The Case FOR Cultural Appropriation

I wanted a witty title for this, but I couldn’t think of anything that wasn’t ridiculously mean spirited. I try to be nice, guys. I try to be reasonable and give people the benefit of the doubt and not bite people’s heads off for no reason. But, dear god, is cultural appropriation such an overblown concept. Remember when I said feeling victimized by cat-callers was a first world problem? That example palls in comparison to the utter “I-have-nothing-else-to-complain-about-but-like-feeling-indignant-because-it-gets-me-attention-so-I-guess-I’ll-be-mad-about-this . . . ness” of cultural appropriation. This is the kind of arbitrary annoyance you complain about when the rest of your life is going perfectly fine–this is the social justice equivalent of a pretty blonde girl with no financial woes and plenty of friends feeling bad because she heard someone she didn’t know make a dumb blonde joke. And people who still have actual problems talk about this like it’s on par with the rest of their woes, and I don’t get it.

I’m going to get this out of the way now–exploitation of other cultures does exist, and that is wrong. The businessman who moves to Arizona and thinks that the indigenous Native American art is cool enough to sell and who then outsources the creation of that “indigenous” art to China and then sells it back in Arizona lying and promoting it as the authentic thing to dumb tourists and taking revenue away from the actual indigenous artists is wrong. Complain about stuff like that because that is genuine extortion for bad people’s own personal gain. If a group of people is being directly walked all over as a means for someone else to lie and make some kind of profit, that is bad.

But that’s hardly ever the kind of thing people so against cultural appropriation talk about. They don’t talk about people utterly exploiting something for their own personal gain; they talk about people doing stuff that doesn’t really hurt anyone but makes some people feel bad. And, as we all know, feelings are the most rational basis for one to determine whether something is morally right or wrong. And that’s how they frame it: Appropriating culture makes you a bad person–if not bad, than ignorant in the condescending “we really mean you’re an idiot” sense. It’s not a matter concerning what makes someone subjectively uncomfortable like a dead baby joke that not everyone thinks is funny. It’s an objective fact.

And like all “TRUE FACTS OF _____ISM,” there are people who “just don’t understand.” And that means that the social justice warriors will always have someone to feel superior to, someone who they can shake their heads at in disappointment and wonder to themselves why everyone can’t be as enlightened to the social issues of today as they are. They are such good people, guys. You heard it from me, and I’m a black woman–which means I can’t be wrong because the world has been mean to me.

I’ll soon get into my more general thoughts about cultural appropriation. But first, I decided to talk about cultural appropriation by looking at some of the big issues that have been brought to light in the past. What are some of the things that had the social justice warriors clamoring for the keyboards in disgust at how offensive the world can be? What had people taking to Twitter and forcing celebrities to apologize for crimes against humanity? I made a handy dandy list to try to look at the big ones.

1.) Native American headdresses at Cochella

This topic made the internet explode for like a day, and the whole headdress issue is almost always one of the first things referenced when you ask “What is cultural appropriation?” I’ve never been to Cochella. I think it’s a music festival–I literally know nothing, but the inherent terribleness of wearing a feather hat was big enough to warrant an entire Buzzfeed article, so it must be a problem.

So this is people disrespecting Native Americans by wearing something important to the overall indigenous culture as just another accessory without being Native American and without respecting the significance behind it. Okay. I wonder how far this goes, though.

What if one of the white kids wearing it was perfectly aware of the symbolism of it and wore it anyway? That makes him a jerk but he’s not ignorant. Is the only thing wrong with it the people wearing it not being Native American? What if one of the ten Native American kids wore one of these to Cochella. Would that be okay? What if they wore another article of clothing that Native Americans wore but wasn’t as important? If the headdress being significant is all that matters, would wearing an “insignificant” item of clothing be acceptable? Is it even okay for Native Americans to wear them anymore at this point? I can’t really imagine modern Native Americans having the exact same beliefs as their ancestors, which means the ceremonies where the headdress was originally worn would only be performed as a nod to how the culture once was in order to celebrate cultural heritage and stuff. Which is all well and good to me, but wouldn’t that also be considered an objectively inappropriate context to wear it in since you’re essentially just nodding to the past without any currently established significance other than “heritage” and “keeping the culture alive”?

