Anger In The Context Of Social Justice Activism
July 29, 2015
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August 25, 2015

Cultural Appropriation

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.

Dreadlocks And Cultural Appropriation

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.

Maori Tattoos And Cultural Appropriation

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).

When Cultural Appropriation As A Concept Has Meaning

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.

You’re Allowed To Like Stuff

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).

The Fine Line

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.



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  1. Ron says:

    Hey Sophia,
    I do have a very different opinion concerning so called dread locks and so called tunnels on white people. I really do not get why you seem to come to the point so easily that whites wearing “dreads” and “tunnels” should be fine. Cultural appropriation as I understood it (speaking from a white not to good informed standpoint) goes much deeper. It deals with white privileges… Of course I can take from any culture I want, without being degraded for it, as a white person in a dominant white society. The question for me is rather can the people from this cultures I’m “lending” from also still do so!?
    A lot of PoC and Blacks were and still are tremendously suppressed when practicing there own symbols and traditions! This is in fact the reality also for them when wearing “dreads” (this is not the traditional word ) and “tunnels”. Because they are read in a white dominated society as “to ethnic”, “unprofessional”, “primitive”, “criminals” and so on! It’s white privilege that allows you to take that traditions and practice them without oppression and being “cool”, “hybrid”, “world-open”, “nice and different”, “special” when you do the same things!! This is an uncritical practice of white privilege in my opinion and a proof of ignorance and unsolidarity.

    Yoga is a very good example for this, too. While withe middle-class women in Europe are the largest group practicing it, Indians were suppressed for practicing it and only a few migrants do have access to Yoga studios in eg Germany… Of course this is not to say, whites shouldn’t practice joga, but they should have in mind WHO earns money, healing etc. with it and who can not. And if privileged people shouldn’t rather use there privileges to take responsibility and protest rather than imagining themselves as “word-open”, trendy and cultural hybrid….
    Here is a very, very good article I just read recently about the issue:

    I’m more than happy, that you want to take the responsibility to think for yourself. I totally do agree with you here. Anyways I do have the feeling that in this post there is a gap of self-recognition of white privilege. Maybe we can come to a discussion about it!


    • Sophia Gubb says:

      Hey… well I do see how shitty it is that there’s this double standard where white people are read one way while people of colour are read another way while wearing dreads. (Actually, wearing dreads is not considered “professional” either for whites or POC, but this is impacts black people more because it’s a rather natural way of wearing their hair).

      Buuut I don’t see how white people refusing to wear dreads would change that. I don’t think that would solve anything. What would solve things is if 1) white people stopped discriminating against POC with dreads and 2) white people put pressure on other white people to not discriminate.

      I read that article, in fact I went over it quite meticulously just before writing my own article. I filtered it and took what resonated with me and left the rest.

      With most of the points, I would reply in a similar way as I’ve just done to your point about dreads:

      2. It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People

      – Keep showing love for the culture! Stop being prejudiced!

      3. It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color

      – So fight this discrimination but that doesn’t mean you have to stop wearing dreads.

      4. It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor

      – So put measures in place to correct this imbalance – but that doesn’t mean you have to stop wearing moccasins. (Another article I read rather reasonably suggested that you buy moccasins from a certified Native source).

      5. It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For

      – So try and stop this from happening – but that doesn’t mean you need to stop listening to Rock and Roll.

      In general one thing that jumped out of me when reading this article was this narrative of “taking” from other cultures. It’s not taking, it’s reproducing. They still have it even if you copy it – and if you do it respectfully and mindfully of oppressive structures, then I don’t think you can reasonably say you’ve damaged what they have. Even otherwise, I don’t think you can really say that. No one loses from another person having the same thing.

  2. Tina says:

    Your last comment, Sophia, reminds me of the question, whether different-sex couples should perform PDA in places where it is unsafe for same-sex couples to do so (see here for example: I think, the best way to figure out what is appropriate and what not, is to listen to the people who might feel bad about it. And if they do, it would be good courtesy to stop doing it. And this can be quite a bit (even my beloved aladin pants, if I follow SchwarzRund’s comment). On the other hand there are elements of a culture that were voluntarily given to the west, where people actively traveled to the west, created a palatable version of certain practices and taught them to westerners. This has partly happened with Yoga and Tantra, for example, when I go to my favorite Yoga retreat centers, I feel like being in a Hinduistic mission center – which is fine, even though I don’t participate in everything because it triggers me, having fought my way out of evangelical Christianity at some point.

    However, I mostly wanted to share an experience where I was a bit on the receiving end of cultural appropriation:

    One queer-feminist group I participate in wanted to organize a party that was partly witch-themed (being on 30th of April). They asked me to DJ there, playing witch music and I happily agreed to that. However then the invitation to the event said something about dancing in a stone circle and I told them that that is not ok and reluctantly they removed it from the invitations that they could still change (the non-paper ones, I believe). A stone circle is a ritual space that you create with a certain intention and it is expected that only people who agree with that intention and that want to participate in the ritual will enter it. This is not something to make fun about or just use in a playful manner at a party.

    Of course, witches are not discriminated against has much as PoC, but there is the thing that we are not taken seriously and thought to be a little crazy for what we practice. And this experience should me the fine line between cultural exchange (like the DJing) and appropriation (the stone circle).

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