Kushay's Matter Bank Social Movements

[AK] Cultural Appropriation

This note will discuss cultural appropriation, the practice of someone adopting elements from the culture that is not their own in their activities.

The activities are including, but not limited to, white people doing yoga (which is originally Indian), Katy Perry dressing as geisha in her concert, an Indonesian opening a ramen stand, etc. We will discuss the specific context, and controversy behind it.

Arguments against

Under a liberal paradigm, there is a specific difference between cultural exchange, assimilation, and cultural appropriation based on the power dynamics of the appropriator and the appropriated. Cultural exchange means that people of different culture learns entirely of each other’s culture (the traditions, values, history behind it, etc.), assimilation means that people of a minority culture adopts elements of the majority culture to survive (Ex: A native Indian wearing formal modern clothing to be accepted in their workplace), cultural appropriation means that an element of a certain culture is taken by the people who belong to the culture that historically oppress the appropriated culture. (Ex: A white person dressing as Indian for fun). This distinction is important to the discussion in the following paragraphs, but unfortunately not many people that is not liberal understands this distinction.

The arguments against cultural appropriation is generally threefold:

1. It trivializes oppression. Here’s where the previous paragraph’s context becomes important, because people who appropriate culture oftentimes does not do so because they have a genuine interest to that entire culture (to the extent of willing to learn tedious things like it’s history, for example) but rather because they simply find it amusing. In many cases, this leads to the appropriator taking part of a culture that is very traumatic to the people who belong to the appropriated culture. Case in point, a baseball team in the US that is named “Indian Redskins”. Historically, “redskin” refers to an Indian’s genital that is cut by white people as a sign that the Indian has been murdered. The white people using the word “redskin” as a team name of course find it harder to relate to this trauma than the Indians.

2. It unjustly took credit of the appropriated culture people’s hard work. Since cultural appropriation is done without empathizing to the people of the appropriated’s culture, it might lead to the appropriator not having any incentive to give back to the appropriated when they manage to reap the benefits of them appropriating the culture. For example, rock and roll music originates from black street musicians, but the black musicians don’t have enough money to publish it to the public and make money out of it. And what happens is that white people who have the money adapts the entire music style while labeling it as their own. This is obviously immoral.

3. It misrepresents the appropriated culture. Since cultural appropriation only seeks to be “fun” and “amusing”, oftentimes the actual value of the appropriated’s culture that is seen as less exciting will be neglected and replaced by one that is more fun. For example, wearing a feather headwear in Indian culture symbolizes wisdom, respect, and trust. But what happens when people wear it for fun? People will only see that the feather headwear represents entertainment.

Arguments in favor

The arguments in favor of cultural appropriation is generally based on criticism towards liberal identity politics, which argues that anti-cultural appropriation arguments are mostly based on feelings, not facts and that it boxes people according to their identity (which is harmful). The arguments are also generally threefold:

1. Cultural appropriation is an entry point for people to empathize to progressives. Even though cultural appropriation is done without knowing the specific context behind the appropriated culture, people can still read and research about it. The problem is that these people won’t even research before they are exposed to that culture to begin with. Since cultural appropriation is the most mainstream method of exposure to people to different cultures (unlike using tedious lectures as an entry point), it is a very effective entry point of people to empathize to people of oppressed culture.

2. There is no clear boundary as to what can be considered cultural appropriation and what is not. For example, using “flying fox” as a baseball team name might be offensive to Indians since they often use the phrase animals doing something as their name, even though “flying fox” can be simply used because it sounds cool, without any intention to appropriate Indian culture. Since there is no empirical way to determine it, most likely it will be determined by the feelings of people who belongs within the appropriated culture. And this is bad because then you have an arbitrary standard about what is allowed and what is not allowed. This will make people in the gray area confused and ultimately feel less inclined to empathize to progressives.

3. No one can truly claim that their culture is “theirs” because there is no such thing as an “original culture”. The origin of every aspect of a certain culture can be traced back to another one. For example, the tradition of way ang in Indonesia can be traced back to ancient puppet plays in India, and so on. Thus, every culture is interconnected, and every person has the right to adopt elements of any culture.

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