Cultural Appropriation and Racism

In my last post on cultural appropriation (Cultural Appropriation has nothing to do with “Race”), I made the point that the issue is about culture, not genetics and not “race”. People are part of a culture if they have been brought up in and immersed in that culture – it has nothing to do with their genetic background. Völkisch racists want you to believe that only people who are descended from Northern Europeans can worship Northern European gods, so they have taken the discourse around cultural appropriation and twisted it to their own ends.

However, when the Patheos editors shared the post on the main page (which was very nice of them), they changed the title to “Cultural Appropriation and accusations of racism”. I wasn’t sure how they got to that title from the content of the post, but in the post, I was trying to deconstruct the notion of “race” as a biological or genetic characteristic, and to point out that people shouldn’t culturally appropriate, not because they are a different “race”, but because they are from a different culture. And cultural appropriation can be distinguished from cultural fusion (a respectful blending of cultural forms) by the power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one.

Culture is rich and complex and deep, with its own history, traditions, folklore, and layers and layers of meaning (as the picture below of women in Mali illustrates). Lifted out of context, it loses meaning.

By Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland - Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6120091

Women in Mali. Photo by Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Interestingly, a friend who commented on the previous article expressed the concern that would-be cultural appropriators might take the title of the post as carte blanche to carry on appropriating, or as a denial that cultural appropriation is a form of racism (which is implied even more strongly by the changed title that I mentioned above).

I have outlined what cultural appropriation is in previous posts on the topic: the exploitation and commodification of other cultures’ sacred rituals and artefacts, often resulting in a trivialising effect on their meaning. Here’s my definition again:

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a colonising or culturally dominant culture takes a ritual or sacred or meaningful practice from a subjugated or devalued or colonised culture, lifting it out of context and draining it of meaning. And probably making money out of it.

If you’re still not sure what cultural appropriation is, please go back and read those posts again. Or read Crystal Blanton’s excellent post on why cultural appropriation is hurtful and damaging. Here’s her definition:

What is cultural appropriation? It is the borrowing and using of another person’s cultural treasures without permission, without necessary cultural context and without employing the respect due. Many times cultural appropriation is the means of monetary gain by the exploiting of things that should not be for sale, and sometimes it is to gain prestige or credibility. It is also a way that white people have gotten fame or credibility by the very use of cultural attributes that others from the culture are criminalized, villainized and demonized for.  Either way, cultural appropriations takes the valuable pieces of marginalized cultures, those who have already suffered at the hands of painful oppression, and further takes what is left for them to have agency over. When one’s culture is gone, all things are lost.

A subtle form of racism

Why is cultural appropriation a form of racism?

  • It is an extension of colonialism. First the colonisers stole land and natural resources, and persecuted the colonised and enslaved, trying to prevent them from continuing with their cultural practices and lifeways; and then, having destroyed and commercialised our own cultural icons, their descendants plunder the remnants of indigenous cultures for meaning. Obvious examples here are the destruction of Native American / First Nations culture, and the way that whites tried to prevent slaves from having any kind of family life by splitting them up.
  • It exoticises other cultures, regarding them as inscrutable, mysterious, alluring, and barbaric. Take for example the Chinoiserie craze in 18th century England, or Orientalism in the late 19th century. Neither of those was particularly respectful towards the cultures being commodified; it was the exotic and strange that people were attracted to.
  • It commodifies other cultures, regarding them as a resource to be plundered, and a marketable product to be repackaged and sold.
  • It erases the complexity of other cultures. The idea that “all cultures are the same really” erases centuries, possibly millennia, of subtle and complex thought. Examples here include the Perennial Philosophy (the idea that all cultures have the same central core idea), and New Agers who make this claim. The idea that “yoga could have been discovered by anyone” erases the genuine achievement of Indians in inventing it (not discovering it). The idea that you can understand Buddhism well enough to teach their spiritual practices without proper study, and without learning about Buddhism in depth, is another manifestation of this erasure of complexity.
  • It trivialises other cultures. Dressing up in a bastardised version of someone else’s sacred garb, or painting your face in a parody of their skin tone, is offensive.

    “You take a part of a person’s culture that means everything to them, and you make it meaningless. You wear the symbols that represent their cultures without actually understanding the power of what these facets of their culture means to them.” – Udoka Okafor

  • It’s arrogant. It assumes that everyone has a right to everyone else’s cultural forms. There’s an idea floating around that all culture is public property, and everyone should have access to it. Several spiritual traditions with initiations and gradual revelation of mysteries beg to differ. And where one culture has a history of violently persecuting another culture, it’s downright insulting to steal their rituals on top of that.
  • It rides roughshod over the feelings of people of colour. It denies the agency and the feelings of oppressed and marginalised people. It says “I don’t care if this thing is sacred to you, I want it, so it’s mine.”

So, just in case anyone was wondering, yes I do think that cultural appropriation is an extension of colonialism and racism.

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