Saturday, February 27, 2010

On cultural appropriation

(I originally wrote this as a comment on a website that I frequent. This is something that I think about a lot and I wanted to write an essay about it, just as a way to pull my thoughts together on this issue. But I need to focus my writing on my dissertation, so for now, these hastily written words will have to do. I am sure I will have more to say about it later, and will re-vist it in the future).

I am not really a proponent of the "cultural appropriation" meme. The more I study and learn about cultures the more I realize that there is no "pure" culture. There is no culture that is stagnant and unchanged by the culture of other groups. Our society is increasingly more fact it has always been global. Different African groups, Indian groups, European groups traded with each other and influenced each other. That continues now. Hip hop is global. Classical music is global. Sushi is global. Pizza is global. Dreadlocks are global. Blue jeans are global. Buddha statues are global. Crosses are global. Korans are global.

I also feel that the downside of trying to decide who should perform some types of cultural activities is that we subsequently put people in cultural boxes. In other words, if you are white, you should not do x,y, and z, because those are things that black people do. If you are black, you should not do a,b, and c, because those are things that white people do. I am okay with saying that traditionally, certain groups have tended to do certain things, but the focus on being cultural gatekeepers is problematic.

Now, I do think that there are ways of borrowing from cultures that are more respectful than others...but even then I have a personal problem with trying to dictate where that line is for other people. I know personally, when I see white people with afro wigs on I give them long intense looks...that's just my personal little way of "getting" to them, if their intention is to mock afro hair. But whites with dreads, for intense, is so normalized to me...I don't see that as anything more than white hippie or hipster culture (full disclosure-I tried to meld my South Indian bf's bone straight hair into locks in college). But I am not trying to make my personal stance apply to other individuals.

I am social justice oriented, so mocking a culture is something that I will address. I also don't feel that I can speak for other cultures, particularly non-Afro ones. For instance, I need to listen when indigenous people state that certain things are problematic (not that there is one single indigenous stance).

In short, I tend to err on the side of cultural borrowing and mixing is okay. Cultural appropriation is not bad, imo, but there are more respectful and less respectful ways to do it. That continuum is always being negotiated by the "appropriators" and the "appropriated", and is contextual or situational.