It is seemingly very easy to pooh-pooh accusations of cultural appropriation – especially in extreme cases – as overly-sensitive millennial outrage. Yet, it is a problem that clearly runs much deeper than the fashion statements or musical choices of the rich and famous. Each claim of appropriation is a reflection of hundreds of years of racial division, subjugation, and theft, continuing to the present day.
While we are not directly responsible for the crimes of those who came before us, the magnitude of our colonial history and the rewards we reaped from it simply cannot be forgotten. Every Native American headdress worn at a summer festival, for instance, casts a shadow of the atrocities committed by European settlers on the American continent in the 15th century. Between then and 1900, the number of Native Americans living in America decreased from over 10 million to a meagre 300,000, and it was only after efforts made in the 20th century to reinstate their rights that the total began to rise once more.
the magnitude of our colonial history simply cannot be forgotten
As a nation, we were part of a process that purposefully decimated an entire race of people whose home we invaded. For us to now make fancy dress out of a culture that we had a hand in near-destroying, and know little about, is troubling. As former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabaar wrote in a recent article for Time magazine, it is “kind of like wearing the teeth of your pillaged enemy as a necklace”.
But times have changed, some might argue. How can we let what happened all those years ago make us guilty, and force us not to do something?’ This was basically the line of argument of the Spectator’s response to Abdul-Jabaar’s piece. “The PC rage against cultural appropriation is ultimately a demand for cultural segregation” writes Brendan O’Neill. This is the 21st century, we shouldn’t have to separate cultures like this, why can’t we share and take what we want?
Of course this would be a lovely situation to be in, but the reality is that we don’t live in a racially equal society. That’s blatantly obvious. So when we pick and choose the things we find particularly appealing from a certain culture, then it is still theft. This is especially true considering, as Abdul-Jabaar points out, that the hairstyles Kylie Jenner adopts, when on the head of a young black boy or girl, can incite unwarranted police suspicion. As recent tragic events in places like Ferguson has shown, this can even have fatal consequences. The same can be said for increasing and worrying racial tensions in Britain. A bindi from ASOS on a white teenager is a statement; a bindi adorning a non-white forehead brings cries of ‘Paki’ in the street.
A slightly better argument against accusations of appropriation is the declaration that it is instead cultural appreciation. This is the idea that, with a certain depth of knowledge and understanding of the culture being taken from, there can be a respectful and racially sensitive way of borrowing. Though I agree that this is possible, complications arise when we try to draw the line. Take, for example, an article I found online called ‘The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation’. In this, we are told that if we pay ‘homage’ to other cultures, and engage with them ‘on more than an aesthetic level’, then we are OK to take what we wish.
complications arise when we try to draw the line
Similarly, in this ‘Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative’, we are advised to “reflect on how we perceive the cultures that we’re consuming and think about the relationships between food, people, and power” if we want to respectfully borrow from that cuisine. It is these arbitrary and complex levels of distinction that make it as difficult to identify one’s appreciation as it is to accuse another of appropriation. If we are having to continually consider and create clauses to clarify these discrepancies, then cultural appropriation becomes too complicated to label on a basic level.
It must be remembered at this point that the term ‘cultural appropriation’ is one that originated in an academic environment. To identify it, and the problems it causes, requires a sufficient level of knowledge and analytical insight. From our higher-educated vantage point, this insight is possible, though this is not the case for a large number of people. Perhaps I am able to be this analytical about it because of my privileged status as a white male. But is it justifiable to label something as racist something which is caused as much by ignorance as underlying prejudice? Does this near intellectual elitism verge on making cultural appropriation a classist issue as well as a racial one?
We cannot ignore the harm inflicted by cultural theft, and cannot absolve ourselves of the guilt bestowed on us by our colonial past. Yet, can we at the same time be more productive in our reactions?