At that point is seems less like a disrespect of culture and more of a disrespect of history. If it’s disrespectful for a white kid to wear his dead grandfather’s cross necklace around because it’s not theirs even if its a part of their history, wouldn’t it be equally disrespectful for a Native American kid to wear traditional clothing because its not theirs even if its a part of their history? Would the Native American kid wearing the other kid’s grandfather’s necklace be crossing the line even if he deeply respected Christianity with every fiber of his being? If it is acceptable because he respected it enough, that would indicate that all you need for appropriation to be a-okay is to respect the culture of those you’re appropriating–you don’t even need the “right” environment at that point. But what does that mean? How much respect is “enough?” Obviously, thinking something is really cool doesn’t qualify as respect. So where is that line? How interested does a person have to be in Native American history for them to wear a headdress and it be okay?

This issue is turning into a muddled mess that actually is best explained by giving the blanket statement “Don’t do it.” because as soon as you think about the specifics of why you shouldn’t do it, it just gets really confusing and hinges on “well some people feel bad” and honestly doesn’t seem that bad if it’s so utterly dependent upon individual circumstance and un-quantifiable thought processes.

And this is coming from someone with no interest in wearing a headdress because, in all honesty, it does seem kind of mean. But I guess that explains why this confuses me so much: It’s “kind of mean.” Why is something “kind of mean” warranting of such a deeply felt, staunch reaction?

Dear god, that is the rantiest I have ever been, I’m pretty sure. I’m sorry. I didn’t even know I cared that much, but apparently I do. Answer those questions, someone. I legitimately want to know where that line is now.

2.) Twerking

Here’s another one about black people wanting to lay claim to stuff that no one in their right mind would want to own. Who, besides drunken teenage girls, wants to say, “Twerking is my thing.”?

Okay. Miley Cyrus liked twerking. People called her racist. We all know this. What is twerking? It’s gyrating like you’re having a seizure, but only in your ass. It’s not appealing, and I don’t know why people do it. Black girls are awesome at it because, as we all know, black girls have nice, luscious backsides very suited toward shaking. So Miley, being the stick figure white girl she is, got called out for cultural appropriation because “dancing” such as that was what black people do.

An argument I heard about this is that twerking takes after traditional African dancing. Okay, maybe it does. But I doubt Miley Cyrus knew that, and I doubt the black girl in Atlanta shaking her ass to a Flo Rida song knows that either. Is it cultural appropriation when the people who apparently “own” that culture don’t even know about it?

Then there’s the idea that twerking appropriates a more generalized, modern black culture. And people support that by pointing to how Miley Cyrus had black backup dancers, but if I were Miley Cyrus I’d have black backup dancers too. Someone on that stage had to actually be good at twerking, and it definitely wasn’t Miley. And, really? We’re calling people out for dancing now? The most harmless, culturally non-specific activity ever. Are we going to call up the Bangles and yell at them for making Walk Like an Egyptian? Do people really have to watch how they dance now, less it intrinsically oppress someone else? This is a point I’ll address later. I’ll leave it for now.

3.) Theme Parties

This ties into the dancing one in the sense that it takes something totally harmless and makes the claim that it’s morally wrong. They make it seem like the people who engage in these things or enjoy them in any way should be shamed; they should be tsked tsked at and told to take a class on how to be respectful toward other cultures because what they did was just terrible. Terrible and offensive and they should be ashamed and know better. How dare they?

What was the grievous offense? Having a fiesta. Or a Jamaican-Me Crazy themed party. Because someone wanting to wear a plastic sombrero and eat tex-mex and maybe even hit a pinata and get some free candy while vaguely Mexican music plays off of someone’s iPod is treading all over the culture of Mexico. Treading all over it. Because a bunch of frat boys who just wanted a flimsy excuse to listen to Bob Marley music and smoke pot with their friends are being terrible white oppressors. Yeah, I’m sure all of the Jamaicans living in their drug, crime, and poverty ridden country are really concerned with that. I’m sure every time that happens those poor Jamaicans suffer a blow to their soul. They can feel their culture dying every time it happens, and it makes them cry.

Or maybe they don’t fucking care because they have real problems and don’t have the luxury of whining about people who haven’t done and probably never will do anything to hurt them.

The idea of cultural appropriation is odd to me, because it always seems like the ones who make those claims don’t know how people work. That’s the best way I can explain my confusion. It’s like they live in some separate world where the human experience is very different than how it is in this current reality that I live in.

