You don’t know what cultural appropriation is
But don’t worry, neither does anyone else
If Chinua Achebe famously took a stand against Heart of Darkness, and the pervasive ‘art for art’s sake’ mentality that glossed over anyone’s analysis of its racism, it wasn’t because he hated Conrad (he in fact repeatedly admired the writer’s gift for words), it was because he had another point to make. In a lecture entitled ‘The Novelist as Teacher’ he gave at Leeds University in 1965, one concerned with the cultural landscape of post-colonial Nigeria, he argued that as a writer he should always be preoccupied with education, “to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement”. In other words, his art had to exist other than just for itself, as Western art did, because it could not be excused from the task of regenerating its culture.
Yet that wasn’t all he had to say. Achebe continued by announcing that all the cultural movements that were born out of the African states’ call for independence, from the vague “African personality” to the Négritude of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, were temporary support, designed to give those who had for so long been oppressed the confidence to create on equal terms. These movements’ anti-racist racism (as Sartre called it in Orphée Noir) — proclaiming not just that the formerly colonized were as good as other people, but better — was necessary only until oppression remained: “They are all props we have fashioned at different times to help us get on our feet again. Once we are up, we shan’t need any of them anymore”.
What does this have to do with cultural appropriation? Well, for one, as the reader will surely remember, Achebe wrote in English, something for which he was attacked in Nigeria throughout his life. Second, it shows that he successfully argued for the necessity of an idea that was, on its own, completely absurd: African pride is technically as ridiculous as any form of white pride (to be proud of where one comes from, for achievements one never had anything to do with, doesn’t make much rational sense), yet necessary so long as oppression persists.
If these two points matter, it’s because they fit in well with the back and forth commentators the world over have been having over cultural appropriation. On the one side, those against it have been saying that Western, (mostly) white persons constantly engage in the ‘unauthorized’ taking of some aspect of another’s culture, passing it as their own — thereby prolonging a long imperialist tradition of muggery. On the other, it’s been argued that culture is no definite object one can take or steal from, and certainly does not belong to any country or ethnicity. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, both are technically right. Something which, unfortunately, can only mean one thing: The supposed ‘debate’ over appropriation is in fact nothing more than an opportunity for two very different sets of people to argue, loudly, against each other, and about very different things. Welcome to politics.
So what, exactly, is cultural appropriation?
And therein lies our problem: both sides don’t really have the same definition of cultural appropriation. I venture that the main culprit is the term itself (besides, I’m sure, a certain self-interested cynicism animating a few members of either party), because it manages to muddle everything up.
It must, first and foremost, be admitted that the free-appropriation crowd have got one very important point right. If, as some would have you believe, the problem with cultural appropriation is just the appropriation itself — the fact that a person of one cultural upbringing would use part of another’s — then the whole fight against it is just the reworking of a very old and dangerous idea… I’ll let you guess which one (for now). It shouldn’t need any repeating, but cultures do not belong to their own, particular ethnicities, and vice versa. They are by definition ever-changing, created and acted out by communities through repeated interactions and exchanges with foreign concepts, skills, rituals, etc… Likewise, a person’s cultural identity does not, and should not, depend on his familial origins — it too is the result of various experiences, traditions, as well as education.
It is because some of the more numbskulled activist groups have based their actions on the false premise that a culture belongs to an ethnicity (or, worse, a race) that, in the mind of many, those fighting against cultural appropriation have been linked with the same absurd idea. Theirs is the position that forced the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to cancel its educational kimono try-on sessions — held in conjunction with an exhibition examining the orientalist gaze, and organized in collaboration with the NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster) — because protesters claimed it was imperialist. This kind of logic also dictates that I, by virtue of my pink skin and continental upbringing, could never even begin to write properly about the present subject. Do not let yourselves be fooled by this false reasoning: it’s not really anti-racist racism, it’s just plain old racism.
And yet (for all that!), it is worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of appropriation uproar deals with a slightly different meaning of the term — something a little closer to misappropriation (as The Guardian once thought it cute to call it). The problem isn’t exactly that a person of particular ‘culture’, upbringing, or ethnicity is somehow using parts of another’s, but rather that that person is doing it in a way that is demeaning, neglectful of anything resembling the object’s original significance, or simply insulting.
There are two basic ways this can happen. The first, more straightforward kind of cultural appropriation is quite simply the ‘offensive’ type (for lack of a more precise word). It regroups everything from the use of, say, a traditional and/or religious garment as an exotic party costume, to the mass culture trivialization of something that, for whatever historical or traditional reason, should certainly not be. Examples here range from your favorite douchey festival headwear to the latest fashion cock-up. On these at least, understanding what’s so wrong doesn’t require very much know-how in the way of cultural dynamics.
Where it gets a little more complicated, however, is with our second type of cultural appropriation, something we’ll call whitewashing. While most of the academically-minded have been right to frame this in terms of power relations, the central concept is fairly simple: It is when the dominant culture appropriates an element of another (often, but not always, in a context where there is a history of oppression), without deeming it necessary to mention or credit its origins. The reason why this kind of appropriation can be particularly damaging is because it is often done without the least offensive impulse, and helps to further marginalize communities that could use a bit more inclusion (to put it mildly).
Let’s take a look at an example. The picture at the very top of this post is the work of an NYC-based collective named Orientation, comprised of a mix of Bengali, Indian, and Korean artists. Tired of never seeing themselves reflected in the media beyond one-dimensional stereotypes, the three began producing surrealist works, aiming to tackle the issues surrounding the representation (and perception) of minorities. Lucky for us, this, their first ever piece, is concerned with Beyoncé’s bindi-heavy appearance in Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video (which was itself something of an appropriation fest). While her get-up alone does much in explaining our concept, another related occurrence illuminates it better. A short while after that photo was posted, the creator behind Beyoncé’s veil, a Brooklyn designer who goes by the name House of Malakai, responded by arguing that “the veil was not made with any culture in mind”, before philosophizing: “Our spirits gravitate to similar symbology and imagery all around the world, before we knew of other cultures existence (sic)”.
Had the man actually said that he admired Indian culture and imagery, and wanted to create something unique using its most beautiful aesthetics (for example), then his work might have been more excusable. Yet his response reveals something of a warped mentality, a gross — and surely unintentional — denial of another’s cultural tradition, hidden under the cover of artistic creativity (or whatever those ‘spirits’ stand for). It simply isn’t enough to claim cultural universality when your work is so blatantly influenced by a specific tradition; this is to be insulting to an almost heroic degree. And yet his remark goes a long way in showing precisely why such appropriation can be so damaging… It’s not exactly obvious to all.
That the ‘fight’ over cultural appropriation may, in truth, only be an argument over what the term actually means should not detract from the issues behind it — the repeated insults, trivialization, and outright denial faced by cultural traditions outside the mainstream. If you, like me, find yourself occasionally confused by the rights and wrongs of appropriation, then you may find it worthwhile to follow Chinua Achebe’s example: Appropriate only what you truly know, understand, and find useful (as he did with English, masterfully molding its grammar and syntax into a distinct Nigerian style), and recognize the fact that others have a right to be proud of, and defend, what for so long they weren’t allowed to — their culture.
Above all, however, one must realize that having a blurred line between appropriation and appreciation is in truth quite a good thing. If the difference between the rights and wrongs of cultural exchange are entirely political, dictated by whatever social crisis affects the time and place in question, then what matters most— in the overwhelming majority of cases — is an actual awareness of the political problems at play, and an understanding of how these seep into everyday culture. It is then, and only then, that one may avoid the pitfalls of misappropriation.