September 22, 2008

Is cultural appropriation okay?

Cultural appropriationCultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether.

Overview

The term cultural appropriation can have a negative connotation. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.

To many, the term implies that culture can actually be "stolen" through cultural diffusion.

Cultural and racial theorist, George Lipsitz, outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term "strategic anti-essentialism." Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group. Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen both in minority cultures and majority cultures, and are not confined to only the appropriation of the other. For example, the American band Redbone, comprised of founding members of Mexican heritage, essentialized their group as belonging to the Native American tradition, and are known for their famous songs in support of the American Indian Movement "We Were All Wounded at Wounded Knee" and "Custer Had It Coming." However, as Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.
Cultural Appropriation:  Homage or Insult?In other words: It’s the oppression, stupid.

A Japanese teen wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a big American company is not the same as Madonna sporting a bindi as part of her latest reinvention. The difference is history and power. Colonization has made Western Anglo culture supreme–powerful and coveted. It is understood in its diversity and nuance as other cultures can only hope to be. Ignorance of culture that is a burden to Asians, African and indigenous peoples, is unknown to most European descendants or at least lacks the same negative impact.

It matters who is doing the appropriating. If a dominant culture fancies some random element (a mode of dress, a manner of speaking, a style of music) of my culture interesting or exotic, but otherwise disdains my being and seeks to marginalize me, it is surely an insult.
Comment:  I occasionally get accused of appropriating Native culture in my comics and on this website. And I worry about the issue.

But the last line of this posting gives me hope. It's obvious that I don't disdain Natives and aren't seeking to marginalize them.

Rather, I'm giving them voice as often as possible by posting their news stories and citing and quoting their beliefs. If anything, I'm spending too much time promoting Native viewpoints and not enough telling my own stories.

Anyway, peruse the comments and links in the Racialicious posting for some excellent thoughts on the issue of cultural appropriation. For more on the subject of appropriating Native cultures, see Why Write About Native Americans?

Below:  A white man's version of a Native comic book.

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