Guest-Post: Cultural Appropriation Is a Toxic Concept

Guest-Post: Cultural Appropriation Is a Toxic Concept November 3, 2016

This is the another guest-post from my friend Farah Shah. Farah is an aspiring writer who is based in Canada. She did her bachelors in Sociology, and later specialized in Communications. She has an unbridled love for fashion, and bunnies. This is her Facebook page. You can read her other posts here and here. The following article was also published on Medium.

If the title of my article alone makes you wanna write me off right off the bat, and makes you decide not to read my article then that is your right, but you lose any right to argue or attack me unless you have listened to what I am gonna say here and considered all my points.


Yes, cultural appropriation is a very toxic concept, with definitions so ambiguous and so different, depending on the person they come from, that it might make sense to do away with it altogether. When you google the word, here is what Wikipedia has to say about it: “ Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1]Cultural appropriation is seen by some[2] as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights.”

With a definition as broad as the one given above, it’s no wonder the conversation about cultural appropriation has devolved into dog-fights over whose ancestors “own” what. You look at the definition above and you wonder where to really draw the line? And then mostly, you see no lines being drawn. There is a streak of nationalism and cultural superiority here that is often hard to ignore. I mean to say, we are always borrowing elements from other cultures, and that kind of thing has been more beneficial than harmful. Cultural organicity is not a thing truly exists. No culture exists without borrowing things from the other.

Maybe you assume that my position on cultural appropriation is coming from some place of privilege, of never having dealt with racism for what I wore, what I ate, what I did. for the colour of my skin. But what you don’t know is that I was rather big on this issue of cultural appropriation — I still think there are facets of this discussion that hold some real validity. Wearing headdresses as costumes is wrong, wearing shalwar kameez as costume to a Halloween party is wrong, there is something really fucked up about the way that often times all the books all people of colour end up finding on their culture happen to be written by white people.

However, this discussion of cultural appropriation often does not focus on very tangible concrete issues of injustices and racism — the discussion of cultural appropriation, by default, lends itself to become a war about what truly belonged to whose ancestors, who owns this part of history and who owns another. It lends itself to becoming a completely pointless conversation about whether the use of “spirit animal” (if you’re not NDN) or the use of the phrase “on-point” (if you’re not black) or if the use of the word “daddy” (if you’re not queer) are “right” or “wrong” to use. And the word *wrong* here sounds a lot more like moral judgment rather than an actually well-crafted argument.

By default, the discussion of cultural appropriation lends itself to ridiculous discussions where Indian and Pakistani women claim that henna is only theirs to wear and Egyptian women come in to say that because henna was invented by Egyptians, it is only theirs to wear. It lends itself to conversation about banning yoga in schools (that did happen by the way — yoga did get banned in University of Ottawa for a semester — and it was a class for disabled people). It lends itself to talks about who can learn what language, and who is allowed to profit off their language learning skills. Oh and, it also lends itself to conversations about whether or not doing Kama Sutra is appropriation (lolz). Just google: “Is kama sutra cultural appropriation tumblr” and you will find these discussions. Do that on your own risk though.

Because no lines are drawn, because cultural appropriation is never clearly defined and seems to have entirely different definitions for different people — — the discussion of it is almost always guaranteed to turn into something that seems like children fighting over who which food belongs to whom. And of course it does lend itself to white anti-racist men telling me to stay in my goddamn lane because I don’t get to have an opinion about whether or not I find it ridiculous that people are making a big deal of others using the word ‘spirit animal’ (Yup, that happened). Such stances kind of do remind me of when I would have grades taken off my exams because I forgot to use the capital G for god. It reminds of of debates where people bled each other to death about whether writing ‘God’ was more acceptable or the word ‘Allah’.

And don’t tell me that this is a stance I have due to coming from a place of privilege — the reality is that because I was once rather big on this whole cultural appropriation thing, I know exactly where the other side is coming from. I was on that side. Did I tell you how years ago in High School these white girls made fun of this long-shirt type of dress (called kurti) I wore with my tights often. It’s traditional and modern at the same time. So anyway, these white girls made fun of that. And then I saw years later that some white actress had made it a fashion and now it was cool and awesome. And I found it fucked up.

I hated these white fashion models for wearing it but now I realize I was feeling this way because of racism I had faced, because it made me feel so powerless and helpless to see what I was mocked for was considered cool for someone else, I wanted that thing back for myself. I was mocked for it, so it should be all mine, right? But then I realized I did not want this thing back so much as I wanted to just have NOT faced racism. That, in some ways, I was being at least a little petty by making it about a thing, a piece of clothing, when it was about racism. I was thinking owning said thing would give me some semblance of control back, but it wouldn’t, it never does.

