A lot has been written on this subject recently, both in the world of fellow intercultural-relationship bloggers and in the mainstream media. The whole debate has on more than a few occasions ruffled my feathers. There seems to be an increasing number of condescending and negative anti-cultural appropriation articles out there (amongst some quite valid ones) so I thought I would do my bit to re-dress the balance and put my point of view out there. As usual there is a comprehensive list of links to other articles and blogs at the end.
So, cultural appropriation, what is it? Dictionary definition says:
“Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.”
So why is it such a touchy subject? Wikipedia says:
“Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights… According to authors in the field, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that the “appropriation” or “misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context.”
Well thanks for clearing that up Wikipedia. I could carry on in a very academic discourse now about the “exotic” and the “other” and how neither of them are particularly wholesome terms when you are at the receiving end. I will state from the very beginning that I do not support cultural (mis)appropriation when it is done with bad intent and despite not being the biggest fan of stringent political correctness, when it is done in an uneducated and disrespectful way that causes offence or hardship to the culture in question. However, this article is not an essay – I want to share with you my thoughts on why it is not always a bad thing – or at least that certain acts need to be re-termed as per wikipedia above suggests.
So why am I in such a tizz about it all? Well there have sprung up actual hate groups – internet trolls who set out to harass and humiliate the ever growing number of white women in relationships with Indian men (I’m sure there are equivalents for other nationalities/races also but I’m going to talk about the one relevant to me). I find this bizarre and shocking. I’ve also read a great deal of articles also with subjects covering everything from white people shouldn’t be allowed to practice yoga or wear bindis to horrified reactions to various pop star’s costume/ dance move / music video locations choices. A lot of these are a little over zealous in their condemnation of the act.
I like to think that we have moved on somewhat from the hate and prejudice of the colonial and apartheid eras and that the world is slowly embracing this concept of a ‘global village’ where we are all in it together and equal. OK so we are not quite ready for world peace just yet and intolerance is rife but on the whole, we are living in increasingly progressive times. Due to the internet and wider accessibility of air travel, cultures are mixing now more than ever with more bridges being built than burnt. I am ever the optimist.
More and more as we occupy the same geographical spaces, we are naturally mixing our cultures together – our music, art, fashion, marriage, religion. It’s a natural and I would argue healthy process. It is certainly an unavoidable one – so why are some people so determined to fight against it? Minority cultures are not being lost – if anything they are spreading and receiving new acceptance, recognition and appreciation and without some degree of cultural appropriation this would not be possible.
In this day and age it is so important that we learn about and try to understand each other’s cultures – ignorance breeds fear and contempt and therefore oppression. When the unknown becomes known it is less threatening. Popular culture and imagery is a very effective way of spreading ideas and concepts – even though often they may be in a very base and stereotypical form. Children learn through role play and make believe – why can’t we allow a degree of that in adulthood and in popular culture and accept the innocence of it? If we look at the bigger picture and the greater good, global society as a whole is making an effort to understand each other. In this organic process there is bound to be a few misguided (mis)appropriations and reactions to them, but this is all part of the natural process of communicating and understanding each other better. A constructive critique is a much more positive way to approach public acts of cultural (mis)appropriation as well as a degree of tolerance and maybe a few ‘ten points for effort’ pats on the back where it has been done, perhaps badly, but with the best of intentions.
Anyway moving back to how this affects me personally, when you are in an intercultural relationship you are in love first and foremost. You don’t consider that you are white and your culture is ‘dominant’ over your partner’s Indian culture – it doesn’t even enter your brain. If you happen to live in India you feel very much the opposite on occasion as this is what is going on in your daily life – you are the foreigner and the minority. You consider that this is the person you love and both of your culture’s are of equal importance. You participate in each other’s cultures. You respect each other’s families by adopting each other’s customs. You learn each other’s languages. You celebrate each other’s festivals. You are a unit – two into one – and when you raise a child together it becomes even more so as that child has a right to know both cultures.
When I hear of these hate groups protesting at a white woman having a Hindu or Sikh wedding ceremony or wearing a saree or bindi and accusing her of appropriation I think this is hugely unfair. It’s not appropriation – it is the unifying of cultures and done in a very respectful way. Then you see the counter arguments “well you Desi girls wear Western clothes – why is that OK but me in a saree not?” Then you see the argument back “well your culture is dominant and mine is not so that is OK!” I find the whole thing totally ridiculous and pointless. Firstly, why should I made to feel guilty that I happen to be born white and perceived to have more advantages to those born brown or black or whatever – what good will that do for the situation? I’m over the colonial hangover and couldn’t care less what colour someone is and will go out of my way to stand up against discrimination and injustice. How should something out of my control like my genetics equate to not being allowed to wear an item of clothing? Reality check ladies! It just does not matter. It’s a piece of cloth. Inside our clothes and skin we are all the same. Everyone, no matter what colour they are needs to get over what colour they are and only then can we have true equality and resign discrimination to the vaults of history where it belongs.
We have to move with the times and fashion, art, music all now use elements of different cultures together because they are aesthetically beautiful and now accessible to all in the modern age. I wear Indian clothes sometimes because I think they are beautiful, for the same reasons I love the cut of Chinese dresses – so elegant, and I adore the colourful fabric of my Moroccan skirt. Me and my Indian partner both love DJ Shadow’s ‘Bombay The Hard Way’ album – the Bollywood samples sound great with hip-hop beats and electro sounds. I have some stunning artwork from Thailand hanging on my wall. Many would argue that this is appropriation – but is any of it negative or disrespectful or destructive in any way?
To suggest that only Black people should be allowed to listen to Black music as it is ‘theirs’ or only born Hindus should be allowed to pray to Ganesh and practice yoga because it is ‘theirs’ or no artist should be allowed to explore working using an ancient technique from tribal South America because it is ‘theirs’- is an unhealthy attitude to take. None of these acts are done with the motive of oppression nor do they result in it. To restrict the freedom to be able to explore, experience first-hand and participate in each other’s cultures will only encourage division and intolerance. If we can get out of the mind set of viewing White, Western culture as dominant and consider everyone to be equal and start treating each other as such – resigning the past to the past and moving on together towards an ideal future, then maybe we can manifest a better reality- one where we have a vibrant and diverse global culture.
Just a note – I’m not endorsing any of the views here – just giving some different opinions and resources.