Tuesday, May 8, 2018

On Cultural Appropriation

appropriation: an act or instance of taking exclusive possession of or taking and making use without authority or right

The latest flare up of cries over cultural appropriation occurred over a prom dress.  Keziah Daum, an 18-year-old white American from Utah chose to wear a Chinese qipao/cheongsam for prom.  She chose it because she felt it was pretty and modest.  And she shared pictures of it on social media.

Very quickly, the internet erupted with claims of offense and cultural appropriation.  How dare Daum where a qipao when she had no Chinese roots herself.  And of course, both sides of the issue went nuts.

America has a very strange relationship with cultural appropriation.  While there are definite instances of true inappropriate appropriation, there would be no American culture without some form of cultural exchange.  It is therefore imperative that we learn to distinguish between true cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.

Cultural appropriation itself implies a taking and a passing off as ones own.  It diminishes the original culture by ignoring the context of the thing that is taken or by providing little or no attribution to the source culture.  This can happen in several forms. The use of religious iconography of one culture as pure decoration.  The wearing of religious or ceremonial attire for pure fashion.  The passing off of one country's attire as your own discovery or creation.  The taking of a race's music without acknowledging its roots.

It's clear we have a lot of cultural appropriation in our past to acknowledge.  And there are definite current instances of cultural appropriation that should be combated, like wearing a ceremonial headdress for a fashion shoot.  It really is probably past time to retire stereotypical Halloween costumes.  It is also probably time to rethink how we celebrate Cinco de Mayo.  If we can use it as a holiday to celebrate Mexican culture, to educate about that culture, and their influence on American history it would be wonderful.  All to often, it is viewed as an excuse to get drunk and eat Mexican food.  Especially sad for a holiday that is really primarily an American holiday.  It is not widely celebrated in Mexico, it is not Mexican independence day.  It celebrates a battle in a specific region of Mexico, and is most largely celebrated in Mexico there.  If we are going to have the holiday, let's at least make it a positive one.

We do need to recognize and celebrate cultural appreciation.  Where we recognize beauty and interest in another culture and want to acknowledge and participate in it.  Where we are pointing people back to the culture we are enjoying.  This is the form of culture exchange that America holds as its ideal.  The great melting pot, where all are welcome to come and share their culture, to learn about other cultures, and to mix and match to create something new and special.  An America where an Ethiopian raised in Sweden, trained in Switzerland and Austria, can open a soul food restaurant in Harlem.

This is the interest in a culture that drives us to learn more.  To experience more.  To share.

That is what Daum did.  She found a dress that she appreciated because it was beautiful.  The dress does not appear to have a religious or ceremonial significance in China.  It's function is fashion.  The Chinese recognized this and when asked about Daum's wearing of a qipao found it to be flattering.  Viewed it as appreciation.   They viewed their response as showing that the Chinese people were "confident about our culture.  We are not preventing others from adopting it."

Let's embrace the positive.  Let's celebrate the great melting pot that America should be.  To acknowledge and elevate the many wonderful cultures that exist in our borders.  To make them feel welcomed and included.  That is how we grow as a society.

One of my favorite quotes by Mark Twain about travel seems to be applicable here.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Likewise cultural education and appreciation are just as necessary.  If we are ever going to live together, it's not going to happen by forcing everyone to be the same.  Let's celebrate what makes us unique and learn from each other.

Then maybe we can put an end to this ever growing division in our country.

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