I don’t fully understand cultural appropriation.
I’m sure that’s not the most surprising sentence you’ve ever heard a white dude say. There’s no part of this post that’s meant to be inflammatory, I was just listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade (’cause I’m hip and with it in a 2016 sense) and it made me think. The song “Hold Up” has a real reggae vibe. I’m not knocking it, it’s a great song. It’s catchy, has an unconventional syllabic structure and solid lyrics. If you’re stuck back in 2015 and haven’t heard, the album’s pretty great. I figure most cultural rhythms and beats are useable on a mass scale without much controversy. The bit that stuck out to me was right at the end during the fade out. She says something along the lines of “me sing sing”, heavy on the patois. Beyonce’s american, right? She was born and raised in Texas. So it’s obviously put on. Does that seem weird to anyone else? In my ignorance, I’ve got no idea if this is something widely accepted, discouraged, or if we’re giving it a pass because we all love Beyonce? Or is sharing between black communities/cultures encouraged because of shared experiences? I legitimately don’t know.
It could all be nothing too. From what I understand (which is very little, so please let me know if I’m getting this wrong), it becomes appropriation when you’re taking the customs and conventions of a marginalised group without paying respect to the underlying heritage. White girls wearing headdresses to Coachella is an easy one to spot. They’re taking a sacred spiritual symbol that holds mana for purely aesthetic concerns. The Native American culture for years has been encroached upon since white settlers immigrated to their lands. Ditto “spirit animals”, etc. You’re plucking out the outlines of important personal beliefs because they sound nifty to you, without thinking of the years of systematic abuse and neglect their people have endured.
There was a ton of controversy lately about a young white girl wearing a cheongsam (the form fitting traditional Chinese dress that comes to your mind when I use the words “form fitting traditional Chinese dress”) to her prom. A Twitterstorm ensued with vociferous arguments on both sides. From the very little research I did, the cheongsam originated from a small Chinese town and over decades was adapted into wider Chinese mainstream culture. It was typically loose and flowing, but the influence of Western fashion impacted the design, which eventually became more slender and form fitting. Now you can typically see them in Chinese restaurants all over the world. If you’re looking for steadfast opinions from me, you’re gonna leave disappointed. I’ve got no horse in this race, I was just curious. The overwhelming response from mainstream China seemed to be one of support, happy to see their culture adopted and showcased in a wider manner. The other prevailing attitude is of plain and simple commodification, that the dress was taken because it looked pretty, without respect for the underlying heritage. I get the notion of micro-aggressions, how frustrating it could be to see a symbol of your home flagrantly displayed by some flippant white chick. Just because (let’s be real here) white women serving in Chinese restaurants have been wearing them for years, that doesn’t make it retroactively okay.
I also think to a large extent that the notions of cultural appropriation are part of a particularly Western paradigm. They’re important particularly because of the impact of white colonialism upon pre-existing populations and their cultures. We need to be having these conversations and understanding the concerns of peoples whose heritage we’ve suppressed. I mean, I’m a white New Zealander. I’ve definitely benefited from the colonisation of an island nation. It’s why I think it’s pretty damn important to preserve Maori heritage, language, stories and rituals. The culture has been a big part of my upbringing and I feel privileged to have been given the education I’ve received. It’s also why I wouldn’t go and bust out a drunken Haka. It’s a sacred element of the culture and resonates deeply with me. That doesn’t mean I have carte blanche to pretend like I have any kind of ownership of it.
Now if Beyonce did a Haka, I’d feel pretty damn uncomfortable about it.