Cultural Appropriation: Whose culture is it anyway, and what about hybridity?

Before I start, I’m going to lay my cards on the table: I don’t fit race and ethnicity boxes very well. Whenever I have to fill in one of those diversity questionnaires, I always tick ‘other’ because none of the options really describe me. My dad was born in Tanzania of British and Austrian-Jewish parents (one of whom was born and grew up in India), spent his childhood and adolescence between South Africa and the UK, and is now a China expert who has spent at least half (probably much more) of his adult life in China. My mum was born in Beijing, of Cantonese and Hakka parents who were born and grew up in Singapore and Thailand, respectively. She has spent almost all of her adult life in the UK.

As for me, I was born in Shropshire, near the border with Wales, grew up between England and China, spent the last decade in Scotland, England, the Czech Republic, China and America, and now live full-time in Scotland. This is in part, perhaps, why I have a very hard time getting my head around the idea of cultural ownership and appropriation — identity is messy and fluid, after all, so who gets to say who owns what? And from whom do we seek permission?

Me carrying out a stereotypical Chinese child activity (alas, badly)

I was on-board, more or less, with the anti-cultural appropriation arguments when they mostly centred around condemning the use of racist stereotypes in halloween and fancy dress costumes. Dressing up as ‘default Indian woman’ or ‘stock Chinese man’ almost always has the unwholesome whiff of racist cartoons about them, often only serving to promote absurd stereotypes, disrespectful by nature. If I had a penny for every time a kid in school or in the park pulled the corners of their eyes up and shouted “ching chong chang” at me, for instance, or for every “oh but what about maths?” comment I received when I said that my favourite subjects were art and literature… Even as a kid I wanted this stuff challenged. But I also never for a second believed that the way to challenge these instances of ignorance, and ignorant othering, (which is essentially what they are) is to fence off areas of culture to be the sole preserve of specific peoples, based on some kind of birthright.

For one thing, insisting that certain types of clothing, activities, food, etc, can only be worn, mastered or enjoyed by certain peoples can only serve to divide and alienate. Condemnation of dreadlocks on non-blacks, yoga practised or taught by non-Indians, Chinese food chefs who aren’t Chinese, can never reduce or end racism, because the reason for racism isn’t appreciation, adoption and interest towards other cultures, but ignorance, ostracisation and othering of them. Telling me that only I can openly and without challenge celebrate Chinese New Year or wear qipao or teach Chinese cookery (haha, me and cooking!) can only serve to promote the idea of me as an exotic other, or Chinese stereotype, as things deemed to be culturally ‘mine’ become off-limits to anyone not Chinese, or at least East Asian. I have experienced attempts at policing cultural appropriation on my behalf that, while well-intentioned, feel like the (similarly well-intentioned) patronising over-respect I sometimes received in the ‘90s/early-2000s from people who’d bow, carefully compliment my English and offer to make me a bowl of rice (because surely that’s what all Chinese-looking people want!), without knowing anything about me, out of some misguided sense that that was the culturally respectful thing to do.

“This is what you people always eat, right?”

Despite being mixed, I’m generally read as Chinese or some other East Asian grouping in the West, and just as I shouldn’t have been subject to appearance-based stereotyping, assumptions or name-calling, the mere fact of looking Chinese also shouldn’t grant me ownership and gatekeeping powers over the artefacts and practices of a culture that, to be honest, I don’t even try very hard to inhabit. But even if I grew up all my life in China, or amongst the Chinese community, celebrating every festival and going to Chinese cram school, the very fact of this should only, ideally, give me knowledge that I can enjoy and share, rather than withhold. I have seen opponents of cultural appropriation furious at non-Asians for blogging about their experiences cooking Asian dishes, for instance, and then in the next breath complain about Westerners’ ignorance about Chinese food and clumsiness in using chopsticks (for the record, I’ve used them ‘wrong’ all my life). How can one not be ignorant if one isn’t allowed to appreciate, experiment and learn without fear of attack?

Some would argue that part of the problem with cultural appropriation is that those in the dominant culture get to be ‘cool’ or ‘edgy’ when they appropriate things from other cultures that are otherwise mocked or vilified. I can empathise with this, but I think it misses the point. Mockery and demonisation of things from other cultures is racism and bullying, obviously. A kid being laughed at for their ‘smelly’ packed lunch or their ‘weird’ clothes speaks of ignorance, a lack of diversity, and of a culture where the norms of acceptability are too rigid and focused on specific cultural values.

