Note (February 2018): I’ve recently come back to this article, written about two years ago. It’s always illuminating to read past posts – you learn a lot about yourself that way. I, for example, can see from this post just how easy it is to miss the point of important social debates.
The blog below basically suggests that objections to cultural appropriation are driven by a mix of post-imperial guilt, and apply only to culture sharing with which we are unfamiliar, and that we should welcome the fact that cultures continue to be shared and develop together.
While I *do* believe we should both welcome, and seek to encourage cultural exchange as far as possible, I do not think this article gives enough weight to the question of how this is done. What I ought to have emphasised is that any cultural sharing should be driven by mutual consent, not coercion or force.
Cultural appropriation through force or coercion is no different from the ravaging of states through empire. Even if, in the long term, the appropriating culture is shaped into a more positive form, the means to that end is still abusive and immoral.
A few weeks back, a friend of mine posted a link to this article, which got me thinking. And that is never a good idea.
I’ve read articles discussing cultural appropriation before. I recall one article which recounted the story of a white hippy (for want of a better word) who began to see her dreadlocks as a symptom of the very western superiority she opposed. It was white privilege in action for her to have a hairstyle which is primarily associated Rastafari, a faith deeply concerned with Black equality and liberation. But this is not a view I could ever share.
First of all, not all cultural appropriation is created equal. If you walk down the streets of Bangalore, the tech capital of India, you will see Indian gentlemen in two piece suits, riding motorcycles with their wives riding pillion and wearing Saris. Those men are not accused of cultural appropriation for their decision to adopt a style of dress which is traditionally the preserve of another group. Yet translate that same picture to the UK, and make the two characters white British, rather than Indian, and it would instantly feel out of place. It might well be taken as an insult by anyone present with an Indian or South-Asian heritage.
It is generally true that people object to cultural appropriation when a group perceived as dominant adopts something – clothing, music, hairstyles – from a group perceived as marginalised or subordinated. Most obviously, it is the west vs the rest. We would feel odd seeing an ethnic Italian wearing Maasai traditional dress, but have no objection to seeing a Kenyan wearing a crucifix. The article which sparked my interest discussed the music of Elvis, which would have been all but impossible without the long development of rhythm’n’blues in the context of post-slavery southern America. And yet, nobody would argue that it is illegitimate for a musician like Yo Yo Ma to have adopted a western instrument, musical style and tradition to become one of the greatest Cellists of all time. Nor should they. Cultural appropriation is also treated inconsistently in terms of what can be an object of appropriation. Dress, jewellery and music are commonly cited, but nobody talks about the cultural appropriation of Lamb Rogan Josh by Brummies, or Chicken Chow Mein by the friends in Friends.
There are numerous factors underpinning this bias. One key driver is the idea that the ‘post-imperial’ states – primarily those of Western Europe – have already extracted too much from the non-western world. We have treated Asia, Africa and South America as mines from which to extract resources – minerals, sugar, timber, even people have been stripped from their homeland. In return, we perhaps invested in infrastructure, but the end of empire left practically all of the successor states in dire conditions. This is most clear in Africa, where countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe have suffered because the imperial powers valued them only for the resources they could provide. Given the damage we have done to such states, and the people who live in them, it is argued, we have no right to take anything else. We should let these cultures hold on to their identity. (And indeed, we can hardly be surprised if they adopt parts of the Western culture which the imperial powers imposed as rulers).
Yet I would argue that the reason most people feel uneasy when they see a white man with dreadlocks is simply that it is unfamiliar, even alien. We have exported the crucifix and the business suit throughout the old world and the new, while over the last 50 years, we have become comfortable walking down curry mile in Birmingham. These are so much part of our culture that they are not remarkable. Ask someone to go to a Polish restaurant, however, and they will not be sure what to expect, because the UK is still getting used to that particular wave of immigration.
And that, I would argue, is what it all comes down to. We are comfortable with the things which we know, because we no longer see them as part of someone else’s culture. In the last 60 years, the UK has changed hugely in terms of its ethnic make-up, and this has left a deep imprint on our shared identity. Yes, you might not see many Sikhs in the Cotswolds, but as a whole Britain has embraced a much wider range of identities. It is not quite the melting pot of the USA, but there has certainly been a impact. And in that time, culture has shifted. It is not a static thing, belonging to any single individual. My culture is also the culture of Prince Harry and Harry Styles, Maisie Williams and M.I.A. This means that, while I might not choose to adopt something , another person can. Conversely, because there is no body which decides that something belongs to one culture or another, appropriation cannot be prevented. Adoption might be a better term.
The boundaries of cultures are fluid and permeable. I identify as British, which means I identify with a culture that includes people who also identify as Jewish, Chinese, and Bangladeshi. It straddles social and political lines, embraces the LGBT community and the daily mail readership alike. And so, culture can change and spread and evolve accross these boundaries. Change is a natural part of life, and makes all our cultures richer. Of course, I would not be comfortable with things some culturally British people are, and vice versa. Cultures are wide open spaces, in which we need to find our own corner. We can explore other parts of them, and cross the boundaries of them, but in the end, it is for each and every one of us to find our own space which we can inhabit fully and comfortably.