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Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation


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There have been a lot of accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ flying about recently. Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group.

As such cultural appropriation happens all the time in the form of people taking aspects of a culture outside of their own and using it in the arts, music, cooking and so on. This borrowing, sharing and being inspired by other cultures sounds like a positive thing. However the term has recently been used in much more sinister way. Angry individuals have been throwing around accusations of ‘cultural appropriation’ with accusations of ignorance, racism and neo-colonialism subtly following. 

There are times when a culture is appropriated in a way that is most definitely negative. Perhaps Zwartze Piet (Black Pete), a character that the Dutch like to parade around every Christmas is an example of cultural appropriation at its worst. Here little children and adults alike in Holland dress up as Zwartze Piet, wearing dark make-up, an afro wig and dark red exaggerated lips. Zwartze Piet plays the role of Sinter Klaas’s (Santa’s) servant. This is clearly negative as Zwartze Piet is a figure of ridicule and consciously or not it promotes the idea that blacks are inferior.

Katy Perry has recently been slammed in the media for cultural appropriation in her performance at the American Music Awards. I have to say I think the performance was in bad taste, depicting an old-fashioned image of Oriental culture in which the dancers made to look Asian seem timid and submissive. However, I found the criticism in which an author on Jezebel accused Perry of being racist and strongly condemned her ‘mashup’ of the Chinese cheongsam and the Japanese Kimono unfair. She slates Perry for misrepresenting Japanese culture. The author’s critique of Perry mixing up Japanese and Chinese cultures in her dress is ridiculous. Since when does fashion have to represent a real and accurate depiction of culture? Fashion has long been using fusion’s of different cultures to create new eye-catching looks. I don’t want to live in world where extreme political correctness inhibits creativity. Perry is known for her outrageous outfit choices. Part of her success is from looking eye-catching and Perry will do this is any way she sees fit. As a pop star she hardly has a duty to educate the masses on culture through her dress choice. If you want to gain knowledge about a certain culture, you’d better switch to a travel documentary or some other informative and factual programme, not the American Music awards.

A little research will show that nearly every celebrity has been guilty of cultural appropriation. Kim Nikuru slates Christina Aguilera for trying to act ghetto in her video “Can’t hold us down”, Shakira for celebrating African culture in her video “Waka Waka” and Gwen Stefani for adopting Mexican culture in her video “Luxurious” and featuring Harajuku girls in her video “Rich Girl”. An endless list of celebrities have taken inspiration from cultures outside of their own and as a result have faced angry accusations of cultural appropriation.

Accusations of cultural appropriation have even gone so far as to ward people off buying any items with an ethnic design. When aspects of another culture are used in art, fashion, design and owning items as innocent as a dream catcher or a Moroccan rug can result in you being accused of ‘stealing’ another culture, I think the situation has got out of hand. 

Huffington Post author Udoka Okafor gives stern warning to readers that “you can’t wear, represent” and in her words “corrupt important parts of people’s culture.” She states “you can’t, you simply don’t have the right”. I don’t agree. Since time began man has been borrowing, learning and appropriating each other’s culture and this can be a rewarding process, beneficial to all. Appreciating another’s culture and appropriating it in a positive way brings cultures together rather than separates them.

To me, promoting this strict adherence for people to stick to their own cultures is hugely detrimental. People shouldn’t fear that their appreciation of an aspect outside of their own culture will mean they have to face angry accusations of cultural appropriation. Okafor likens celebrities who have used cultures outside of their own to colonizers who tried to wipe out whole cultures. However her anger over colonisation should not be taken out on a generation of pop stars and consumers whose intentions are far from those of history’s western imperialistic colonisers. Why take an automatically negative view on those who appreciate a culture outside of their own? Why should it offend her that someone born into one culture is now embodying an aspect of another culture? If they are not promulgating a negative stereotype then where is the harm and why condemn them? 

It is quite clear that imitating an aspect of a culture can be done in a way that is highly disrespectful or in a way that simply appreciates that culture. Can people not use their common sense and decipher which one it is instead of automatically condemning anyone who ‘appropriates’ another culture?

Nobody has the right to tell a white man he can’t sing reggae songs.

Nobody has the right to tell a white girl that she can’t twerk.

Nobody has the right to tell a Chinese guy that he can’t wear tribal print.

Okafor sees cultural appropriation as ‘stealing’ another’s culture. However, is her warning for people to stick to their own culture not stealing people’s individual freedom?

Lauren Duca, writing for Huffington Post, states that the only time when cultural appropriation is acceptable is “with permission or authorisation by the origin culture.” So should the likes of Amy Winehouse and Maverick Sabre have asked permission before they delved into the world of soulful R&B? Should the likes of Eminem and Iggy Azalea requested authorisation before they entered the rap scene? Both R&B and Rap music are largely seen as originating from African-American culture, so does this mean African-Americans are needed to grant permission to people outside of this culture to enjoy R&B and rap? And what if one African-American grants permission whilst another condemns it?

The concept that some sort of authority exists that can consent your engagement of another culture is absurd. The whole notion that culture as ideas, customs and social behaviour can be strictly categorised into one particular group or another is completely nonsensical when you think how much of culture is formed in the context of interaction and shared experience. Culture is rarely a linear development but rather a product of an innumerable number of interactions of trade, war, immigration, translation, colonisation and exploration. The arts, music, cooking and so on have all strengthened from interaction not isolation.

Yes, we should live in a world where people complain when a culture is being appropriated by another in a way that suppresses and limits a certain culture. However, I don’t want to live in a world where cultural appropriation is always seen as an invasive form of theft and consequently suppresses and limits individuals.

People should be able to pursue their interests and hobbies and suit their taste without feeling that they are restricted by their own culture. Without this freedom, cultural integration will be stilted. In the pursuit of a globalised world where people are not constrained by their cultural backgrounds, different cultures should be shared and celebrated. People need to understand that cultural appropriation doesn’t have to be negative and it can be a form of cultural appreciation so that we don’t live in a world bound up by segregation.

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