I can totally understand the desire to want to reclaim what was mocked and ban anyone else from enjoying it just because it became cool ‘when white people did it’ — but that won’t help. It won’t undo the bullying that happened, and it won’t stop it from happening again. Only greater mixing of cultures, experimentation and fusion can, as it normalises what’s seen as other and makes it seem less weird or threatening or icky. Of course there’s a problem with the fact that the media so often serves up the products of other cultures through white vessels in the belief that it makes them more palatable or desirable, but we should challenge that through calling for more diverse representation, rather than calling out Justin Bieber from having dreadlocks or Miley Cyrus for twerking.

Additionally, I think that part of the reason for these people seeming ‘cool’ or ‘edgy’ has more, in fact, to do with the novelty of hybridity, rather than just them being white. In a culture where the expectation is that ‘white people do white people things’ and ‘black people do black people things’, anyone who goes against the grain is going to stand out. In a more mixed society where culture is constantly being borrowed and melded and merged, it likely wouldn’t seem so exotic or amazing. As an aside, I seriously considered getting dreadlocks in my late teens precisely because I was sick of people typecasting me as ‘that Chinese person’, and to do something to show that I don’t fit the stereotype. I’d suggest that a black celebrity in traditional Japanese clothing, for example, could attract just as much interest and influence fashion trends—especially if the mainstream media gave them enough attention.

Another big problem with the arguments against cultural appropriation is that it suggests that there is some kind of inborn cultural essence, possessed by everyone from any given race; a concept that is not only critically flawed, but also all but erases the existence of hybridity. If we say that only black people can have dreadlocks, how ‘light’ would one need to be before they run the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation? If I had a child who looks more European than Asian, can they safely wear traditional Chinese clothes? Can their children? Should we not be rather alarmed at the idea that people are now judging and deeming others not black or Asian or whatever enough to access certain cultural practices, much as the South African government did under apartheid?

Overleaf: a handy guide to categorised facial features.

I know next to nothing about Thailand, my grandmother’s birthplace, and it slightly amuses but also depresses me that there are people who’d vehemently defend my right to police how others want to experience Thai culture, should I so wish. Saying that only certain people, largely based on appearance and/or parentage, can do or wear or eat certain things, or become experts in them, not only implies ingrained differences between peoples where there essentially are none, but also leaves no room for those who are caught in between, those who are a mixture, or adopted, who maybe pass for only half or a quarter of their cultural identities but none of the others, and who are uncategorisable.

What is more, these cultural and racial boundaries are constantly shifting and evolving, usually much to the enrichment of human culture and civilisation, and mainly thanks to cultural mixing and hybridisation. Dreadlocks have emerged and belonged to a number of different cultural traditions, in Africa, India, the Americas, Australia, Asia and Europe, with people of all hues. Much ‘traditional’ clothing from China and Japan has influences back and forth historically along the Silk Route, from Europe and the Middle East and India, and as a result of trade in the 19th and 20th centuries. What we think of as ‘traditional Chinese clothes’ now was not always the case, and certainly won’t always be. In Japan currently there is a great push towards selling clothes made using traditional Japanese techniques, but with new and modernised (and hybridised) designs to appeal to modern Japanese and global consumers, in order to prevent these skills from dying out. Protests against cultural appropriation, such as the one at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ kimono event last year, do not consider that by complaining that trying on kimonos should be off-limits to non-Japanese visitors, they are depriving skilled craftsmen and women in Japan of a potential market to keep their techniques alive (the protestors were largely not Japanese themselves, incidentally).

Go back far enough in history, and it rarely needs to be that far, and all culture is hybrid culture — no matter what some nationalists may claim. We are doing a disservice to how humans communicate and how societies and cultures evolve by wishing to preserve these things in aspic or categorise them into boxes: X peoples do this; Y peoples do that... Susan Scafidi, law professor at Fordham University whose definition of cultural appropriation is probably the most-widely quoted calls it, “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” But whose culture is it anyway, and how can we possibly decide definitively who owns this cultural “intellectual property” that is by definition shared amongst many? If we are forced to “ask permission” or talk about ownership, we are also forced to draw boundaries of blackness or Indian-ness or Chinese-ness that will always cause harm to, and negate the existence of those caught in the middle of those definitions.