There’s an idea that the only way to indulge in a culture not your own is to either ask your ethnic friend if its appropriate for you to like something (because everyone has a friend of every race/ethnicity to act as the voice for their entire culture whenever someone is unsure) or to essentially learn everything about that culture so that you can respect it in its entirety and know the deeper cultural meaning behind all the things. I would hate to ask these people for a reading list: “1984 is a great book, but before you can read it and like it on its own merits you have to know the entire history of European politics and deeply understand the theoretical concepts behind and real world applications of political dictatorships and the creation of fascist regimes in order to get the full background necessary to really appreciate such a classic. If you don’t do that, you’re disrespecting Orwell, you communist pig.”

How much time do they think people have? What kind of relationships do they think people have? How do they think globalization works? How do they think liking things works? Something tells me that if everyone actually did what they said was necessary in order to be “respectful,” they’d all complain about how everyone is trying to be a part of a culture that they don’t belong in like Dances with Wolves.

Yelling cultural appropriation makes even less since in America, where it seems to happen the most, just because America’s culture is literally nothing but a combination of every other culture that’s showed up here. Now that the internet exists, that line has become even more blurred because people can learn about or participate in whatever they want, which is a good thing.

“Cultural appropriation” implies that culture is some solid, concrete, physical thing. It implies that culture doesn’t change, that instead of being the constantly evolving, fluid thing that it is, it’s just stagnant and immune to being affected by other cultures around it. It implies that culture is limited, that it can be taken from someone and they just don’t have it anymore because it was stolen from them. It implies that culture is untouchable, that it should be treated in the highest regard by everyone and respected by default. It implies that any change that does happen is bad because tradition should be upheld above all else.

But culture changes all the time. Having a fiesta-themed party is bad, but no one talks about how Mexican culture itself is a mishmash of Spanish and tribal and South American influence. Native American tribes that had contact with each other, peaceful or violent, essentially stole each other’s best ideas. But apparently that’s bad. Apparently they should have kept to themselves except for the handful of people who were truly willing to make the commitment. Cultural exchange is bad–the Mexicans shouldn’t have incorporated the symbolism of the Spaniards into their culture. But it’s a part of Mexican culture now, you say? What makes that any different than current people with internet access incorporating the Ying/Yang symbol into their psyche? Is appropriation only okay when it happened in the past?

While I’m at it, is cultural appropriation only bad when that culture still exists? We appropriate Ancient Greek and Roman culture all the time. People know about the gods, we’ve seen the Disney movie Hercules, and Greco-Roman symbolism is still used very heavily. Frat boys have toga parties, people mindlessly quote Ancient Greek and Latin just to sound cool, for mottos to put on rings and the like. No one but the intellectuals really cares about fully learning those languages, and we tend to have a very shallow understanding of the myths, generally only going as far as “Zeus exists and sometimes he’s called Jupiter, and the Percy Jackson series is about them.” So is that wrong? If all of the Native Americans died out from some genocidally racist disease created by Andrew Jackson’s mad scientist great great great great grandchild, would it be okay to wear hats with feathers on them at Cochella after that (after it was no longer too soon, of course)? How about the Ancient Egyptians? We straight-up stole mummies from them, and people don’t give a damn about knowing a lot about their culture as long as they can recognize whenever people make a Cleopatra reference and dance to Walk Like an Egyptian at 80’s parties. Where’s the line there? Isn’t that disrespectful?

People can’t “own” cultures. It’s difficult to own any abstract concept used to refer to a multitude of actions and beliefs that occur together. That would be like me owning “oral story telling” or “healthy living.” If you can’t own something, you can’t steal it either. It continues to exist even if someone else knows about it and doesn’t utilize that information quite how you’d like them to. Selena Gomez wearing a bindi without doing research about it first in no way invalidates the bindi’s importance to other people. The people who see the bindi as important are still perfectly able to see the bindi as important. Native Americans who value the headdress can still see it that way and pass that belief down to their kids if they so please. Nothing is stopping them. It’s not like the culture dies just because not everyone knows everything about it. Culture is an abstract concept that continues to exist as long as some people somewhere care to uphold it.

And people not caring to uphold it isn’t even an inherently bad thing–sad maybe, but not bad. It ties back into the whole idea that change is both going to happen whether you want it to or not and not something wholly terrible. To keep with the headdress idea, let’s say that the children of the last generation of Native Americans get together and decide that they don’t care about headdresses anymore because they think liking dubstep is more important than upholding tradition. It’s probably not going to happen that way, but let’s say it did. What would happen? What horrible thing would surpass? Yeah, their parents’ culture would be on it’s way to dying, and it’s a sad concept–we don’t want things to die, after all. But the reality of the situation is that cultures die out all of the time, and the world keeps on spinning and people keep on trucking. Small cultures get eaten up by bigger ones, and the bigger culture may see something in that small culture that it likes and incorporate it into itself, but the small one is still a thing of the past. That doesn’t make the prevalent culture the bad guy. It doesn’t mean the prevalent culture is any less “culture-full” than the small one. It just means it’s bigger. And, the thing is, we now live in a world where even if a culture is totally dead, it can still be remembered. It can still be appreciated.

