It’s hard for me to write about this because I am white. By which I mean that it is all too easy to dismiss my objections to and criticisms of the idea of cultural appropriation as a typical white person’s attempt to deflect from or argue away any accusations of unconscious racism.
However I am quite willing to accept that our culture’s history and the racism that underpins it may well have filled my subconscious mind with certain stereotypes or racist assumptions that I might need to work on weeding out from my brain. I am willing to do this self-reflection and have already worked on altering some messed up thinking that managed to worm its way into the darkest recesses of my mind.
I am however one of the least racist white people you will find. This has actually been observed and commented on by people I have interacted with from other cultures. I am not as distant and aloof as other white English people might be to people from other ethnic backgrounds, I freely mix with people of all races and nationalities without it even occurring to me to feel any differently about that than I do about mixing with other white people and I certainly hold no views at all about any culture being superior to any other culture. I see value and worth in all cultures, and I believe that there is much we can learn from each other to the enrichment of us all.
But I do feel that there are some valid criticisms to be made about this “cultural appropriation” thing.
Cultural appropriation is the idea that a dominant culture (such as white, English speaking, American or European culture) steals or “appropriates” aspects of other cultures as a kind of cultural imperialism, reinterpreting them and repackaging them for white consumption with little regard for the cultural context of their origin or for giving due respect to the cultures from which they came, and that this serves to exploit, stereotype and even erase other cultures, which is obviously a bad thing.
Put like that, in a complex, nuanced and caveat filled way and the conversation makes perfect sense. People have complained about globalisation and cultural imperialism for a long time and it’s a conversation worth having. The dominant culture goes over to other cultures and suppresses them, replacing their cultural artefacts and ways with our western values and consumerism, then we have the gall to take their stuff and repackage it for our own, devoid of context and meaning and sometimes even in openly mocking and disrespectful ways. Yeah, fair point. That is an outrageously shitty thing to do.
But from that sensible position we have somehow got to the point of criticising any artistic borrowing or influence from other cultures, suspicion and mistrust of any westerner who is honestly inspired by other cultures, and bullying hippies for wearing dreadlocks. And that is when I feel the need to take a step back and say “hang on a minute! Is this really about protecting marginalised cultures from western imperialism anymore, or has it actually become about a damned if you do but damned if you don’t attitude towards white people’s opinions of other cultures?” And in the manifestations of these discussions around cultural appropriation I feel there is often an insidious and hypocritical tendency towards an incredibly racist way of framing the issue. Not just racist towards whites either but racist in its very interpretation and way of looking at the world.
Let’s startwith the sensible stuff. Mocking stereotypes of ethnic groups or nationalities is not ok. I have a problem with those Halloween costumes too. We were aware of this way back in the 90s, 80s, possibly even the 70s too by the way. There is a long history of white culture mimicking other cultures in disrespectful ways. Even if it’s not outright mockery but simply stereotyping, it’s still not ok. Any right thinking person knows this and has known it all along. We didn’t need the words “cultural appropriation” to express how shitty and inappropriate that is. And we still don’t.
Also when a company that is run predominantly by white westerners takes something that is associated specifically with another culture and imitates it, repackaging it for a mostly white consumer base and selling it for a profit, that is pretty shitty economic exploitation at the expense of other cultures and it does contribute to cultural erasure. Not good.
Again though, this is something we’ve known about and been concerned about for a long time. We didn’t need the buzzwords of “cultural appropriation” to talk about it. We might have referred to it as cultural imperialism or something. I’m not too sure.
But there are a whole host of problems with the “cultural appropriation” conversation as it is currently framed. One of these is when it comes to art.
I am a writer of fiction and I am all too familiar with the double bind of being a white author who tries to write stories that are sensitive to and inclusive of other demographics than my own. What exactly am I supposed to do here? Am I supposed to write only about white people of European descent, because I have no right to write about other cultures? But then I would receive criticism about being white-centric or Euro-centric in my writing, just as a man who only writes male characters might be accused of being sexist. But if I include people of other races and cultural backgrounds then I open myself up to the criticism of cultural appropriation, especially if I do a poor job of it.
Don’t get me wrong. Knowing your shit is a very important attribute for a writer. We should research everything we write about to ensure our writing is believable and accurate. But it’s hard for a struggling writer and none of us are perfect. Even with the best research in the world we will still make mistakes sometimes. And there can be a very real desire to incorporate things you have been inspired and influenced by. I have long been fascinated by certain eastern spiritual traditions and consequently often want to write about people of a South Asian ethnicity and Indian cultural background for instance. Am I not allowed to, even though I ache to write about Hinduism and Buddhism for example? I have often been economically challenged enough to have rarely travelled outside the United Kingdom, a situation that condemns me to only write stories set on present day Earth if all the action takes place in England! The need to write good, believable material already places limits on my art. Must I also refrain from ever writing about any culture but my own?
