Cultural Appropriation Has Lost Its Meaning

August 14, 2014 at 10:15 pm 5 comments

Once upon a time, though maybe it was an imaginary time in my head- the term cultural appropriation meant something- even if there wasn’t one totally precise definition, basically it meant ripping off pieces of a historically colonized culture, taking them out of context and playing with them for fun and profit, and publicly misrepresenting the culture. Now I feel like the term is so carelessly thrown around that it has lost its meaning and as a result people don’t take it seriously.

I suspect part of the issue is that this discussion began more within an academic context and has filtered into the rest of society, including many people who don’t have a systemic understanding of oppression, racism, colonialism etc. Granted, there are definitely people within academia who don’t get it, and people outside of it, including folks with high school or even less education that do get it, and have a very sophisticated understanding of systemic oppression, because they’ve lived it! 

Cultural appropriation is still a real problem but it’s in danger of being obscured by being misunderstood any kind of cultural borrowing. Indians wearing business suits in Mumbai is not the same as non-Indians wearing saris. There are certainly examples that we can easily place in the cultural appropriation/exploitation box, like New Age cult leaders charging lots of money to participated in a Native American sweat lodge.

But for the most part I would suggest instead of accusing people of cultural appropriation, we practice mindful cultural borrowing, and ask questions of ourselves and others when we try out things from other cultures. To return to my earlier example-

Is it always wrong for a non-Indian to wear a sari? There are billions of different opinions on that! (Here’s one) Do you know any Indians who you can talk to about this? What connection do you have to Indian cultures? What do you know about issues surrounding being a woman in Indian or in the Indian diaspora? Is it a special kind of sari, designed for someone of a particular status, or for a ceremony? Are you wearing it as a Halloween costume? Is this your SCA or LARP or cosplay persona? Tomorrow when you wear other clothes, are you going to make fun of people with “foreign” sounding accents, customs, other religions as not “properly” American, modern, Western etc.? If an Indian woman wearing a sari came to your company to be interviewed, how would she be treated, compared to a similarly qualified woman wearing a more standard dress of a similar formality level?

Are you an ordinary person or are you Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry and the sari is part of a music video inspired by Bollywood, the idea that Hinduism is All About Tantra & Sex and random pieces of Thai and Cambodian culture thrown in, cuz Asian Culture is All One Thing, right?

So maybe wearing a non-Indian wearing a sari is OK in some contexts, or maybe not. It might depend on how you answered those questions. And ultimately, I’m not Indian so it’s not my job to judge that.

My previous post has been well-received, though I still second-guess myself and wonder if it’s too “Oh, poor me, rootless, guilt-ridden white American”. It does seem I’m not totally seeing eye-to-eye with my Anglo-Irish friend about these issues. I have pretty limited opportunities to speak with British, Irish and Scottish people directly and in person. Online communication is never quite the same. I admit, my connection to my Irish and Scottish heritage is tenuous at best, I do not really have any more “right” to it than any other human being raised outside of Irish or Scottish culture.  While I make an effort to learn about Irish and Scottish culture, and I study the Irish language, I do wonder if I’m trying to plant a seed in foreign soil where it might not thrive. When discussing Celtic cultures, I get reminded constantly by various people (Americans and Europeans alike) that I’ve never traveled to the British Isles. Thanks for the “you’re poor” reminder, it’s really helpful! I know people don’t “mean it that way”, then again I don’t mean whatever cluelessly classist, racially insensitive or arrogantly American-centric things I’m sure I have said on countless occasions, in spite of my attempts to educate myself. We all need to be patient with one another, and admit when we’re wrong.  I realize how hard this is!  

By the way, I recommend reading this conversation on Sharon Knight’s blog- Race & Cultural Preservation in Modern Paganism. It’s from a year ago, but it’s one of the most civil, but still genuinely insightful conversation on race relations in a Pagan context (but still relevant to the broader culture) I’ve seen on the Internet. Sharon expresses some views that I very much empathize with in my journey as white-privileged person and Xochiquetzal Duti Odinsdottir (rockin’ All-American name!) challenges her with some tough-love.  Folks with various types of privilege need to learn to accept the tough love when it’s given instead of being defensive. We want to hear that we’re the enlightened exception, but we’re not. We need to take responsibility, even if we aren’t personally responsible for all the Bad Things that whichever privileged group we belong to has done.

Acronyms: SCA- Society for Creative Anachronism- organization in which members create a fictional persona from the Renaissance era (mostly Europeans but there are growing number of non-European personae)

LARP: Live Action Role Playing

Cosplay- costume play, wearing a costume at a science fiction/fantasy/comic/anime convention or other fan event.

Resources about Cultural Appropriation/Borrowing in a UU context.

Articles from different viewpoints-

What Tiger Lily Can Teach Us About Cultural Appropriation– Very helpful advice from Kenzie Allen, an Oneida lady about how to respectfully borrow from other cultures.

Appropriate Cultural Appropriation– discussion of borrowers as “Invaders, Tourists and Guests” Reminds me of a talk a Hindu UU minister gave at my church in which he talked about the difference between being a Spiritual Pilgrim and a Spiritual Tourist. 

A politically incorrect opinion on cultural appropriation by eclectic Neo-Pagans by John Halstead

Hey, grievance mongers, lighten up on ‘cultural appropriation’ complaints– this does show how broadly C.A. is getting used but I think author is too dismissive of real problems

You can’t ‘steal’ a culture– some good points, but doesn’t seem to get that for example, white people have profited from Black people’s music while the same Black folks didn’t benefit. 

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Entry filed under: Concepts & Definitions, Race/Ethnicity. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Witchy Blog Award Looking at Pop Culture Paganism

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Léithin Cluan/Naomi  |  August 14, 2014 at 11:37 pm

    Every single time I mention travel to Britain and/or Ireland, I point out that *it is only thing* that I think is important, that I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity, and that I don’t think it’s as important as other things. And that not everyone will be able to afford it.

    Seriously, what else can I do? Deny that it’s important? Sorry, nope.

    Reply
    • 2. caelesti  |  August 14, 2014 at 11:46 pm

      Sorry, that wasn’t directed towards you in particular. (I mostly have gotten annoyed by people who go on my “Irish” tour that admittedly isn’t very Irish! Though I don’t say anything to them about it of course!) I definitely agree it is important, it is much like how Jewish people often have a deep desire to travel to Israel, and in Islam, there’s the Hajj, but it’s understood that some people can’t afford it. That said, in both those communities there are people/orgs that assist folks with travel.

      Reply
  • 3. Léithin Cluan/Naomi  |  August 14, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    Sorry, that should have read “I point out that *it is NOT the only thing* that I think is important”…

    Reply
  • […] I do agree this is a major problem among Pagans and New Agers, and Unitarian Universalists, the exact definition of it, different limitations of different cultural knowledge sets and so forth are …, and I’ve seen too much in-fighting and division in the Celtic Reconstructionist community […]

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  • […] Cultural Appropriation Has Lost Its Meaning– the Blargh! Everyone’s talking past each other! post […]

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