Saturday, April 2, 2016

Check yourself before you wreck yourself: Cultural Appropriation is the American Way

No one can seem to identify who coined the term 'cultural appropriation,' but its meaning doesn't appear to have much debate among more liberal segments of society.  The concept is perhaps best characterized by Fordham University professor Susan Scafidi, who is often cited for her work on the subject.  Scafidi defined cultural appropriation as: 
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission.  This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
Scafidi's definition leaves us with more than a few problems, but I would add that we should consider the origins or implications of certain cultural trends before adopting them. 

However, those who believe cultural appropriation is to be shunned should consider that they've been doing the same thing for some time.  Moreover, the problems with determining what is or is not acceptable borrowing from a culture are fairly impossible to define.

A person from one culture borrows or adopts a part of another culture.  At face value, many Americans wouldn't give this a second thought.  Isn't one of the bedrock principles of our culture that we implemented the best parts of other cultures?

Examine the way the United States has brought so many other cultures under the umbrella of our society.  Greek and Roman culture are credited as being the foundations of our governmental systems, philosophy, architecture, and art (among other things).  Americans love to sample food from nearly every part of the world and make it our own:  hamburgers from Germany, pizza from Italy, French fries from ... well, Belgium tries to claim they invented these.  The British rock invasion of the 60s set off a new trend in American music.  We like to import the best ideas and ways of living.

For every expression of culture and heritage that one could imagine, the United States has borrowed from someone else.  When taking into account the many facets of life, I don't know that there are many cultural expressions that exist as uniquely American.  We borrow heavily from other cultures, past and present, and we make those ideas our own.  I'm not claiming that we do not invent some novel ways of living and thinking, but many of these concepts are rooted in what we have learned from others.  Cultural appropriation is ingrained in our society. 

The definition by Scafidi notes that cultural appropriation is taking from another culture without permission.  So, who is allowed to speak for all black people, Asians, or Arabs?  How can I get the green light for cultural borrowing?  And how pretentious is it that I would have to ask anyone's permission to act in a certain capacity?  This is arguably the freest and most permissive culture in the world and we want people to ask permission to express themselves.   

Even if we accept the premise that we need permission to borrow from another culture, why would anyone object to other cultures becoming fascinated with what they do?  If a person enjoys rap music, then why wouldn't black Americans celebrate that as a success?  Incidentally, most rappers would not have their level of success and financial rewards without cultural appropriation. 

I don't know what people south of the border think of Americans devouring millions of tons of Mexican food (which really isn't that authentic), but I would imagine they appreciate knowing that people enjoy their cuisine.

Strangely, no one objects to an overwhelming amount of cultural appropriation in which they engage.  Plenty of American activities are borrowing from another culture without considering the origins or the offensiveness of what they do. 

  • Crosses have become a fashion trend during the last few years.  Why does no one seem to have a problem with taking a Christian symbol and making it a fashion statement?  Does anyone not care about hurting the feelings of this religion?  Or without the religious component, why would we decide that an instrument of death from the Roman Empire would make for a fun symbol?
    Because I'm sure they're
    wearing it in support of
    capital punishment ...

  • Millions of people worldwide wear jeans on a daily basis.  Yet, no one seems to care that these were pants made to be more durable for manual laborers in the American West. 

  • How often do people smoke tobacco in modern America?  Did anyone ask the Native Americans before we took part of their culture that was sometimes used in religious ceremonies?

  • I don't really care that Darius Rucker became a country music singer after being the front man for Hootie and the Blowfish.

  • Language and symbolism from Native Americans and the Chinese have been extremely popular in the United States.  Americans have tattooed themselves with tribal symbols and Chinese characters for years. 

  • What can we say about coffee and tea drinkers? 

  • American society borrows phrases and symbols from France ad nauseum (see what I did there?) and no one bats an eye.  The fleur-de-lis is plastered all over our architecture and even a professional football team's helmet (ironically called the Saints).  Does anyone even care? 