The situation is if anything even worse when it comes to visual art or music. Can’t artists be inspired by styles that originate from cultures other than their own? Even if they really immerse themselves in it, mix with, collaborate with and learn from those who are from those cultures? In light of many of the examples of work that attracts the criticism of “cultural appropriation” you’d think not.
What about on a personal level? I commonly hear that if someone is going to be inspired by things from cultures other than their own and wish to incorporate those things into their own lives then they’d better know everything there is to know about that culture and place it in the correct context. Really? It’s never appropriate for example when a religious practice, belief or idea takes a new form in a different cultural context? But that sort of thing has been going on for the entire history of the human race. It’s how religions grow and adapt to different situations and even learn from each other. Someone can’t integrate a style of art or a type of clothing and appearance into their lives without becoming an expert on the culture from which it originates? I understand how inappropriate it could be to take an item of clothing that has sacred significance (eg. native american headdresses) and use it for trivial fashion, but in the vast majority of cases it is ridiculous to insist someone become learned in a particular culture just because they want to enjoy one particular cultural artefact from it. What if we took that approach to cuisine for example? Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t eat that curry unless you know everything there is to know about the Vedas, the Gupta Empire and the colonial rule of the British Raj.
Another problem with the whole cultural appropriation discussion is that it often ignores the very real benefits of cultural exchange, including and even especially situations where the dominant culture has found influence and inspiration from other cultures. History is a melting pot of culture and every time one society has dominated another society, the dominant culture ends up incorporating and learning from the societies it has oppressed. Maybe this is karmic balance or something; an unexpected positive outcome from an otherwise negative situation. The point is that if we start worrying too much about “cultural appropriation” then we are actively working to suppress this positive consequence.
One particularly enlightening example of this is in the history of popular music. White artists ripped off black american blues artists during the rock and roll years. It continued into the 1960s and beyond actually. But in the process rock music was born. Whole generations of white music fans were influenced, directly or indirectly, by music originally invented by poor black musicians. It was bad news for the black artists of the day of course, who were often struggling to make ends meet while white artists took their songs all the way into the heights of the pop charts. But this newfound respect for music rooted in the struggles of black americans probably didn’t hurt the next wave of black musicians, the soul artists of the 60s and 70s to find their own success in the pop charts. Thus began a cultural feedback loop that eventually resulted in the huge success that hip hop and RnB artists enjoy today.
There are other examples. The UK rave scene of the early nineties saw drug culture embrace a whole slew of sounds that originated in the clubs and underground scenes of people of colour, incorporating dub reggae bass, hip hop breakbeats and Chicago house music into a crazy, drug fuelled mix that was UK Rave. Cultural Appropriation? Well, maybe at first but it soon grew into a multi-racial scene, allowing the growth of another subgenre of electronic dance music to emerge, that of drum ‘n’ bass, which despite its heavy reliance on ragga and hip hop influence remains to this day a truly multi-racial scene. Would such a melting pot of influences even be possible today with all this hand wringing of concern over cultural appropriation? Yet, surely the scenes of early nineties rave music and the drum ‘n’ bass that followed it are the absolute epitome of a post-racist utopia of bringing everyone together as equals in one place.
We have to be careful here not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The history of colonialism and cultural imperialism has been a history of European cultures travelling overseas and imposing their own cultural values and lifestyles onto the people they oppressed. As a history student I have read the highly offensive words of some of those conquerors, the patronising and condescending attitudes they had to other cultures, many of which in my view have deep and profound wisdom to offer the world (eg. India) and so it broke my heart to read it. Yet today we have white westerners converting to Hinduism, learning from Buddhism, wanting to take part in African music, dance and fashion, inspired by the art and film of Japan etc. Those insulting and condescending attitudes have faded. White people want to learn from other cultures. We want to enrich our lives with the many gifts that other cultures have to offer the world. This is a good thing! We are swapping our arrogant pride for humility and respect. And it breaks my heart that the current trend is to spit it back in our face.
If you’re really concerned about cultural erasure then perhaps you might want to think about embracing your own cultural heritage and educating those who naively take it on in a half-hearted or ignorant manner. Promote your culture and reach out to those who want to appreciate it but don’t know quite how. What you don’t want to do is assume that all white people are racist, arrogant bigots who just want to rape and belittle your culture for shallow reasons. Some will be like that, sure. But there are many others who genuinely want to learn and participate. Don’t throw up a wall. Build a bridge.
There’s a danger here too with the whole “you can’t appropriate from the dominant culture” thing. Technically it is true because cultural appropriation refers to the specific situation of cultural erasure and cultural imperialism. But if you are selling the idea that it’s ok for people of other cultures to borrow from the dominant culture but it’s not ok for the dominant culture to be inspired by other cultures, then you are actively contributing to cultural erasure yourself!
