Pause before claiming cultural appropriation
- The debate, tied up with racial oppression and exploitation, is a difficult one. Yet not every interloper is a colonialist.
May 1, 2019-
Is Gordon Ramsay allowed to cook Chinese food ? Is it OK to dress up as Disney’s Moana? Can Jamie Oliver cook jollof rice despite plainly not knowing what it is? Exactly what is cultural appropriation? To take a glance at Good Morning Britain, the ITV show that never takes its finger off the pulse of Middle England’s clogged arteries, you’d think it’s a question of white people seeking permission to have fun. And in return, new media outlets have guaranteed traffic from anxious millennials by listing things that fall into the category of problematic when white people adopt them (blaccents, bindis and box braids).Why has cultural appropriation, an imperfect term mobilised in imperfect contexts, become such live ammunition for the socially conscious? And what does it mean especially for people of colour when we turn our fire on each other? It is striking that a phrase intended to sharpen a political analysis of life under postcolonial capitalism seems to have drawn the most blood between people who share overlapping experiences of racism and displacement.
The debate over cultural appropriation has been around for decades. Black writers and artists from the Harlem Renaissance voiced their concerns about the distortion of African cultures in some modernist artworks, and wrote at length about the demeaning caricatures of black identity in minstrel shows. Elvis Presley was said to have exploited “negro” music.
The artist Kenneth Coutts-Smith wrote one of the first essays on the subject in 1976, entitled Some General Observations on the Concept of Cultural Colonialism. He never actually used the term cultural appropriation, but he was the first to bring together the Marxist idea of “class appropriation” (in which notions of “high culture” are appropriated and defined by the dominant social and economic class) and “cultural colonialism”, which describes the way western cultures take ownership of art forms that originate from racially oppressed or colonised peoplesThis is important to bear in mind. Our modern
understanding of cultural appropriation is highly individualised. It’s all about what Halloween costume you wear, or who’s cooking biryani. But the way in which the idea was first used was to describe a relationship of dominance and exploitation between a global ruling class and a globally subjugated one. The idea that cultural appropriation is primarily a form of erasure—a kind of emotional violence in which people are rendered invisible—came along later. And this is the sticky point. Is it right to level the same criticism at an act of cultural borrowing that doesn’t have a clear angle of economic or political exploitation as for one that does?
This month, news broke that Inuit singers were boycotting Canada’s Indigenous Music Awards over the nomination of a Cree singer who, it is claimed, utilises specifically Inuit throat-singing techniques without coming from that culture herself. The Guardian’s own coverage of the story—headlined “Canada: one Indigenous group accuses other of cultural appropriation in award row”—treats the two different cultures as interchangeable. The point of commonality—both Inuit and Cree being Canadian indigenous people—positions a shared history of dispossession by a white settler colony as erasing cultural and artistic distinctions. The implicit question seems to be: “Why are you lot even fighting? You’re all the same anyway.”
Daniel Heath Justice, a Cherokee professor of indigenous studies at the University of British Columbia, points out that the row isn’t the result of oversensitivity or prickliness. The throat-singing technique in question was banned by Christian missionaries, and discouraged by colonial governments. In his words: “We’re talking about continuity in spite of traumatic, sustained and systemic multi-generational assaults on every aspect of our beings—including our artistic practice.”
Yet I find it strange that a recognition of the pain caused by colonialism is being projected on to fellow indigenous artists. It’s possible to argue against a colonial viewpoint that homogenises those whom it dominates, without using language that holds responsible people who have also been affected by centuries of dispossession.
It’s worth pointing out that conflicts between racially oppressed people often result from the fact that colonialism worked on divide and rule. Certain ethnic, religious, racial or indigenous groups were deliberately privileged over others in order to create a sense of investment in upholding the power structure.
Today, arguments rage about non-African Americans participating in (and making money from) hip-hop culture, or whether black people should wear south Asian head ornaments. I get that it’s tempting to see such pop-cultural phenomena as a replication of centuries-old colonial dynamics. But maybe our own frustration at the erasure of difference risks erasing certain crucial differences in itself.
Not all cultural borrowing is a form of social violence: some of it is just cringe. I thought London MC Wiley got it right when he talked about Canadian rapper Drake being a “culture vulture” profiting off the UK music scene. The godfather of grime didn’t need to raid the library of Soas University of London to come up with his critique. A straightforward “Listen, bumbahole” did the trick just fine.
But young, socially conscious people of colour do need to be a bit more honest with themselves about what’s driving our political interventions when it comes to cultural appropriation on this issue. I’ve felt that anger myself: such as when someone very earnestly told me how henna actually looks better on
pale skin; or when I see Indian food staples marketed by English gentrifiers. There’s a very particular feeling when you know that the identity I wear on my skin is an outfit for someone else—that culture is valued more than the humanity that produced it. But there’s another uncomfortable feeling lurking at the bottom of it.
When you’re a second- or third-generation migrant, your ties to your heritage can feel a little precarious. You’re a foreigner here, you’re a tourist back in your ancestral land, and home is the magpie nest you construct of the bits of culture you’re able to hold close. The appropriation debate peddles a comforting lie that there’s such thing as a stable and authentic connection to culture that can remain iI’m not suggesting we stop using the term cultural appropriation altogether: it’s clearly meaningful when talking about systems of exploitation and dominance.
But we do need to become a lot more discerning about how we use the idea in discussing interpersonal dynamics. There’s a difference between understanding how these frustrations have a politicised background, and treating these issues as sites of political contestation in themselves. Not everyone who participates in a misguided attempt at cultural borrowing is a coloniser in disguise. Some people are just sad try-hards.ntact after the seismic interruptions of colonialism and migration.
Published: 01-05-2019 11:28