What Is Cultural Appropriation, Anyway?
Since I occasionally get people asking me about cultural appropriation, I figured I might as well put up a page on it. To put it simply, cultural appropriation is taking something from another culture, particularly one that's lower on the social pecking order than your own and...
- Using it a shallow or superficial way (presuming the originating culture doesn't already use it in a shallow or superficial way).
- Using it in a way that denies or degrades the culture it came from.
- Using it in a way that promotes misconceptions or stereotypes about the culture it came from.
- Treating the people who invented it like lesser beings.
Here are some examples of cultural appropriation:
- The whole Doomsday December 21 2012 fiasco. First, proponents played up the Mayans as mystical culture that faded away long ago when in fact they're still very much here, and shoehorned the calendar into their own belief system while ignoring what the actual living Mayans had to say about it, which was that no, they didn't believe the world was going to end, thank you very much. Doomsday proponents made a pretty penny selling books and giving seminars, while the Mayans didn't get anything except derision from proponents and believers.
- Wearing a warbonnet/pseudo warbonnet as if it's no different than wearing a beanie or fedora. In reality, a warbonnet is basically equivalent to a soldier's medals, and have to be earned. You wouldn't wear a Purple Heart or Victoria Cross as a fashion accessory, would you?
- Some people label or tag things as "gypsy (whatever)" to make the thing more marketable or searchable. Never mind that "gypsy" is a racial slur for the Romani and Dom people, and that whatever it is they're selling has nothing more to do with the Romani and Dom folks than Buddha has to do with Christmas.
- Using random Japanese in public or in your writing because you think it makes you/your work kewler or more "kawaii," or insisting that people add a Japanese suffix to your name.
- Dressing up as a "terrorist" by means of dressing in a robe and turban and a fake bomb pack. (Are you white? Want to dress up as a terrorist? Try one of these. ;) )
- Using something from another culture for the sole purpose of giving something an "exotic flavor" - eg, making a character half-Egyptian for the simple and sole reason that you think Egypt is exotic and mysterious.
- Wearing something that is typically considered exclusively to be a symbol of faith and/or cultural identity by a group you don't belong to - eg, a non-Jewish person wearing a Jewish Star of David as a fashion accessory.
And for counterpoint, here are some examples of things that are not cultural appropriation:
- Cosplaying as a character from a Japanese cartoon or comic book or basing your username on a character from such.
- Making and/or enjoying food from another culture - eg, sushi or curry.
- Learning about other cultures or learning foreign languages.
- Writing about characters from a different culture than you, or basing a fantasy culture on a real culture, providing you make your characters and cultures three-dimensional and not cardboard cut-outs based on stereotypes. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Kung-Fu Panda are both examples of how you do it right.
- Making a character half-Egyptian because why not?
- Buying and displaying Native American art created and sold to you by an actual Native American.
- Using something such as the Triforce because The Legend of Zelda is relevant to you. It was based on the Hojo family crest, but the Hojo family crest is not a sacred symbol or a major marker of cultural identity, and it was a native Japanese person who chose to use it in a game intended for international audiences.
- Using something that superficially resembles something from another culture, but was actually developed independently and has its own history, and is not itself being used appropriatively.
In general, acts of cultural appropriation come from the assumption that we can do or use whatever we want however we want. Most people who appropriate do so out of ignorance, and aren't out to harm anyone. Many people are unaware that the G-word is a slur. (In America, the word tends to conjure up positive and romantic (if wildly inaccurate) images, whereas in Europe it has a far more negative connotation.)
Then you have the knowing offenders who rationalize their behavior away - eg, by insisting that it really is just fashion, or that it really isn't a slur (hint: whether something is a slur isn't up for them to decide!), or that they're just "appreciating" the other culture even though they have been repeatedly told that their "appreciation" is actually quite rude and offensive. This kind of behavior belies an attitude of "I like your stuff, but I don't care about you at all" - and how can someone truly claim to appreciate a culture at all if they don't give two hoots what the actual people who make up that culture think?
One example of this are people who try to justify their continued use of the G-word by claiming that they "identify with the lifestyle." Unfortunately, the lifestyle they identify with is a fairytale myth. The free-spirited mystical beings they identify themselves with don't exist. The reality is that these people don't wander because they're free spirits; they wander because racism against them is so high that it's very difficult to settle down and find work anywhere for long before they're forced to move again.
One of the biggest problems with cultural appropriation is that it reduces real people down to accessories, toys, and/or pets in the eyes of other people. The behavior of some weeaboos is a pretty good example of what kind of harm this attitude can cause. New Weeaboo Stories is full of stories of people who have creeped on or even molested Asian or Asian-descended people because they don't perceive Asians as proper people, but as things - as a commodity that they are entitled to.
It can also make it harder for people to make a living. A Navajo craftsperson might very much love to sell you some traditional-style jewelry or art - but then along comes McCheapo Native-Ripoffs Company along to sell a bunch of pseudo-Navajo goods produced in a sweatshop somewhere, putting the actual Navajo artist out of business. The corporate fat-cats get to line their wallets and buy themselves that extra cruise vacation while the Navajo craftsperson can barely afford to feed three kids.
There are also often huge double-standards for appropriators and originators. A white person who wears dreadlocks can still expect to usually be perceived as all right, but a non-white wearing dreadlocks is rather likely to be perceived as dangerously foreign. Lady Gaga can get away with wearing "burqa swag" without being condemned as a terrorist, but when Nina Davuluri performed a Bollywood-inspired dance and went on to win the 2013 Miss America competition, she was accused of being, in essence, an "Arab Muslim terrorist." (Ms. Davuluri is in fact an American Hindu of Indian descent.) It's rather a slap in the face to people of other cultures to go around wearing something that they get side-eyed for wearing.
I hope that explains the basics of the issue, and if you want to learn more, please don't hesitate to visit the links below.
External resources/works referenced