Thursday, May 10, 2018

In Defense of Cultural Appropriation

David Frum:
Meet the Death Metal Cowboys of Botswana. In black leather decorated with metal studs, they play a pounding style of music that people who know more than me trace to the British band “Venom” and its 1981 album Welcome to Hell. Question: Is this cultural appropriation? Why or why not?

The question is inspired by a spasm of social-media cruelty that caught wide attention last week. A young woman in Utah bought a Chinese-style dress to wear to her high school formal. She posted some photographs of herself on her personal Instagram page—and suddenly found herself the target of virulent online abuse.

For once, the story has a happy ending. Good sense and kindness prevailed, and instead of her prom being ruined, the young woman exited the dance buoyed by worldwide support and affirmation, most of all from within China.
Because, really, that dress she was wearing was only sort-of Chinese. The style was created after the 1911 overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and its irritating laws regulating dress and hair:
When the Manchu dynasty was finally overthrown in 1911, Chinese people found themselves free for the first time in 250 years to dress as they pleased. In the decade afterward, creative personalities in the great commercial metropolis of Shanghai devised a new kind of garment for women. They called it the cheongsam.

The new garment was a fusion of old and new, east and west. Manchurian-style fabrics were tailored to a European-style pattern. In the past, upper-class women’s clothing had conveyed status and restricted movement. The cheongsam was equally available to women from a wide range of statuses—and enabled Chinese women to move as their western counterparts did.
Every cultural meme you can think of has a similar history; trace it back far enough and you will find that it was born from borrowing, mixing, and historical accident.

You cannot own a culture.


G. Verloren said...

"Question: Is this cultural appropriation? Why or why not?"

I've talked about this before on this blog, but I'll reiterate - cultural apporpriation is a neutral term that simply describes one culture adopting aspects of another. Everyone perform cultural appropriation, constantly and unceasingly, to some degree or another.

So the meaningful question is never "Is this cultural appropriation?", but rather, "Is this instance of cultural appropriation positive and respectful, or negative and harmful?" Because it actually is very easy to slip into negative appropriation, even without meaning to.

Is a high school girl from Utah wearing a cheongsam to her prom negative cultural appropriation? No, not remotely. It's actually pretty neutral.

That said, it wouldn't take terribly much to tilt it one way or another.

If it was being worn to a high school prom which was specifically themed around shallow and ignorant Chinese stereotypes, and no thought or care went into it aside from reducing someone else's culture to a cheap caricature for one's own irreverent and insipid entertainment, that would stray into negative cultural appropriation.

On the flipside, if it was being worn to an actual authentic Chinese celebration of some sort, and it was suitable for the occassion and worn as a gesture of appreciation of the real culture rather than as some sort of crass and cheap knockoff, that would be a rather respectful usage and an example of positive cultural appropriation.

In this case, of course, it seems to have just been a simple personal aesthetic choice - an example of a young girl finding a particular dress pretty, and liking how she looked in it. The context was neutral because it was devoid of any real cultural statements or valuations. She didn't wear it in a bid to represent herself as being tied to Chinese culture. She wore it because it looked girl, full stop.

The argument shouldn't be that we should always object to cultural appropriation, but neither should it be that we should never object to it either. Rather, we should always strive to be mindful about the culture we appropriate, and consider if the contexts of our borrowings are sufficiently positive to justify them.

In particular, one needs to bear in mind the historical imbalance between certain cultures, and take care when appropriating from people and societies traditionally exploited by the culture doing the appropriating.

That doesn't mean ex-colonizer cultures should never appropriate anything from cultures they previously colonized - but it does mean they should always try to be a bit more mindful about how a historically exploited people might view and react to their appropriation, and err heavily on the side of caution when risking harming or offending others. There's a lot of historical bad blood, and it can only ever be undone by counterbalancing it with good faith and sensitivity.

JustPeachy said...

Such a weird concept. I've made a couple of trips to Viet Nam, and have friends there. I came back with a few ao dai (classic women's dress clothes in Viet Nam), one of them given to me straight out of my friend's closet (didn't fit her anymore, but it fit me-- it's my favorite). There's not much occasion to wear them, stateside, but I have done so on a couple of occasions. Each time, the reactions of Viet kieu I encountered were the same: "Oh, I have some of those, I should wear them more often!" I do wonder if the perhaps the only people who get bent out of shape about these things are neurotic white people.