December 28, 2015

Cultural borrowing vs. appropriation

Someone posted the following article with this note:Curious to know how much of this you'd consider insightful and how much you'd consider clueless. To me, the author seems a bit tone-deaf and has trouble telling the difference between culture and fashion.The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation
Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive.

By Jenni Avins

My response:

I think Avins's seven recommendations are okay. The main problem is her introduction, where she belittles the idea of appropriation before she tackles it.

In her intro, her specific problem is confusing borrowing with appropriation. Appropriation is mainly an issue when people put something on display, to make a statement. This generally happens with celebrities and fashion models, not ordinary people.

In other words, I don't think anyone cares if you wear a kimono or Brazilian sandals or Navajo jewelry. Your choices have no effect on the world at large.

And if you're just eating or using a product from another country in your home, that's definitely borrowing, not appropriation. Appropriation is about claiming something as yours--i.e., in the court of public opinion. If no one knows you're doing it, it's irrelevant to the discussion. No one cares.

My choice

Even on a personal level, I'd think twice about appropriating and displaying someone else's culture. Again, I'm not talking about sneakers that were made in China or wherever.

For instance, Mom gave me a Native bolo tie that a friend gave her. Because Mom told her I was interested in Indians, I guess. It's nice, but I probably wouldn't wear it if I was ever in a tie-wearing situation.

Why not? Because I don't need or want to send a message that I'm "part Indian," "down with the Indians," or whatever. It's false advertising in a way, because it doesn't stem naturally and genuinely from my background.

If I had worked on a reservation for 10 years, then I might've adopted bolo ties as part of my style. And then it would reflect some real aspect of me. But putting it on now, it would make more of a claim than I feel I have a right to make. It would be like pretending I have a Cherokee great-grandmother.

In short, it would be appropriation. To be sure, people probably wouldn't call me on it because I do work in Native areas. But I wouldn't feel comfortable doing it. It's just not who I am.

More examples

Look at two recent examples: KTZ Copies Sacred Inuit Robe and Jennifer Lopez Wears "Tribal" Outfit. Both are arguably examples of adopting another culture's identity as one's own.

If the KTZ designer or Lopez wore the Native-inspired fashions at home, that would be one thing. But the public displays send a message. "These are mine," they seem to be saying. "I own the designs as much as the people who originated them."

If I wear a mass-produced Native t-shirt, it's pretty clear I'm borrowing it. I'm adopting a look for a few hours only. But if I step out with my own Native-inspired fashions, it's pretty clear I'm claiming ownership. I've appropriated someone else's designs as my own.

This may be what distinguishes appropriation from borrowing: the false presumption of ownership.

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