Ashley on Cultural Appropriation

Ashley on Cultural Appropriation February 3, 2012

Christina here, letting Ashley (from our polyamory adventures!) do a guest post!

Here she goes:

Hello all!  Ashley here.  I want to open the doors for discussion on a topic that I hadn’t heard much about until fairly recently: cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation is the borrowing of an element or elements from a different culture.  It tends to have a very negative connotation involving racism, post-colonialist paternalism, and presumptuousness. People use the term to describe when people use very significant elements from a culture without understanding how to do so respectfully and end up stereotyping the original culture.  This was discussed quite a bit last Halloween with Ohio University’s STARS student group’s “We’re a culture, not a costume” campaign.  In the campaign people would hold up a poster of someone in a costume that stereotyped their ethnicities with the words “We’re a culture, not a costume.  This is not who I am and this is not okay”.  Stereotyping is generally bad, yes, but where is the line between respectfully borrowing or adopting cultural elements and contributing to stereotyping and cultural appropriation?

What spurred the writing of this blog was this comic and the subsequent comments.  Don’t just skip over the link, go look!  The first commenter said “I don’t care if the person did real research. I don’t care if they do know and understand the significance of the item/tattoo/whatever. IT IS STILL CULTURAL APPROPRIATION AND IT IS STILL RACIST”. I don’t agree with that statement at all.  If that were the case then eating ramen noodles, using the word “garage”, or wearing rainbows could all count as cultural appropriation and yet I don’t think most people would think doing any of those things are racist or culturally appropriated despite “ramen” style noodles being Asian, “garage” having French etymology, and rainbows being a recognized symbol of Queer culture.  American assimilation of these words happened through exposure to them via contact with members of those other cultures.  Assimilation is one of the many ways that people react to acculturation, which is what occurs when a member or members of one culture adapts to or borrows elements from another culture that they’ve had prolonged exposure to.

When two or more cultures come into contact with each other there’s bound to be some cross cultural transmission.   Trying to avoid picking up cultural elements from other cultures that you have contact with is like trying to avoid bringing sand back home with you after visiting a beach; you may think you didn’t bring any back, but you shake out your shoe and there’s a pile of sand.  That’s because culture is meant to be easily transmittable.   My favorite definition of culture comes from the fourth edition of David Matsumoto and Linda Juang’s textbook, “Culture & Psychology”.  They define culture as “a unique meaning and information system, shared by a group and transmitted across generations, that allows the group to meet basic needs of survival, pursue happiness and well-being, and derive meaning from life” (Matsumoto 12).  This definition is inclusive without being prescriptive.

On one hand I can understand why people in marginalized or minority groups might be upset having a privileged person borrow their cultural elements, especially if they feel it’s done in a disrespectful way.  There’s a complex shared history of power imbalance, degradation, and exploitation.  I think it’s perfectly fair for a group to feel upset that the things they assign value to are being (in their eyes) disrespected.  However, if culture can be a type of knowledge or idea, can it really be owned by anyone?

You might be thinking, “Sure they can!  We have intellectual property laws,” to which I would respond that culture is not something which can be bought or sold like music or a book, it’s more like a mathematical theorem since it’s something to be applied and utilized.  The problem with the idea of owning a culture is that many cultural elements rely on symbolism/symbols to convey cultural ideas but the chosen symbol may not have the same meanings attached for other cultures.  Take, for example, the nose piercing.  It’s a common symbol in south Asian areas as a symbol of beauty, social status, and marriage.  In places like America getting a nose piercing is something usually done for aesthetic reasons.   It’s the same thing but the meaning is different.  “Yes but some things are sacred,” you might assert.  Things are only sacred to the people who assign sacred properties to them.  There is nothing inherently sacred about a particular series of movements, a body part, or a particular animal.

So dismissing the notion that some things are inherently sacrosanct leads us into the turbulent waters around the topic of religion.  Religion seems like it would be one of the most fiercely guarded cultural elements since it’s highly personal and people assign a high level of sacredness to the rites, rituals, and beliefs involved.  However that’s not the case.  Many religions encourage the conversion of others into the faith.

In short, knowing exactly where to draw the line when adopting cultural elements is hard, it’s easy to step on toes and offend people if you’re not careful, but even still cross cultural sharing (be it through organic cultural diffusion or purposeful borrowing) is worthwhile and can be a celebration of diversity.

Follow Ashley @keonabug.

Learn more about Christina and follow her @ziztur.


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