So I’m not going to sit here and say that a culture going away isn’t a sad thing. There are plenty of genuinely depressed elderly people who have watched the young people in their village forgo the village’s tradition and pass on learning their family’s language in favor of learning the most popular one that everyone in the city next-door speaks, and they have all of my sympathy, because that cannot be a fun thing to experience. But there’s no bad guy in that situation. The prevalent culture isn’t the villain stealing young people away. It’s just the world evolving as it always has.

* * *

People seem obsessed with making someone the bad guy. The world is full of evil things and bad people. We have enough of them without making more. A lot of the comments I see on appropriation say things like, “Can’t white people just keep their hands off of one thing? We can’t have anything without them trying to take it from us because they feel like they need to have everything we have. Screw them!” or “why does everyone have to take stuff from us? This is ours and they don’t get it.”

No wonder you guys are so mad. If I had such a negative outlook, I’d be full of righteous indignation all the time too. People aren’t trying to steal anything from you or your culture. People think your culture is cool! They like things about it enough to want to incorporate it into their own life somehow. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s not people putting their grubby little hands all over everything because they feel entitled to, it’s people finding things that they enjoy in a world where multiculturalism is possible. And you can too! It’s not like you’re blocked from experiencing anything other than your direct ethnic culture. And it’s not like your direct ethnic culture stops being complex and important because someone else thought your artwork was cool. They’re not pushing you down or stepping on you–they’re appreciating what your culture has brought to the exchange.

What’s with the stigma against just liking stuff? You’re essentially calling people out for not being hateful bigots who see nothing of worth in you. Can’t people appreciate things in their own way? We say that about most other abstract concepts, why is culture so different? Why is culture something that can only be indulged in in one very particular way, or else you’re racist or what have you? Why is one harmless view of arbitrary symbolism more legitimate than another harmless view of arbitrary symbolism? Why is thinking something is important better than just thinking something is cool? Who cares if someone’s appreciation of something is shallow? That doesn’t invalidate any deeper opinions. The meaning it has for individuals is still there, whether they see it as an important reflection of life or they simply see it as an aesthetically appealing symbol that they like the look of. Just thinking that something is cool and not feeling the need to know all about it isn’t a bad thing.

What if I applied that reasoning to anything else. What about TV shows? I know what you’re going to say: cultural heritage and entertainment media are nowhere near the same thing. If you say that, you haven’t hung out with any nerds lately. Nerd culture–hey, it even has the word “culture” in its terminology–is fucking intense. There are religions based on Dr. Who. Multiple religions. That show has been on since TV was still black and white. People care. That’s the world we live in now. What if a Whovian who knows literally every single thing about the series–in universe and behind the scenes and everything in between–sees a casual Dr. Who viewer who likes the show when its on and really likes the idea of wearing bow ties more often because they are cool, and then decries that casual viewer as a bad person whose very existence is an affront to the name of Dr. Who because “How dare you only be a little interested in the thing I really like and dedicate my time to?! How dare you wear bow ties like you’re a Whovian?! Don’t you know that’s our thing!” Is that person being reasonable?

Honestly? Because if you can honestly say, “Yes, that Whovian is being reasonable in their anger.” then you can continue saying that cultural appropriation is the worst thing ever. At least you are consistent in your beliefs, and I may not agree with you but I can understand why you say that and can appreciate the steadfast adherence to an ideal.

But for the ones who say that the Whovian isn’t being reasonable? Why? They too feel personally offended. Their feelings are legitimately hurt. They have chosen to attach a significant part of their identity to this one thing–they relate to it, they see themselves in it, it makes them feel good when times are hard. It’s really, really important to them. And they see someone not appreciating it as much as they do. They see someone not understanding what makes it so amazing, someone who doesn’t get why it’s so truly important and why it has affected so many people to their core. They see someone disrespecting something that they have taken upon themselves to love. Why is their hurt not legitimate? Why are their feelings something that can be written off? Why is only shallowly indulging in something they’ve attached their identity to okay?

