Guest post – good questions about cultural appropriation

My lovely spouse, Monster Alice, came across this thought-provoking article:

Cornrows, Kwanzaa and Confusion: The Dilemma of Cultural Racism and Misappropriation

– and asked a number of even more thought-provoking questions.  I got her permission to cobble all of this together and post it here:

Most UUs are converts – do they have a right to reject their genetic/cultural background?

Are Americans of Asian, African, Native American, etc. descent entitled to the religious/ritual aspects of their ancestors even if the family they were raised in had rejected those aspects of the culture?

Is it possible to for an American of color to be a culturally appropriator when adopting something from their larger origin group? When we tag people as Asian, African, Pacific Islander, Native American, we are assigning them to enormous geographical areas that have many different cultures that may or may not have contributed to their genetics. Is an African-American of West African descent genetically entitled to adopt a Zulu ritual, or is that cultural appropriation?

Are people of color entitled to religious/ritual aspects of any group that belongs to the same area of the world, or only those of their sub-group? If a person is from a Northern Indian language group, are they culturally appropriating if they celebrate in the same way as people from Southern Indian language group?

African-Americans are rarely able to say that they are entirely African in descent, and some people who identify as African-American don’t even appear “black” enough to have to face racial discrimination every day. A history of oppression can’t be enough to escape an accusation of cultural appropriation, can it? What about people who identify as mixed race, or choose not to? My friend Catherine (from the Red Cross) always identified herself on surveys, to the IRS, etc. as Asian if they didn’t allow Mixed or Other as an option – does that mean she was entitled to adopt the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but not to go to an African-American church? She always chose Asian because there was less prejudice toward Asians than toward African Americans, and if there was any chance her name was going to be associated with the race she chose she wanted to be higher on the power ladder (she was the first person to point out to me that in the USA African-Americans face much worse prejudice than people of African descent from Africa, the Caribbean, or  Europe).

Also, what about the tools and techniques of the sacred that don’t seem willing to discriminate against “cultural appropriators”? (This did not come up in the article, probably because UUs have the same level of direct experience with deity as mainstream Christians, i.e. no expectation of contact combined with a niggling sense that no one in any religion has direct experience with deity.) What she talked about was respecting people from other cultures by not adding their stuff to our already over-privileged existence; if a group of people that is more “white” than not sings for the lwa, and they show up, does that make their cultural appropriation worse?

It is my understanding (and I could be wrong, I’ve been wrong at least once before =-P ) that cultural appropriation only applies if the appropriator has more power than the originator of the “stolen” whatever. Is there a term to describe the opposite, when the relatively less powerful take something from the powerful culture? What is the correct label for the many people in Africa who now preferentially wear tee shirts? Or the Asian consumers of American entertainment? Japan wields considerable economic power; does that mean the spread of the manga style of drawing isn’t cultural appropriation? Or is it?

Can cultural appropriation be applied to all aspects of a culture? Was Marco Polo a cultural appropriator for bringing noodles to Italy? At the time, China was a far more powerful culture, so I guess not. Should all people in the world who are not both West African and Andean feel the burden of being cultural appropriators every time they order “French” fries? If I could muster up a good sense of guilt about it, I could feel guilty about just about everything I like to eat… of course, guilt isn’t my specialty, so I’ll have to skip that one. But seriously, if cooking techniques can be culturally appropriated, we could all be in a lot of trouble: deep fat frying is African, freeze drying is Andean, drying powdered vegetables or grains for storage after making them into a paste is Asian, etc. Not to mention eating at “ethnic” restaurants and shopping at “ethnic” markets, and the wide variety of produce now grown far from its original terrain.

And then (drum roll, please) look at history – when a small force of people from a less advanced, poorer culture successfully grabs land and rulership from a people so different from them that the invaders weren’t even capable of understanding them… yes Cortez, I’m looking at you, was that cultural appropriation?

It seems to me that all of the cultural appropriation talk is actually trying to get at historical issues of inequality, a worthy goal, but one that is not going to get very far by negative labeling. Human nature includes a desire to share as well as a desire to take, though that does not help resolve stubborn issues of inequality that can’t be fixed as long as we humans continue to prefer to be around other people who are just like us. If what we try to label are the outcomes that arise from inequality, we’d be on a potentially useful quest, unlike labeling people as cultural appropriators. After all, it’s only liberals of European origin who are even open to changing their behavior because they don’t like that label; and if the change in behavior is to no longer associate with anything connected to, say, Native Americans, there will be a measurable decline in the economy of Native American communities.

I don’t believe that you can retroactively limit cultural information to its origin culture, because what gets loose is, well, out there. I also have a hard time believing that ideas, something that only your mind can touch, can be subject to ownership. If something needs to be limited to one group, that group is going to have to keep it secret, and if they can keep the knowledge that there is a secret, secret, it has a chance of staying with the insiders.

The issue of con artists and frauds cloaked in “tradition” needs to be kept separate from appropriation by the well-meaning or careless, IMO, but I’m open to hearing another opinion.


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