As Kwame Anthony Appiah discusses in his excellent Reith Lectures series on Mistaken Identities, “cultural values aren’t a birthright, you need to keep caring about them”, and I think this is also true of cultural practices and artefacts. The idea of inherent and inalienable ownership of clothing styles, foods or activities makes no sense when we consider that, not only are cultural identities constantly shifting and evolving, but also no individual can be the ultimate authority on all things relating to a shared culture.

If someone were to enrol for a flamenco class or French pastry course as a beginner, we’d think them a fool if they talked as if they were any kind of authority on it, even if they were Spanish or French, just as a black belt in judo or a master classical cellist would be afforded the respect due to them in their knowledge of their field, irrespective of where they are from, or even where they might look like they’re from. I find it hilarious that people might listen to me over my dad when it comes to authoritative information about Chinese culture, even though he speaks, reads and writes fluent Chinese and has spent over thirty years in China, while I stumble over my toddler vocabulary, regularly forget when the major festivals are, and only lived there full-time for about 3–4 years of my childhood, and not-quite a year of adulthood (I couldn’t stick it out; I needed bread and pasta too badly). The idea that my face should somehow automatically confer on me an aura of authenticity, knowledge and ownership over All Things Chinese (or even East Asian), while my dad’s should do the opposite, baffles and rather annoys me. Going back to the issue of passing, I have met people with more Chinese heritage (and lived experience or knowledge) in them than I have, who *don’t* pass as Chinese, and would not receive the same amount of automatic respect when talking about Chinese matters; they sometimes even receive accusations of cultural appropriation due to not ‘looking the part’.

I find it interesting, incidentally, that so many of these discussions seem to have come from, or are based on, an assumption of race and cultural dynamics as they currently are in America. Perhaps one of the most unhelpful cultural assumptions a lot of these discussions make is that everything works the way it does in America, and everywhere is the same. I have purposefully steered clear of the topic of cultural appropriation and American Indian cultural traditions, for instance, because I know that I am limited in my knowledge of that particular dynamic, and I know that there are many more complex issues there relating to the use of sacred iconography and so on. Of course there is racism in the UK, and in the rest of Europe, and in China, to name three examples I feel I can speak on with more authority, but the dynamics are often very different. People aren’t discriminated against along the same lines, and the cultural stereotypes that have caused problems and divisions are different.

Even when it comes down to individual words in a shared language things are different on either side of the Atlantic. Oriental, for instance, doesn’t have the same shocking racist connotations here as it does in the States — as I discovered after referring to my “Oriental half” to a group of shocked US college students. What this means in the discussions on cultural appropriation is that nuance in accounting for different circumstances and contexts is often lost, at the expense of attempting to define a set of hard and fast rules that we can call people out for breaking. It also means that the subtleties of different hybrid cultures become lost — are London school kids, for example, really appropriating black or Asian culture when they grew up in massively culturally diverse schools speaking the same slang, that can be from a mixture of British, Asian and African (as well as media) cultural influences?

As with so many things, respect and a willingness to learn — and forgive — is key. There are of course instances where the use of cultural artefacts/practices crosses the line from respectful and/or appreciative to mocking or even just irritatingly ignorant. I remember getting very cross in my London primary school by the line in a song we learnt to sing about Chinese dragons that went, “wandering and weaving down the street, Chinatown dragon has a lot of feet!” (“TWO PAIRS of feet!” I’d correct furiously under my breath, not taking into account the fact that for anyone watching dancers in a dragon costume, they did have a lot of feet sticking out of the bottom — they just weren’t *technically* meant to belong to the dragon).

Definitely a lot of feet under there.

We’ve got to learn to distinguish the racist and mocking, which we do call out, from the simply ignorant, which we can help by sensitively adding more info. Crucially, we also need to distinguish both of those from the hybrid and new. It should be ok to have ketchup with your fried Chinese dumplings, or put ‘Western’ ingredients in sushi or mix clothes from different traditions on your person or use Chinese watercolour techniques in non-traditional ways, or practise yoga purely for fitness and relaxation — and talk about all of that openly — whatever your background. Creativity and experimentation and appreciation of different things is where new cultures and traditions come from, and also represents and creates space for hybrid populations to exist and thrive; it’d be tragic to lose that.

Recommended Further Reading/Listening

Here are some pieces I read/listened to while researching for this blog post, which I thought were thought-provoking and interesting (even if I don’t always agree with all of them entirely —although I concede that they are all largely critical of campaigns against cultural appropriation. They are also almost all written by other cross-cultural PoC):