You may be genuinely inspired by Christianity and western technology for example, or you may just be trying to fit in to gain respect from the dominant culture. But if you are going to reject your own cultural heritage and then insist that westerners who are inspired by it have no right to it, then you are actually encouraging the death of your own culture anyway. The ending of the patronising attitudes and insulting claims about “savagery” of previous centuries of white conquerors, to be replaced by a respect and interest in other cultures fuelled by a lack of faith in our own (many people of European descent are abandoning Christianity in droves for example) is actually the antidote to those years of colonial oppression. We were wrong. There is much to learn from other cultures. Let us learn. Let us participate. Especially if you don’t have as much interest in keeping your own cultural traditions alive. Culture isn’t racial and it shouldn’t be racially segregated. It’s a bunch of ideas, beliefs and ways of living your life. It doesn’t really belong to anyone. You don’t want it to be watered down and erased? Then embrace and promote your own culture. And if you’re worried about your own people losing interest in your traditional, cultural ways, then why would you want to reject anyone who honestly wants to learn about it and incorporate it into their own lives? Welcome us into your tribe as honorary members, reach out to us, embrace us and teach us to do it right. Our skin colour shouldn’t act as a barrier to our inclusion because that would be the very definition of racism.
There is a whole host of racist assumptions behind a lot of arguments about cultural appropriation actually. For starters, why is no one talking about white on white cultural appropriation? Is the assumption that “white, western culture” or whatever is a cultural monolith, a homogenous entity?
Because the discussion often takes place between Americans, a lot is made of cultural appropriation of Mexican or Latin Amerian cultural artefacts. But in the UK, where I’m from, we often view Italians, Spanish etc as white too. This shows how subjective the whole matter of race can be. And let’s not forget that the first European peoples to conquer and subjugate other cultures were in fact Spanish and Portuguese.
And what of white societies that have historically been conquered and suppressed by other white societies? What of the Irish, who have been subjected to racism, stereotyping and mockery by the English in centuries past? What of the Scottish, who have often felt ruled over by the English? Why do cultural appropriation arguments never cover the appropriation of Scottish tartan or Irish St. Patrick Day celebrations? Could it be because the Scots and Irish don’t actually care about those things and are proud to see their heritage kept alive? Or could it be because the people talking about cultural appropriation are actually racist enough to believe that it only matters when it’s happening to brown, yellow or black people?
In fact there is another problem here of white people talking over people of other cultures. And I’m not talking about the people who are criticising the argument against cultural appropriation. I’m talking about the people making the argument.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have witnessed a person from a particular culture that is apparently being “appropriated”, whether they are African, Asian, Latin American or whatever, explaining that it doesn’t bother them at all and that it keeps their cultural traditions alive etc, only to be shouted down by a crowd of white people being offended on their behalf. They get told that it doesn’t matter what they think, they are only one individual person, there are other people from their race that are offended by cultural appropriation etc etc. Hang on! Isn’t that textbook whitesplaining? In fact why are so many white people being professionally offended on the behalf of people of other races? And to do that and then have the gall to shout down the opinions of someone who is actually of that race… Well, I’m gobsmacked by the hypocrisy of it all to be honest.
And another thing that is racist about cultural appropriation arguments is the assumption that you can even know what culture or race someone belongs to anyway. Are we all race realists now? Do you not know that throughout history people have had sex with and got pregnant by people of other races and cultures? How can you honestly say that someone who appears to be white doesn’t have any Indian blood, African blood, Chinese blood etc? How could they honestly say so? I seem to have the impression that I am purely and completely a mixture of English and Scottish but for all I know I have all sorts of other bits and pieces of mixed race in my genepool. I just don’t know my family tree well enough or have any awareness of my family history beyond three or four generations to say definitively that I know I have no African, Indian or Jewish blood in me. I could have all sorts of traces of ethnicity I don’t even know about!
The problem here is that we are making all kinds of assumptions, setting up all sorts of racist divisions between people in the name of apparent tolerance and progress in racial relations, but in practise are doing little more than policing art and self-expression, bullying well-minded people and hypocritically engaging in the same things we condemn. And it concerns me.
This can result in some particularly mean and unintended consequences. Take for example the way certain brands of radical feminist use the cultural appropriation argument (appropriate it?) to attack transgender people. “You are appropriating femininity and female identity” they tell us. Well, firstly that seems a strange argument to make when you are also claiming femininity is forced on women. So it’s not exactly a “culture” you made for yourself anyway, is it? Secondly you need to make a bunch of sexist assumptions that there is some inherent difference between men and women, and that you can assume things about people based on their biology, before you can even make the argument that it is even possible to steal culture from another gender. Erm… gender is not race. They are not equivalent by a long shot. But that’s a topic for another time perhaps.
In the meantime perhaps we should be very careful about assuming things about people based on their skin colour, policing artistic expression too tightly or claiming that culture is owned by anyone instead of being a positive boon for the whole human race.
And by the way, despite the trend of hippies wearing dreads being more to do with marijuana usage and an appreciation and respect for Bob Marley, dreadlocks didn’t originate solely in Africa you know, but also popped up independently in India, Ancient Greece and among the Vikings. Besides, the Rastafarians got the idea of dreads from a verse in the Bible about the Jewish custom of not cutting the hair. There’s no excuse for being historically stupid, OK?