Appropriating cultures assists cultural integration, not cultural denigration.
From the very depths of Tumblr to online newsrooms, the phenomenon of “cultural appropriation” has taken social media by storm. Most contemporary arguments made against cultural appropriation come across as trivial, emotionally-driven and completely unnecessary — making a mountain out of a molehill, so to speak. For the most part, current debates by non-scholars have trivialised a fairly reasonable scholarly notion — one that stresses the importance of context when defining cultural appropriation — by focusing on objects “belonging” to certain cultures (take the controversy regarding Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks as an example, despite the existence of dreadlocks in many cultures).
Opponents of cultural appropriation believe that it involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups. Conversely, those for the idea have argued that being against appropriation introduces cultural segregation. However, this seems to be a recent development — nor does it seem to be one that is for the better.
What is cultural appropriation?
According to Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, a writer from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, cultural appropriation is defined as a “taking, from a culture that is not one’s own, intellectual property, cultural expressions and artifacts, history and ways of knowledge.” Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao, on the other hand, view cultural appropriation as a “multidimensional phenomenon”. Due to the ambiguous nature of cultural appropriation as an idea, there isn’t an inherently right or wrong definition. Nonetheless, the erroneous safeguarding of cultures — to the point of elevating fear — defeats the notion of cultural integration.
One of the earliest instances of alleged cultural appropriation was seen in the 1950s, during the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley as the king of rock and roll. Although generally hailed as a star who paved the way for many musicians and an icon in the black community during the early days of his stardom, Elvis’ legacy has also seen a rise in criticism for “stealing black music”— particularly in the 21st century. As this 2002 article by Helen Kolawole states, “Elvis is particularly infuriating because for many black people he represents the most successful white appropriation of a black genre to date.”
Elvis popularised a genre pioneered by the African-American community, but he always paid due credit to black musicians. In a 1957 interview with Jet, an African-American publication, he said, “…rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.” To further note, he also thought of Fats Domino as “one of my influences from way back.”
Considering the prevalence of racial segregation in 1950s America, Elvis’ popularity opened doors for black musicians of the era. The amalgamation of distinct musical forms promoted by Elvis blurred cultural barriers and promoted cultural unity, rather than the misappropriation of culture. In fact, legendary Billboard editor Paul Ackerman observed in 1958 that due to the development of rock ‘n’ roll, groundbreaking artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard broke free from the “race” market seen beforehand, into a more all-inclusive pop following. Ackerman also remarked that “hard and fast cleavages between the country and western, pop, and rhythm and blues fields are rapidly breaking down,” citing Elvis as an eminent example of such an artist.
There are more contemporary arguments by self-appointed arbiters of cultural appropriation, part of a bigger group of individuals known as “social justice warriors” (SJWs) on the internet. Notably, many a case has been made surrounding traditional outfits like the Japanese kimono and saris. Is it truly the misappropriation of a culture if an individual from a different culture opts to wear these outfits? Frankly, there is no evident basis for the accusation.
The kimono, which translates to a “thing to wear”, has found a solid footing in the Western world recently. Although kimonos are viewed as a product of Japan’s feudal past or a symbol of women’s oppression post-World War II, today they are a fashion choice. As this informative YouTube video by a Japanese/American couple living in Japan notes, foreigners are welcome to wear kimonos by most Japanese people. In addition, there is a movement in Japan called Kimono Jack, meant to instill contemporary interest in kimono-wearing. The 21st century has witnessed a sort of “kimono renaissance”, really. In modern times, an average Japanese person is open to modifications on the traditional idea of a kimono and the current kimono movement focuses on creating an awareness regarding the beauty of the garment, regardless of one’s cultural background.
Saris, on the other hand, can be traced back to the Indus Valley civilisation. Despite the modern association of saris with grace, saris — which means “strip of cloth” in Sanskrit — were pragmatically made to form a trouser-like attire, aiding women in their movements as well as covering their modesty. Although saris are an integral part of the cultural identity in South India today, there is no visible outcry in the South Indian community when a foreigner wears the garb. There are no “Let’s Not Allow Foreigners to Wear Saris” movements — one simply does not witness the degree of polarisation observed in some parts of Western media.
Cultures are meant to be shared and appreciated — it is illogical to shun others for wanting to embrace your culture in its entirety. This recent article by Kenan Malik contains a fairly rational observation: “Cultures do not, and cannot, work through notions of ‘ownership’. The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation — of cultures borrowing, stealing, changing, transforming.” World civilisations did not emerge and develop based on confining cultures to a specific set of attributes — all of us share a common ancestor as well as common knowledge. Telling someone not to wear a kimono or saree is as absurd as stopping a person from donning lederhosen or a cowboy hat on the basis of “misappropriating” Bavarian or North American culture.
What’s the verdict?
There is no denying the systemic cultural prejudice still seen in today’s world. Sure, Mickey Rooney’s stereotypically inaccurate portrayal of a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was uncomfortable to watch – as an Asian viewer, it made me cringe due to its misrepresentation of a specific culture.
Yet, the modern movement against cultural appropriation seems like a congregation of vigilantes wanting to exert control over others rather than having a vested interest in promoting intercultural understanding and mutual respect. Quite frankly, the entire charade is a misguided crusade.
Rather than creating a divide by picking on others for wearing saris and kimonos, perhaps it’s wise to refocus our attention on going against cultural misrepresentation. We need to embrace cultural pluralism — everyone has something to offer. Not allowing someone else to embrace your culture in its entirety — on the basis of “ownership” — sends a message of segregation, not progress. Some battles are not worth fighting, especially when they lead to nothing but negativity.