It’s good to remember that, in the end of the day, culture is just a bunch of stuff that people a long time ago made up. There’s nothing inherently important about any of the “cultural” things that people do. Headdresses and crucifixes and skulls are arbitrary. Ceremonial dances and holidays mean nothing unless we decide they do. It just so happens that “culture” is arbitrary meaning that lots of people decided to adopt into their mentality at the same time. And it’s cool! It makes things more interesting. It makes life less sad. Seeing a dove and thinking about peace is more interesting than seeing a dove and dismissing it as just some bird. Having iconography is an awesome way to get across complex ideas in a single image. Giving meaning to otherwise arbitrary things gives life itself meaning.

I don’t particularly prescribe to any ethnic culture, but I don’t begrudge people who do. You find happiness in whatever you want. As long as you’re not hurting other people, good for you. I will never begrudge someone something harmless that makes them happy. And that’s what cultural “appropriation” gives us: lots of harmless things that make us happy. So go dance like Miley Cyrus, and get that cliche Japanese letter tattoo, and enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and Octoberfest, and go to theme parties with your friends. You don’t have to go looking for problems to see how much the world sucks most of the time. But it’s also a fun place when you let it be.


10 thoughts on “The Case FOR Cultural Appropriation

  1. Anita says:

    Thank you for this! I found it honest and very refreshing.

    *You may want to consider validating your credentials to Blog; maybe sharing a personal photo with you and Vinton Cerf having coffee… to avoid any Nerd-backlash.

  2. “Here’s another one about black people wanting to lay claim to stuff that no one in their right mind would want to own.”

    “Okay. Miley Cyrus liked twerking. People called her racist. We all know this. What is twerking? It’s gyrating like you’re having a seizure, but only in your ass.”

    You are hilarious.

    There are so many gems in this article, but I can’t sit here and quote them all.

    I love your writing. Thanks so much for being awesome.

  3. Hi Briannanlc… can’t remember how I found your blog, but I’ve been working my way through your posts (time reversed) for a couple of weeks now. We agree on a lot of stuff, but not everything, so you’ve given me a few things to think about.

    I just wanted to chime in with this: I can sort-of understand people when they complain about cultural appropriation, because I tend to have a gut reaction of “take that off please” when I see non-Scots wearing tartan. (Even more so when I saw that guy in one of the videos you linked to, complaining about cultural appropriation while wearing a tartan shirt…) However, that’s the irrational side of me reacting; the rational side reminds me that as long as they don’t look stupid in it, why not let them. It’s not exactly sacred history anyway, being made up by the Victorians to replace the culture that had been ruthlessly suppressed by the English for the preceding 3-4 hundred years.

    As for your culture slowly dying over time: yes, it does hurt, quite a bit. Many of the uniquely Scottish traditions that I remember from growing up (a massive forty years ago) are now pretty much ignored: kids these days no longer collect “pennies for the Guy” on the run-up to the 5th of November, or go guising on Hallowe’en, and the tradition of ‘first footing’ on Ne’erday has pretty much disappeared round where I live. Many of them have either been replaced with American imports or just vanished altogether. I suspect laziness in both cases: it’s a lot easier to stand on someone’s doorstep in costume and yell “Trick or Treat” than to actually do a turn in the hope of being rewarded, and finding the right kind of gifts to bear on the First of January is just *so* much hassle…

    Organised attempts to force “local culture” back in are sometimes worse: in Scotland there’s this big thing about getting Scots Gaelic taught to the kids, where for the most part of our history it was only the most north-western areas that spoke the tongue (no matter what the Wikipedia page shows in its distribution map). Doric (spoken in the north-east) and Scots (in the south) have almost completely vanished, without any support from the Powers that Be (which is a shame because they are interesting examples of Anglo-Frisian languages related to but not always mutually comprehensible with English) and even Scots English (a dialect that has less in common with British English than American English does) is dying fast. (An’ it’s a richt scunner, y’ken? A sair fecht an’ a’.)

    So yeah… rambled a bit there, sorry. Main point, I suppose, is we’re in a small world, and we can’t help rubbing elbows and breathing each others’ air, so as long as we’re not actually poking fun or degrading other cultures, a bit of sharing can’t hurt. So if your readers miss Oktoberfest and can’t wait for St. Patrick’s, they should see if they can find a Burns Supper in their area: 25th January or thereabouts; good food, poetry, and maybe some dancing.

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