Note: This is from an American perspective and is about American politics. I am not going to touch many international politics.
This is a discussion I think the internet needs to have because, apparently, the internet cannot pick and choose their battles real well, which is extending to real life. I am not here to call out specific person or tell them how to do things. You’re allowed to do whatever you wish. I am allowed to criticize you, in that regard. I cannot tell you what to do. But I do want to talk about cultural appropriation; when it is “acceptable” and when it is not. Basically, as stated earlier “picking and choosing your battles”.
So far, online and irl, I have seen people call others out citing “cultural appropriation”. They seem to aggressively take such a stance that they got a Taco stand business to go under in Portland recently, because it was ran by a pair of white ladies and that did offend some sensibilities. But I have also seen, first hand story on Tumblr, about the lady above, to what I assume her adviser is probably a white person, (because the young lady with her fair skin was what they call “white passing”.) and couldn’t possibly have a connection to India. This cultural appropriation thing has become all about race, when it should not be.
First of all, I’d like to point out that culture and race are entirely different things. Race is supposed to be biological, and most people judge based on phenotype, which are those obvious details such as skin color. However, per anthropology, this is incorrect. You cannot simply tell someone’s origins on this planet based on phenotype. Skin color can totally lie to you. (As I said by that girl who is from India.) Growing up in Oklahoma where the five great tribes are at, I can personally attest to seeing Native friends that have blonde hair and blue eyes, on more than one occasion. (I also know some people who are Native and very light skinned.) Maybe it’s because they mixed with Caucasians, but you know what, I don’t care and their tribes usually do not either. Most “race” ideals by the general public are completely socio-cultural. Races tend to be construed as ethnic groups, by members of a certain culture, to have a biological basis, even when they may not.
So, where does this leave culture? Culture, as it turns out, is completely learned behaviors. Culture is symbolic. Culture is shared. Cultures are integrated and patterned systems. Culture is not from an individual, but members of a group. And culture can even be adaptive and maladaptive. Yep, culture is not biological. It never has been “race based”, despite what many would have you believe. Some cultures may require you to have a biological background the same as them, but a good chunk of them do not. I noticed that at least, with Americans, they cannot see that culture is separated from race.
While I am at it I need to point out that a sub-culture is not the same as regular culture. A sub-culture uses different symbols, patterns, and traditions associated with particular groups “in the same complex society” as my textbook adequately notes. That is to say sub-cultures still have an element of conformity to the main culture they deviated from. A good example would be the LGBT various sub-cultures. Cultural appropriation doesn’t usually refer to these types of cultures, so we are going to skip them as well, since they are technically part of the majority culture.
Cultural appropriation also does not refer to dead cultures. Dead cultures are on whole other level. I have seen some Heathens and pagans, of the reconstructionist persuasion usually, try to control others by shouting cultural appropriation at them when they get curious about a certain dead culture. But really, it’s hard to offend that which is gone. On this note, I need to point out two divisions in anthropology; 1. Cultural anthropology, the study of living cultures. 2. Archaeology, the study of dead cultures. Whenever anthropology seriously uses ‘cultural appropriation’, it is never in reference to dead cultures.
What cultural appropriation does refer to, is when a majority culture borrows, steals, capitalizes on, and/or misrepresents a minority culture. (Usually disregarding the symbolism all together.) One of the best examples, that was even taken seriously by anthropology for awhile, is Carlos Castaneda. (Seems like a lot of people have no clue who he is.) The most popular example of this is that model I posted above, which many attack constantly. In many Native traditions, those headpieces are sacred. It would be improper therefore, to assume this as a fashion trend given the history of Native peoples in America not even being allowed to practice their own indigenous religions until the 1970’s and many being forced to Christianity. (Although, there are some Natives who still don’t care about models.)
Another problem is faux shamans, which in my opinion, are more dangerous to their living cultures than a model with a bad fashion choice. Natives even got together and made a website spelling at the dangers of these frauds to the general populace. I feel like these New Age frauds are far more harmful than a fashion model, but I have absolutely never seen anyone who gets offended by appropriation, in the social justice blog sphere, ever call or point them out. (Except actual Natives.) No, instead I see more people bitch and moan about fashion, or people eating ethnic food. (Trust me, they are not really killing the cultures with that.)
Cultural assimilation, the opposite, is not the same. This is when the minority culture assimilates with the majority culture. They may do this to fit in, and thus this is not what people define as appropriation. So, this comparison does not work.
Sometimes the lines between cultural diffusion (borrowing/exchange) and cultural appropriation, and even cultural appreciation blur. Even among the tribes, they can disagree about what constitutes actual cultural appropriation. And so do anthropologists, who do not seem to see cultural appropriation as this black and white issue, where it is all bad. It’s more like a gray issue.
We must keep in mind that cultures have and will not ever exist in vacuum and that cultural purity retention can have downsides. The biggest downside I have seen is how accusations of cultural appropriation have suddenly turned into these ideas of racial segregation and cultural purity, under new guises of being “progressive”. There we need to stop and think.
Now, for examples of “cultural appropriation”, that benefited said culture… We have Japan. Foreigners have literally saved the kimono market. People actually cater to them. Many Japanese people do not care at all about cultural appropriation, they invite foreigners to participate in the culture. It is actually encouraged to do so.
Some may argue that this is not “cultural appropriation” because Japan did this to themselves. Back in 2015, however, protesters took it upon themselves to lecture actual Japanese people about sharing their culture and inviting the West to participate. (Including wearing kimonos.) Being that it was “appropriation” to do so, and therefore also wrong. (And also racist.)
This reminds me of when the majority people would claim to speak for minority groups, claim to represent them. When the minority groups were perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and called out the majority for misrepresenting them. Why should we control people in such a manner when we are supposedly “helping” them? Doesn’t this sound like we’re pushing our cultural values and outlook on them? I think it’s awfully pretentious to always know what minority groups want, because there are definitely minority groups who just don’t care about cultural appropriation.
The idea of POC vs white, also needs to be addressed quickly. This is a very American thing. The world is not represented by white vs everyone else. But Americans keep acting like it is. For example, in China, the majority is completely Han Chinese. China has about 55 ethnicities that are NOT Han Chinese. Whites are a minority in their culture, so the argument simply does not work.
Context is important and especially important in the controversial gray area topics such as cultural appropriation. It is perfectly fine to be eclectic in religious or spiritual practices, but know what you’re doing at least. It’s fine to learn a language, culture, dress style, and food. If you’re confused about it, you can always take the advice of my professor in anthropology: “If you want to appropriate, get it from a culture where no one cares about appropriation [in said culture] or else try a dead culture.”
References, besides the links:
Anthropology: Appreciating Human Diversity (4th edition) by C.Kottak