Saturday, August 2, 2014

Cultural Appropriation

Sometimes being a white, middle class feminist can be such a headache, you know? Having to identify and own one's privilege. Constantly monitoring one's speech and thoughts to ensure one isn't infringing on other people's sensibilities. Analyzing everything one thinks, says, produces, or consumes unto death. No wonder people hate feminism: It's bloody hard work if you're doing it right. (And I'm the first to admit my "feminism" is about as haphazard as my housecleaning, but then, I've never subscribed to the old adage "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right.")

I note Jezebel was having a go at Katy Perry today. I almost didn't read it because I could not care less about Katy Perry (or Miley Cyrus or the Kardashian sisters or any other piece of celebrity eye-candy who is now being shamed for the crime of "cultural appropriation.") Leave it to Jezebel to always land on the most trivial tips of pretty big icebergs and chip away with 400 words of sheer snark. But those five wasted minutes that I will never get back did get me to pondering.

When it comes to members of a dominant culture adopting behaviors of a marginalized culture, where is the line drawn between respectfully borrowing (or even paying homage) and stealing or exploiting?

Last month I saw Cher on her "Dressed to Kill" tour. The stadium was packed. The audience (mostly older women like myself) were ecstatic.  Of course Cher didn't sing anything new: She gave her audience exactly what they had paid for by not only recycling her hit list, but also her original wardrobe. In other words, this spectacle -- like Cher's career itself -- was as much about her clothes as it was about her songs. And she still looked fabulous in those gorgeous Bob Mackie numbers, at least as far as I could tell from my precarious perch in the nose-bleed section.

Then she did that number "Half Breed." And all I could wish is that she hadn't.

It wasn't that her seventy year old thighs weren't as toned and tawny as ever; it was her choice of resurrecting this particular number that really gave away her age. I shared my dismay with my friends, and one of them said, "She is part Native American, so she has the right!" "She's part Armenian," I snapped. I could tell they thought I was just being a deliberate pain, so I shut up.

But the incident reminded me how much our mores have changed in the past forty years, at least regarding the appropriation of First Nation cultural symbols.

Some years ago a boyfriend gave me a bone necklace of the sort once worn by Sioux warriors. It was a thing of beauty, and unusual, and I thought I would enjoy wearing it. But I never could bring myself to do so; it just seemed wrong. I finally gave the necklace away to my stepson, who has Native American ancestry. He probably won't wear it either, but he appreciated its significance.

I haven't always been that sensitive. Back in the seventies, when I was in Afghanistan, I perplexed my Afghan hosts by wanting to buy a burka. None of the women in this middle class, urban family wore one. Of course, I couldn't tell them that the real reason I wanted it was so that I would always have a cheap, easy Halloween costume. Nevertheless, they knew the value of this garment was in the way it represented a cultural practice westerners find abhorrent, and they were rightfully offended, and politely declined to help me find a burka shop.

Why the burqa is part of Britain
Not an appropriate Halloween costume.

My partner wants to throw a "Bollywood" party, and have all the guests wear saris and bindis. It could be a lot of fun, but how will it make the Indian caterers feel? (Actually, they might find the sight as hilarious as my Turkish friends find middle aged American women belly-dancing in Greek restaurants.)

Anyway, this essay by Jarune Uwujaren has at least helped me frame the question for myself, and that's a start. The bottom line is, as always: Be polite, considerate, acknowledge the humanity of everyone around you, and examine your own motives fearlessly and honestly. I reckon that's the best that any of us can do: Try to be decent human beings. And you don't even need feminism for that.


  1. I think the key is, first thing first: give credit to the original demographic whose customs you're celebrating. There have been previous issues with foreign countries/corporations buying cultural items, or replicating them, and then selling them for their own profits. That is why UNESCO has a whole campaign to protect intangible cultural heritage.

    Then, don't misrepresent or insult/ridicule the customs. This goes along with the general idea of being respectful and honest.

    I'm of South Asian descent, and 2 of my American female friends asked me once if I could help throw a 'desi' party, where I showed them how to dress in saris and teach them Indian/Bollywood style dancing. I was happy to do this, and it was a lot of fun. I don't think there is anything wrong with foreigners practicing other customs in a positive manner. There WILL always be conservatives who are anti-any sort of cultural exchange. However, as an Asian-American who adopted plenty of "American" customs, I don't see anything wrong with the other way around.

    Something interesting is that a lot of Indians are quite amused at what the Americans picked up - like yoga, the HareKrishna movement, and vegetarianism (which is not as widespread in India as you would think.) They also find it hilarious that Westerners look to Asian cultures for examples of minimalism and spirituality, when most minimalist tendencies are more out of necessity than anything else.

    But your concluding statement is right - consideration goes a long way.

    1. Thanks, Anon. The Bollywood party is back on, then! :)


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