I’ve been thinking about the topic of cultural appropriation – as featured in Social Justice writing/culture – and have come to a few conclusions about it.
The trouble here is, I get the feeling that a lot of Social Justice people don’t really want me to come to my own conclusions about it. The atmosphere in Social Justice circles is that if you have the “wrong” opinion, you get attacked. Especially if you are white — you just have to shut up and listen. (For context in this article, I am white European).
Actually “listening” isn’t a problem, and I do try to listen. But for one thing, half the time the angry social justice activists who want me to take their opinion on board uncritically are white too. And some people of colour don’t agree with those white people:
Seeing as the opinion among people of colour isn’t unanimous, I don’t think “listening” can really mean “taking on a point of view uncritically”. Because there isn’t a single homogenous point of view I can take on, even if I thought that people of colour were the ultimate authority on these topics and I didn’t have to think for myself.
Mostly, actually, it seems to be white people who are trying to tell me to shut up and listen to the single homogenous point of view that they think people of colour have.
I personally believe that white people can wear dreadlocks and that it’s not automatically offensive. My reasons are similar to those pointed out in the video:
1 – Dreadlocks are mostly associated with the Rastafari. (As I understand it, “dread” comes from their fear, or dread, of God). If we’re worried about cultural appropriation from the Rastafari, then black people who are not Rastafari should also not wear dreads. And, I should mention that Rastafarianism is a religion which isn’t exclusively for black people, so white people can be Rastafari. According to Tumblr logic, white Rastafari can’t wear dreadlocks while black atheists can… because we have to respect Rastafari. Or something?
2 – Dreadlocks are not exclusive to the Rastafari, and exist and have existed in many cultures. They’re also just a pretty obvious thing to do with your hair. People have probably, individually of each other, come to the idea to mat their hair many many times in history.
3 – In general, cultural appropriation as a concept has meaning when we’re mocking or degrading a culture by using their symbols without really understanding or caring about their significance. I don’t think we could argue we’re doing this here.
The Maori, for example, had a good reason to be offended when people from outside their culture were using their Ta Moko tattoos. Ta Moko is not just ornamental, it signifies rank, social status, power and prestige. Getting such a tattoo is a right of passage for a member of of the Maori culture, and they are considered highly sacred. If you think about it, it’s fairly reasonable that they would consider people from outside their culture using these tattoos to be insulting.
As a way of satisfying the desire for Maori style tattoos, the Maori invented kirituhi tattoos which were intended to be stylistically similar to Ta Moko but not containing the deep symbolism. I think this is a pretty nice way of dealing with the issue. Notice that the Maori did not have a problem with people taking inspiration from their culture; they had a problem with people cheapening their sacred traditions. (Some white people, however, will tell you not to ever take inspiration from any non-white culture, and are in fact talking right over the cultural consensus of the Maori people here).
So let me emphasise this point. Cultural appropriation as a concept has meaning when we’re mocking or degrading a culture by using their symbols without really understanding or caring about their significance.
So – white people doing bellydancing? Bellydancing is a form of entertainment in the Middle East just as it is in the West, so Westerners using it are not taking it completely out of context. At most it can be insulting when people use it as a way of parodying or exoticising middle eastern people – but on its own, there’s nothing wrong with it. (Warning – I’m a white person saying this! I’m not the imaginary ultimate authority which you expect and require people of colour to be for you).
What about ear tunnels? As far as I can see online they were invented in many different cultures and generally were just done for the purposes of beauty. Again, if a white person uses them for beauty it’s not taking them out of context.
Wearing Moccasins? Dude, they’re footwear. They’re not holy ritual footwear. They’re just footwear.
However – wearing a Native American headdress? Those headdresses are for Plains Indian men who have earned great respect in their tribe. They have a sacred meaning, and by wearing them without being part of the culture you’re basically saying you care nothing about the feelings of those people who place sacred meaning in their traditions. It’s also insulting because by dressing up as a stereotype of a Native American you’re saying that they are silly or exotic and generally just there for your entertainment rather than being an oppressed population with very real and human struggles.
As The Janitor above mentioned, you’re allowed to like things from other cultures because they are cool. And if we took the “you can’t do anything from another culture” thing far enough, then white people couldn’t even eat a curry or learn Swahili.
I think taking inspiration from a culture, so long as it doesn’t involve mocking or degrading it by taking their symbols out of context, is a compliment to the people in that culture. In fact, I think doing so respectfully is going counter to racism/xenophobia. As The Janitor mentioned (he’s good, isn’t he?), avoiding something because it’s “too black” is clearly racist. What the heck else can it be? OK, so the cultures shouldn’t mix, is that what you’re saying? Basically, blacks should be blacks and whites should be whites? That’s fucking racist.
I imagine that a world without racism and xenophobia would have plenty of mixing of ideas and inspirations, and in fact that’s generally what happens in all cases but the most extreme right (Nazis rejecting French loanwords in the German language) or the extreme left (Social Justice activists giving up Yoga because only South Asians can do that).
I do believe there are times when there’s a fine line between taking inspiration from a culture and being disrespectful. We should be careful that reproducing elements from another culture doesn’t mean parodying them or exoticising them. But in those times when there is a fine line – give people the fucking benefit of the doubt and don’t just jump out and attack them. You don’t know where someone is coming from with what they’re wearing, and anyway, attacking people isn’t productive in the first place.
Ultimately, I think we should be listening to what people from a certain culture are saying about the things that are allegedly “appropriation”, and if what they are saying sounds reasonable, we can change what we’re doing. But if it doesn’t sound reasonable, we’re also allowed to disagree with them. Yes, there’s a difference in privilege, and yes, being of a dominant culture does empower and encourage you to ignore and dismiss what oppressed people say — but even so, I believe that someone who actually cares and has the humbleness to challenge themselves generally will be able to hear the issues if there are real issues being brought up. At no point do we need to agree with people just cause they said so. And much less do we need to agree with people out of fear of being attacked. That’s conformity, and a very unhealthy social dynamic.
And yes, if you disagree with my positions and have new information to offer me, I’d be glad to listen and edit the article if that makes sense to me – however, as always (and this is not just in posts about racial issues) I will delete any comments which have an aggressive, confrontational tone, whether I agree with the content of what they are saying or not.