I had hoped to make it through my life without bloating the internet with yet another article on cultural appropriation. But I’m afraid I couldn’t stop myself. Blame Jeremy Lam.
You might have heard the story. Somewhere in Utah, an 18-year-old white schoolgirl chose to wear a qipao – a traditional Chinese dress – for her school prom. That, by the way, should have been the end of the story. But along comes Mr Lam, who delivers a pompous Twitter sermon condemning her decision, likening her choice of outfit to ‘colonial ideology.’ Cue retweets and much pious backslapping from fellow hashtag activists, who insinuate the schoolgirl is racist, insensitive and ignorant.
Many of those concerned about cultural appropriation, I’m happy to say, have none of Jeremy’s self-righteousness or pathetic desire to pick on children. And before I’m asked to return my millennial membership card for writing this article, I do understand where these concerns are coming from. For a lot of people, the appropriation of cultures runs deeper than prom dresses and Twitter spats – it’s symptomatic of bigger problems in society, like historic cultural oppression, entrenched racial stereotypes and colourless corporate globalism.
But herein lies the problem. You see, charges of cultural appropriation depend so much on these broader issues for their strength and moral weight that it’s difficult to say what they actually condemn that isn’t already condemned as racist or ignorant or corporatist. And when we pull away these props, what remains of cultural appropriation is revealed to be a confused, contradictory and incoherent crime.
Let’s be fair and take one of the more nuanced and sociologically savvy definition of cultural appropriation, such as the one you can find at Everyday Feminism: ‘a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.’ Even here it’s clear that there are some big problems.
For one thing, it’s impossible to tell when cultural exchange – widely considered natural and healthy – becomes evil appropriation. We’re told that exchange is reciprocal, but that distinction relies on a hopelessly naive understanding of how cultures interact. (Who do I arrange a swap with? Is it a one-for-one exchange of cultural elements?) In reality, the difference between exchange and appropriation is entirely subjective. It’s your word against mine.
Except even that’s not true. Because when definitions of appropriation incorporate power dynamics, it’s only the members of oppressed groups that can be its victims, and only members of the dominant group that can be the culprits. At a glance that might seem fair. But coupled with the subjective nature of the crime, it means that only oppressed groups can say whether they’ve fallen victim to appropriation or not. Majorities can try and dispute such claims, but – since majorities can never know what it’s like to be victims – they have no real grounds for doing so. So tough luck, cultural majorities: you’re excluded from the debate by default. Unless, of course, you agree with the victim and join the chorus of condemnation against appropriation.
The issues run deeper than this, however: even just talking about cultures as distinct entities, as the denunciation of cultural appropriation forces us to do, is problematic. In reality, cultures are fluid, boundless and deeply personal in meaning, and no two people considered to belong to the same culture are likely to feel the same way about their heritage.
But by pitting different cultures against one another, critics of appropriation overlook this and treat cultures as uniform and unchanging monoliths. Such a distortion of reality requires us to swallow hefty generalisations about different cultures. More concerning, however, is that it dismisses the individuality of their members, who are reduced to mere carriers of their culture.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the condemnation of cultural appropriation, however, is that it fails to grasp the fundamental dynamics of culture. Culture is appropriation, and to demand that people stop adopting each other’s cultures is to suffocate the very thing that makes culture so special in the first place.
Pretty much every culture on earth, past and present, oppressed and oppressor, is the product of cultural appropriation. Not cultural exchange, by the way – rarely if ever has interaction between cultures been reciprocal – but appropriation. And without this constant process of adoption and adaption all our cultures would infinitely poorer.
This raises uncomfortably questions for those who wish to see it outlawed, since the cultures that they seek to defend are themselves the beneficiaries of centuries of appropriation. Should Cambodia purge its architecture of Indian influences? Should Indians hand their fireworks back to China? And should China return the chilli pepper to Mexico? Even the qipao owes its existence to the Chinese appropriation of Western fashions that reached the ports of Shanghai in the 1920s.
To see just how misguided the demonization of cultural appropriation is, imagine a world in which the cultural crusaders were triumphant and appropriation no longer took place. You don’t need to be too much of a Jeremiah to shrink from the image: a world of static cultural autarkies where no one can wear, eat, paint, sing, dance or be anything other than the pickled culture into which they happened to be born.
Such a scenario is so unnatural, not to mention unappealing, that it’s difficult to think of real-life examples. The closest I can come up with are the hermetic Amish – who, perhaps not coincidentally, are three times more likely to suffer from depression than more integrated groups. Is this really what critics of cultural appropriation want to achieve?
The truth is, all of us have been living with, and benefitting from, the fruits of cultural appropriation our whole lives. The daily denouncements of appropriation fail to grasp this, and their deep and dangerous misunderstanding of the workings of culture threaten to suck the life out of the very cultures they profess to protect. To wage war on cultural appropriation is to wage war on culture itself.
Image credit: N509FZ