The list of cultural borrowing in which Americans engage is endless.  What's the difference between the groups in the country that complain as opposed to the ones that do not?  Why are some groups more sensitive to this than others?  Do they have good reason?

The anger behind much of the cultural appropriation comes from minority groups who have habitually been discriminated against in this nation's history.  Do these groups have reason to be upset and annoyed?  Yes they do.  Yet that does not provide any of these groups or the individuals the right to act as the great authority on their culture or anyone who adopts part of that culture. 

Other cultures prominent in the United States fear that pieces of their culture will become part of mainstream society.  Why would they fear such a thing?  To have their culture adopted by everyone somehow diminishes that particular minority group.  They no longer cleave to what they believed made them special.  They view their unique nature has been robbed and their light somehow shines less brightly.  I would submit that the opposite is true.

Do you really want to deprive
 someone of the smooth sounds
of Dizzy Gillespie?
The absorption of other cultural features and practices shines a light on various groups of people, regardless of whether or not they've been marginalized.  In some instances, enjoying parts of other cultures proved how wrong some of our misperceptions have been.  The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s brought about the Jazz Age and such prominent writers as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay.  The achievements of this generation undoubtedly demonstrated the great intellectual and cultural additions of black Americans to society. 

When cultural appropriation happens in most instances, it makes America a better place.  The uniqueness and amazing parts of other cultures are implemented into our society and allows us to experience the best parts of the world.  Why would we shun that? 

When any group attempts to say that our culture is only for 'us,' they are robbing others of the possibility of enjoying life in a way of which they had not imagined.  Is that not the epitome of selfishness?   Furthermore, many of the groups who complain about cultural appropriation fail to consider that their cultural background might not have been the first or only culture to consider that idea. 

Not a good idea ... but who wore it better? Random model or
President Calvin Coolidge?
Instances aplenty exist where people do insult other cultures by what they do.  It would be the better part of discretion not to wear Native American headdresses as a fashion statement.  Perhaps anyone who dresses up as a Hindu god or goddess should think twice before they do that.  It's probably not okay to wear a burqa as head gear.  It's not really a good idea to have an ethnic themed party, which seems to be pretty popular on college campuses these days.  We should give proper respect to the culture of others in attempting not to disrespect their ways of life, even if we find it strange or outlandish.

These incidents have prompted a 'culture police' of liberals who have taken the concept of cultural appropriation to a ridiculous low.  Last week, a video at San Francisco State University went viral where a white male was confronted by a black female because the man's hair was braided into dreadlocks.  The video itself is short and we do not know what happened before or after this incident.  During this short clip, the man with dreadlocks attempted to walk away, seemingly have no desire to engage the woman.  She subsequently grabbed his arm and pulled him back in an attempt to educate him on her perspective.  By what right would anyone believe they can do such a thing? 

This incident provides a great example of the hypocrisy of those who claim cultural appropriation is such a crime.  Though she has the freedom to speak her mind about his hair, which is offensive in his mind, she refuses to accept this man has the right to say nothing and walk away.  When she's offended, she believes that she is entitled to grab another person and force a confrontation.

We should be celebrating the fact that we borrow from others.  The United States has a brand of acting culturally in ways other nations do not.  France, for instance, fears influence from other nations so much, they have banned Islamic women from wearing burqas in public.  They guard their language closely, as to not have it tainted by outsiders.  The same is true of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and most parts of the world.  They refuse to allow for changes.

While nations all over the world seek to preserve their culture exactly as it is, the United States allows for adaptation and absorption.  We seek it out and thrive on it. 

Personally, I love Indian food.  I think the poetry Langston Hughes is amazing.  I am trying to learn the Greek language.  I like Ethiopian coffee.  I'm not going to ask anyone's permission as to whether or not I can sample these and other parts of culture from around the world. 

Other cultures have made me a more well rounded person.  The works and ways of life of other cultures helps me to understand different people and appreciate the world around me.  Cultural appropriation is part of the American experience and I am better because of it.


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