Racism is at the core of it all — and some random white woman I saw on the street wearing that piece of clothing was not among the ones who made fun of me, even if she decided never to wear said piece of clothing, that racism is gonna be there to stay. The scars from racism I still have would continue to be there. A racism that takes various forms — things about one’s culture being mocked is one of them. Racism is the issue here, not someone wearing said piece of clothing. In fact, in some ways, to use the word cultural appropriation complicates the discussion of racism. I might as well just call it straight up racism rather than cultural appropriation.

The anger I felt then for seeing white women in that outfit was not really an anger at the action of wearing something — that is completely harmless to be very honest. Anger was poisoning in this instance because, when I think about it, I would rather speak against the white women that were racist to me than hurl accusations of being a racist at any white woman who might enjoy wearing said thing. It seemed borderline fascistic to do so. But you see what I mean? I feel cultural appropriation issue markets itself as fighting social injustice that is racism — but it entirely detracts from the issue of racism.

It’s no longer about the racism you faced. It’s about someone wearing a thing/saying a thing/eating a thing/blissfully enjoying a thing. It’s about this whole fight about whose ancestors owned what. (By the way, still entirely failing here to see the connection between saying spirit animal and oppression that indigenous people face). Besides, nationalism is often at the core of all this — just search up on the movement to ban yoga, and you will have proof of that. And yoga, that is an interesting one.

Many of the people taking offense because yoga has become so mainstream give you this idea that yoga somehow belongs to everyone in India — it does not, it only belongs to the privileged rich ones, it belongs to the upper castes. It does not belong to Dalits — and I feel making it more accessible to them is a far more worthy cause than trying to ban it in the West. But hey that’s just me. I urge everyone to just really question the notion of any said thing belonging to an entire culture — question whether or not it really belongs to everyone in that culture — question whether or not the person telling you this speaks for everyone in their culture. Also, like India exports yoga willfully, consensually. Are you gonna tell me they suffer from internalized racism?

Brown people accusing black people of appropriating their culture is my favourite. To quote S. Varatharajah:

“When South Asians accuse East Africans of cultural appropriation, it is less about cultural relations or power dynamics at play. It’s about brownness and blackness. It boils down to a question of race-relations and border demarcations. Such accusations stem from both widespread ignorance, but also plain old racism. A few months ago, I started my own tweet conversation on the topic, and here’s an elaboration.

The sight of a Somali woman wearing a multi-coloured dirac wrapped around her body, or that of an Ethiopian woman with henna painted on her hands irritates many South Asians because it challenges centuries-old myths about their place in this world and racial hierarchy. It’s a sharp reminder that there are understudied connections between these two parts of the world and many of its diverse communities. But, many South Asians would rather want to sweep those under the rug and pretend they didn’t exist.”

You can read the rest of his awesome article here:

What’s telling to me is that a lot of my fellow South Asians made a bigger fuss about Beyonce “appropriating” South Asian culture in one of her videos than they did about her being an actual sweat-shop owner. I mean, are people’s priorities so messed that symbols and microaggressions matter to them much more than serious issues?

Here is another thing you probably do not realize: What you often see as cultural appropriation and “problematic” is something a lot of PoC’s livelihoods depend on. There are people whose livelihoods depend on selling cultural clothing, cultural crafts, etc in festivals for instance. And they seem nothing but happy about the fact that their work gets the recognition and appreciation it deserved. I know a single brown mom whose livelihood (at least, some part of it) depends on applying henna on people’s hands. Her work is very much appreciated, she is incredibly proud of it. You are told you make a big goddamn difference by not being a consumer of henna tattoos, but you are making just about as much of a fucking difference as you do when you consume “fair-trade” coffee which isn’t actually fair-trade (yup, read up on that too).

I do care about social justice. I do care about racism and when I do see that racism, I refuse to let it go. I have faced racism — it is a fact of my life as a woman of colour. But I refuse to be on the cultural appropriation bandwagon — I find it nearly insulting that while I deal with people’s harsh judgment for the colour of my skin, that while I have faced actual physical violence for it — there are people who care so goddamn much about who gets to wear henna on their hands and who doesn’t. How about making this world a safer place for me? How about not deciding on my behalf what could offend me?

The conversation about cultural appropriation has become increasingly hard for me to take seriously. I feel that a lot of what drives it is the feeling of utter powerlessness to control anything other than mere symbols. I get that, I do. But I refuse to be part of this conversation.

“Cultural appropriation is largely no longer about racism, but about taking ownership of every simple mundane thing in order to feel a sense of control in a world that constantly deprives people of colour of it.

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