by Damian Sanchez | Columnist
As international week ends on Whitworth campus, we are oft reminded of the eggshells we must walk on to avoid the daunting label of cultural appropriator, but clearly there is another side of this case that must be considered. The case for cultural appropriation.
First, let’s outline what this case is not. This case is not a defense of actions which are specifically intended to cause distress or mock other cultures. There is a difference between using a particular culture out of admiration and respect for it and seeking to use a culture for the exclusive purpose of causing harm to members of that group. However, at this point I would add the disclaimer that I do not believe ridicule that uses an element of culture is any more egregious than any other form of ridicule. Ridicule intended to cause harm is negative in and of itself regardless of the material it uses. This case is also not a defense of colonial appropriation of cultural artifacts for much the same reason. When the British forcefully appropriated the famous Benin Bronzes in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin that was stealing…and stealing is, in and of itself, bad. Again though, the fact that the Benin Bronzes were cultural artifacts does not make this form of stealing any more egregious than if the British stole something not culturally sensitive like their building tools.
Having established what this case is not, let us move to the argument that this case indeed is. To do so, we first must define exactly what it is we mean by cultural appropriation. It must also be disclaimed that in all the research and interviews I did, I was not able to find an agreed upon definition or unified description of cultural appropriation. However, I was indeed able to find one that seemed to best summarize all the wildly different definitions I came across. This came from perhaps one of the most pronounced opponents of cultural appropriation. UC Irvine School of Law Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa who, in an op-ed article published in the Huffington Post in June of 2016, defined cultural appropriation as “borrowing that reinforces historically exploitative relationships or deprives African countries (Though for this case let’s just say ethnic groups) of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.”
Fair enough, let us use this definition and unpack its pitfalls with the use of case studies and rhetorical questions. The first half of this definition argues that it is only cultural appropriation when it is a member of a historically more powerful group borrowing cultural elements of a historically less powerful group. Therefore, let me give you the example of Keziah Daum, a white woman who, in May 2018, wore a Chinese-style dress to her high school prom in Utah and promptly set off an internet fire storm after posting pictures in her dress. A twitter user by the name of Jeremy Lam set off the criticism of Daum for appropriating his Chinese culture scathingly stating, “My culture is NOT your prom dress”. A perfect example of a member of a historically exploitative group (the American Daum) appropriating the culture of a historically exploited group (the Chinese American Lam), right? Well, upon closer examination one would see the irony of this statement. The dress in question is actually a qipao, which, while indeed Chinese, actually originally “belonged” to an ethnic Asian minority known as the Munchus and was appropriated by the exploitive Chinese Han majority. Therefore, upon closer examination it was actually, and ironically, Mr. Lam who was appropriating another culture and claiming it as his own. Is anyone really prepared to go to China and tell the Chinese that they can no longer use the qipao because of the history behind how it was appropriated and how it denies respect for the historical exploitation of the Munchus by powerful China 250 years ago?
Let us then tackle the much easier next half of this definition which asserts that borrowing becomes appropriation when it “deprives ethnic groups of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.” I would actually for the most part agree with this argument. Cultural appropriation is wrong when the appropriation or use of a cultural material prevents a culture from benefiting from it as this is called stealing and, as has already been explained prior, stealing is wrong because it is stealing. However, if we consider the hypothetical case of an Irish American man making a dreamcatcher one can clearly see that this would not fit the definition of cultural appropriation. The white man’s use of a dreamcatcher doesn’t cause the loss of the Native American’s control of the narrative surrounding dreamcatchers nor does it prevent them from benefiting from using it themselves. Certainly not the way the Benin Kingdom lost control and benefit of use of the Benin Bronzes when the British appropriated (stole) them.
However, upon closer examination one can see that the real problem is not the arbitrary use of the definition and denunciation of cultural appropriation. The real problem is that to denounce cultural appropriation is to promote tribalism. should powerful groups only use and appreciate products of their powerful culture rather than use and appreciate those of less powerful groups? should white Americans refrain from buying a pretty Vietnamese bowl from a small struggling Vietnamese artisan shop out of fear that they may chastised for appropriating culture? What about second or third generation Mexican Americans who would have a complete culture shock if they stepped foot in actual Mexico and believe its Independence Day is Cinco de Mayo? should they too be banned from wearing traditional Mexican dress for this egregious lack of understanding of “their” culture? At what generational point have they become more powerful American than historically exploited Mexican? Should Black Americans who have been here since 1619 be barred from using traditional African dress as journalist Zipporah Gene so eloquently argues in her article Black America, Please Stop Appropriating African Clothing and Tribal Marks?
Problematic questions like these aside, they ultimately miss the larger point. The larger point that we are all part of one human species. What we seem to forget all too often is that acceptance and incorporation of other cultures into our particular tribes is a key element to peace among tribes. Why can’t I as a Mexican human be proud of the Great Wall of China that my species built? Why can’t a Human born in Sweden be proud to wear a Kimono she finds beautiful that other humans who happen to live in Japan developed? Why can’t a child in Pakistan be proud that his species put a man on the moon and proclaimed it a great leap for mankind? If we truly are as committed to the fact that we are all equally human, can we not then allow each other to equally and freely enjoy the fruits of our common humanity? So go, promote our common humanity, appropriate a culture.