cultural songs without permission.

It seems to me to be roughly equating Cultural Appropriation to ‘plagiarism on an ethnic scale’. It’s a negative label, and although not legally recognised, those thought guilty of committing it are often put under moral pressureand often ‘shamed’ for it on social media sites like Twitter.

For example, when JK Rowling used the Navajo lend of the skinwalker for an extra story on her website ‘Pottermore’ many criticised her for appropriating Native American culture, and manipulating it for her own uses.

Other celebrities called out for Cultural Appropriation include Katy Perry dressing as a geisha during the 2013 AMAs to perform her song, ‘Unconditionally’. Many disapproved of her appropriation of thousands of years of Japanese culture, and also of her seemingly promoting a stereotype of the perfect Asian woman as passive and docile.

Cultural Appropriation.002

Further examples of celebrities under fire for using other culture for their own personal promotion include Pharrell Williams, Karlie Kloss, Selena Gomez and Kylie Jenner.

Sorry, older readers, if these names don’t mean much to you!

But Cultural Appropriation, according to some, comes in many more normalised forms. Using Black culture, such as wearing dreadlocks to look ‘edgy’ or ‘ghetto’. Wearing Harem pants, or a Bindi to look ‘exotic’ and ‘hippie’. Wearing Native American style jewelry, or headresses for a costume party.

Looked at in this way, it seems we can all find ourselves in some way guilty of appropriation. With ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ often quoted as Britain’s favourite dinner, it seems most of us are.

What do you think? Is this wrong?

In my opinion, the problem is that Cultural Appropriation, for a word that is used so often and in such heated circumstances, seems to have a dangerously ambiguous definition – it means something different to everyone.

I don’t think anyone should trivialise components of any culture that has a serious impact on people’s lives, just for entertainment purposes. And yet, setting rules such as this too carefully may have a stifling effect, and draw boundaries rather than dissolve them. One of the underlying motives for those calling out the Cultural Appropriation of others seems to be that ‘I own my culture, and you do not.’ But does anyone really own culture? If you follow the idea that we have no choice as to who we are born to, and what part of society we are born in, then that argument would fall apart.

FURTHER READING

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/09/jk-rowling-under-fire-for-appropriating-navajo-tradition-history-of-magic-in-north-america-pottermore

https://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2013/11/25/memories-of-a-geisha-katy-perrys-amas-performance-stirs-debate/

http://azmagazine.co.uk/cultural-appropriation/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad

And a little disclaimer:

This topic could fill a book. There’s so much more I could have written about – different slants ranging from whether white blues / folk artists (such as Eric Clapton) were appropriating lesser known black musicians when they sang songs directly influenced by them, to cultural appropriation in literature, and author Lionel Shriver’s fiery speech against accusations of it (linked above) at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival a year or two ago.

So feel free to add examples / call me out if you think my presentation of it is a bit biased, or if I haven’t mentioned something important 🙂

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One thought on “POST #39: Cultural Appropriation

  1. My good friend Cecil J Savoy began to appropriate culturally in the 1950’s. Since then he has lived in a teepee wearing a tiger skin sarong. He speaks Korean and is upset when others cannot do likewise. He writes poetry in the Alaskan genre and (shudder the thought) drives a German car. I sometimes urge him to respect the cultures of his birth and the vernacular of Essex but I cannot change him.

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