A blonde woman wearing faux-native headdress. Source: Native Appropriations

A blonde woman wearing faux-native headdress. Source: Native Appropriations

Culture is the tangible and intangible manifestations of a people’s heritage, such as music, language, dress, dance, foods, and so on. As social creatures, we humans thrive when we can participate in and enjoy our own culture and celebrate our heritage. And while it is important to our lives, questions of what culture is, how we participate in it, who gets to participate, and what does participation look like, are often forgotten in mainstream discussions of sustainability.

The sustenance, transformation, and growth of cultures have often come from cultural exchange—these exchanges are sometimes done willingly, sometimes through force. An exchange isn’t necessarily equitable. If I have a gun to your head and ask you to give me your home in “exchange” for not killing you, that would not be fair, but it is how many human-human exchanges have taken place throughout the millennia as the result (or threat) of war and conquest. But I digress…

In an increasingly connected world, the issue of cultural appropriation often comes up. Who has ownership over what cultural element, and how that cultural element gets spread are the chief concerns. Arguments fall into two general views: one view believes people maintain ownership of their cultural heritage and anyone wishing to engage with that culture must do so on the creators’ terms (if at all); the other view sees the world of culture as one big free-for-all, and eschews the notion that groups of people can claim ownership of their own cultural heritage—unless they utilize capitalist forms of ownership and control, such as copyright, in which case, using or copying becomes illegal and subject to punishment.

Just this last week, an article on cultural appropriation of African cultures made the rounds on social media. The author was upset that many attendees of Afropunk, a festival celebrating Black people in punk and alternative music cultures, were using African dress and tribal marks inappropriately, as a way to appear “trendy”. What made this piece especially compelling was that it was directed at Black Americans, who are typically subjected to cultural appropriation by others. The main takeaway is that if Black Americans expect to have our culture respected and not pirated by others, then we should not do the same to others.

I haven’t seen anyone who fundamentally disagrees with this do-unto-others appeal for cultural respect. What many criticisms have taken issue with is that “cultural appropriation” is not the way to describe what Afropunkers and did. As I mentioned before, cultural exchange isn’t always equitable; if someone is coerced into taking up another’s cultural marker, that’s not an exchange on equal terms, that is cultural assimilation. But what about the reverse? What of when someone takes up another’s cultural markers without their consent? Is that cultural appreciation or appropriation, and does it even matter?

The element of power is critical in determining what kind of exchange is taking place. With cultural assimilation, a dominant group forces another to abandon their own culture in exchange for the dominant group’s culture. Taking culture without consent needs to also be examined through a lens of power. This response article, I think, elegantly articulates what the author of the first piece was getting at (respect for African culture) and further elucidates what cultural appropriation really is:

“When people of colour are penalised/suffer violence for participating in their own cultures, while non-POC are praised and rewarded for taking from those cultures whatever they like, that’s appropriation. This is like the difference between racism and ‘reverse racism’; it’s comparing apples to oranges when you take a context underpinned by systemic violence, dehumanisation and disenfranchisement and compare that to a context fuelled by outrage, annoyance and feelings of disrespect.

[…Y]es, it is possible […] that cultures can be engaged with disrespectfully. But personal/collective affront on account of ignorant behaviour ≠ cultural appropriation. I feel like I’m going on a bit, but a way to test this idea would be to ask yourself; if I didn’t feel annoyed by this person’s use of a hat/tribal mark/whatever, what effect would their use of these items have on the group the items belong to?”

This author makes another point: “but it’s Afropunk, yeah? That’s like a special occasion for celebrating Blackness (right?), involving a diaspora that literally does not know what its ancestral blackness looks like.” Getting upset at a group of Black people who are attempting (and predictably failing) to practice a culture that was stolen from them seems like misplaced anger at best.

As for what constitutes “cultural appreciation”? I think a simple test is: you can appreciate what you are given. If you (not Japanese) and are asked by your close Japanese friend to participate in a tea ceremony, that is cultural appreciation. If you (not Native) attend a pow wow open to the public and dance at the end when everyone is welcomed to join, that’s cultural appreciation. If you wear a shirt that your Black graffiti artist friend made for you (not Black) for your birthday, that’s cultural appreciation. In all of these examples, the members of one cultural group are freely sharing part of their culture, without force or expectation that you give up your own cultural heritage.

What do you think? Does this power aspect of cultural exchange deepen or challenge your understanding of cultural appropriation?

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