Monday, July 23, 2018

Is cultural appropriation real?

In recent years you might have begun hearing about cultural appropriation.  It's not a new complaint.  People have been bitching about it for years, probably since 1933, when George Preston Marshall, owner of the Boston Braves, made the inexplicable decision to change their name from the Braves to the Redskins.

Since then, there has been growing awareness that maybe we like, shouldn't treat people as if they are cartoony mascots like Chomps the Dog or Roary the Lion.

Steely McBeam is a human being with feelings, damn it.

There's a been a pushback against costumes that demean cultures and I think that's a good thing.

This picture of a Chiricahua Apache man confronting a man in "red face" should make you feel very, very uncomfortable, 
for obvious reasons.

Certainly, I think there's an issue with an NFL team using an ethnic race as a mascot.  I also think there's an issue with people dressing up in caricature Halloween costumes.


But I'd like us to take a step back for this post and ask ourselves: is all cultural appropriation bad?  I'm here to argue that, no.  There's frankly not even such a thing.  There's only cultural misappropriation, in which the imitation or recreation of racial stereotypes is used to demean them.

Let's talk about how we define cultural misappropriation.

Most cultural appropriation comes from the imitation of races or ethnic traits or cultural elements in a mocking manner, without respect for the culture.  The last part of that sentence is key.  The lack of respect makes cultural appropriation distinctive from multiculturalism, which is the mixing of races and cultures in a way that is open and sympathetic and respectful.  Instead of calling cultural appropriation "cultural appropriation," we should just call it cultural disrespect or cultural mockery.

Just look at what multiculturalism has done.

The concept of "cultural appropriation" being a bad thing is part of identity politics and value-signalling that I consider extremely problematic.  It's an exclusionary position and it prevents the sharing of cultures.

When people say something has been misappropriated, I get it.  I do.  But to say appropriation is inherently a bad thing is getting dangerously close to telling races of people to "stay in their lanes."

For example, there are people who lose their damn minds anytime a white pop star wears a kimono to Japan.  (There's a very insightful article about this controversy in The Japan Times.)  There was a recent Twitter freak-out when a white women wore a qi-pao-styled dress to prom.  (Note that mostly white people were upset, not the Chinese.)

In the above USA Today article (linked), one Chinese commenter stated, "It is not cultural appropriation, it's cultural appreciation."

This is the most succinct way for me to explain my position on "cultural appropriation."  It's not a bad thing.  It's a way to reach out to other races, bridge cultural gaps, and learn.

The people who tend to complain about appropriation come from a place of privilege.  In this society of "woke" people trying to be the wokest, there's a push to constantly outdo each other to prove how woke they are.  The result is focusing on a teenager in a Chinese prom dress instead of, say, changing the name of the Washington Redskins.  Since fighting for the Redskins to change their name is a common and well-understood stance, many people have abandoned it, thinking that the desired outcome is inevitable and they should get working on identifying the next big thing.

Speaking of Native Americans, I have a "friend" on FaceBook who is constantly one-upping everyone else with her "social progressiveness" and her most recent campaign is against a plastic straw ban.  She found a way (well, not really) to tie it into the plight of indigenous lands being destroyed, thereby really minimizing both issues.  Talk about value-signalling.

I wish the first commenter had used the "Why not both?" girl from the Old El Paso taco commercials, 
because it would have really helped tie together this post about cultural appropriation.

Anyway, my point is, talk of "cultural misappropriation" seems to mostly come from ultra socially progressive white people who are trying to shame and/or call out other white people, and I think the whole thing has become nothing but value signalling that has lost its original intention.  The original intention, of course, was to tell people to stop wearing blackface and mocking other cultures as caricatures.

What it sounds like to me

Part of the reason I've been thinking of this is because of a recent documentary on Netflix about Rachel Dolezal.  I watched it about 65% because of its insanely clever pun title, The Rachel Divide.  In short, it's about a woman who has committed racial fraudulence, passing herself off as black.  To me, the issue was not her self-identity but that she profited from it.  She was using blackness as a prop for her own identity politics and was heavily involved in movements such as Black Lives Matters.  She was an ally who had taken away the voice from those who she claimed to be championing.  That, in a nutshell, is "cultural appropriation" at its worst.

Sampling other cultures is fine as long as you're not stepping over anyone in the process or taking away their voice.  We need to get rid of the term "cultural appropriation" altogether and start calling it what it really is: racism.

People who sample elements from other cultures because they like the look of it (for example, white people in cornrows) are not mocking the culture or taking anything away from it.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.  It's only when that imitation is used to mock, profit, or deceive that it becomes an issue. (Full disclosure: I have a Mohawk.)

Now, don't get me wrong.  There's a fuzzy gray area.  For example, I had a white friend who went to a Japanese culture festival in Little Toyko and wore a yukata that she had received as a gift from a friend who went to Japan.  She was hesitant to wear it because of "cultural appropriation."  Except that a yukata is the accepted thing to wear in those circumstances.  If you're a guy at a Jewish wedding, you put on a yarmulke even if you aren't Jewish, right?  In these instances, it's a matter of respect, and knowing enough about the culture to know what is and is not appropriate.  It's more respectful to wear a yukata to a celebration of Japanese culture than, say, jorts and a Daddy's Lil' Monster t-shirt (the cultural uniform of the basic white girl).

On the other hand, when I went to see Black Panther (shout-out to the last two memes!), I sure as hell didn't dress up.  It just wasn't my place to do so.  That movie wasn't made for me and that character wasn't made for me, and while I enjoyed it thoroughly, drawing attention to myself and taking it away from others would have been wrong.

Subtle, quiet support.
I wore a knit cap and a necklace that were both from Africa.
No cosplay.

I guess what I'm saying is, the burden of ensuring that one doesn't accidentally do something shit-headed really falls on the individual.

As for the rest of us, we need to stop focusing on stupid, tiny issues to make ourselves feel superior.  And by "rest of us," I mostly mean white people, honestly.  The ancestry of Americans is such a mash-up of other cultures that I see no reason why we can't celebrate them and borrow stylistic elements.

Without cultural appropriation, we wouldn't have The Village People.

If you're the type of person who feels uncomfortable wearing clothes from other cultures, then don't.  But don't police others and tell them that they can't pay tribute to other cultures.  The dissemination of culture is fundamental to Americans.

 We're culturally appropriating the Borg.

It's time to stop focusing on microaggressions and start focusing on macroaggressions.  There is no such thing as cultural appropriation.  There's cultural misappropriation, aka cultural mockery or cultural disrespect, which is racism.  And there's multiculturalism, which is the respectful sharing and blending and celebration of cultures, which is not racism.

Multiculturalism benefits our society and strengthens us as human beings.  Shaming white people for wearing dreads doesn't actually help society; it's activism without any teeth, bark with no bite, shameless, self-aggrandizing value-signalling without purpose.  (Side note: white people, dreads look bad on you.  Please stop.)

We have a lot to learn from each other, and that means sharing and mixing culture.  And that's not appropriation.

A great man once said, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”  

And that man's name?  

King T'Challa.  Aka, Black Panther.

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