Senate Why is cultural appropriation a thing?

Discussion in 'Community' started by poor yorick, Aug 5, 2015.

  1. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    As I understand it, the idea behind the movement to discourage "cultural appropriation" is that cultures somehow own patents, duration forever, on objects, ideas, and customs that are strongly associated with them. I find this preposterous. If cultures couldn't borrow from each other, all cultural development would cease, to say nothing of quashing any movement toward mutual understanding.

    I'll qualify that by saying that I don't think every possible use of cultural artifacts is appropriate. Wearing Native American headdresses to Chiefs games strikes me as very tacky, because headdresses have religious significance to Native Americans, and football games are a secular institution. There is also some context there, namely the wholesale massacre and repression of Native American people, which makes for some dark connotations when their cultural objects are used as toys. But why on earth couldn't visitors to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts try on a kimono as part of a tour? Why can't Kylie Jenner wear cornrows?

    Am I missing something here? Somebody help me out.
  2. Cushing's Admirer Force Ghost

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  3. JoinTheSchwarz JC Head Admin & Community Manager

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    She wasn't making a statement, she was asking to have her perspective widened.
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  4. Valairy Scot Backpacking One Pack a Day Mod of New Films

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    I'm not in a position to really say anything as part of the dominant culture here. I think being upset over hair styles might be a little silly; certainly appropriation of culturally significant items out of context or to mock is far from silly. One culture may see the use of traditional clothing by others as inappropriate while some may not.

    I think we need more context or folks not part of the dominant culture need to contribute to the thread.
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  5. epic Ex Mod

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    Why can't white people use the n... wait, nvm
  6. Lord Vivec Force Ghost

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  7. Ramza Administrator Emeritus

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    In the previous thread for this I linked to this article: http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural-appropriation/ which I think is pretty helpful. To a certain extent I think part of the problem is also that the internet has taken what is, at least in theory, a somewhat technical means of understanding and critiquing power relationships between cultures and has twisted it into a grounds for criticizing individuals, which IMO is a fundamentally flawed approach.
  8. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    From Ramza's article:
    This strikes me as entirely reasonable. Seeking more information about another culture is never a bad thing. Like the author of the piece, I also see no bright line where cultural appropriation begins and cultural exchange ends. It seems the issue is partly centered around intent. One white woman wearing a bindi might appreciate and admire the Hindu values it represents, whether or not she's personally a Hindu, while another might just be wearing it because she thinks it makes her look hot. Not that adopting a bindi for hotness' sake is evil, it's just sort of ignorant and tacky.

    If the everydayfeminism.com article accurately expresses what cultural appropriation is about, however, I'm not entirely happy with the handiness of the label. The point of giving a phenomenon a name is to define it and make it easy to point to, while apparently actual cultural appropriation is terribly difficult to define.

    Perhaps Ramza is right and the idea of "cultural appropriation" should not be applied to individuals, and that it should only be used to describe patterns of interaction between cultures. An example might be the tendency of American corporations to figuratively rummage in the closets of other cultures, looking for things to repackage and sell to Americans, divorced from their context. That is the very definition of ignorance.

    I suppose to the extent that ignorance = disrespect, I can understand where people who object to cultural appropriation are coming from.

    If this is the case, then could instances of cultural appropriation be prevented by offering people more information? For instance, if American Fashion Corporation, Inc. included a little pamphlet about the historical, cultural, and religious significance of bindis in its bindi packages marketed to white women, would they no longer be practicing cultural appropriation? Or would it still be problematic?
  9. Cushing's Admirer Force Ghost

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    I think the intent is fine but just because it's included doesn't mean it will have impact.
  10. Yoda's_Roomate Jedi Grand Master

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    I think people are too uptight about everything these days. Everyone gets offended by anything and everything. Unless you are purposely trying to hurt or offend someone, I don't have a problem with it.

    You really think someone who wears a Native American headdress to, say, a Kansas City Chiefs game is trying to hurt someone, or just in the spirit of cheering for his or her team? I can't really be concerned with everyone's religious beliefs. If that were the case, then its offensive to some for women to dress the way they dress, or even drive a car, or eat meat, or whatever kooky crap religions cook up. Are you gonna cave in to everything? Of course not; then that means you're being hypocritical because you're just respecting whatever belief suits your needs or wants.

    My point is, today people jump the gun and condemn anyone doing something without even trying to understand the intent behind it. Context should mean something. Today it seems not to.
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  11. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    Well, no one has any control over how others, particularly perfect strangers, are going to take things. Of course plenty of women would throw the informational pamphlet straight into the trash. I'm just wondering if the theoretical company would be off the hook for cultural appropriation if they tried to educate people.

    Mostly, I'm wondering if the seed of cultural appropriation lies in ignorance, or if it's something else. The author of Ramza's article also made reference to cultural appropriation as a natural outgrowth of privilege, which is something with its roots in violence, rather than simple ignorance.
  12. Cushing's Admirer Force Ghost

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    I think the term itself is often misapplied and many will use any justification to take offence. If a company chose to try and educate others props to them but it shouldn't be required. These things aren't one-sided like often painted.
  13. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    Okay, let's not derail over whether people are oversensitive or if there should be some kind of legal requirement for companies to educate their customers.

    At the moment I'm trying to sort out what cultural appropriation actually is. It's hard to promote or condemn a thing if you can't even quite define it.
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  14. KnightWriter Administrator Emeritus

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    It's one more way to erase a unique culture, subsuming it into the existing culture (which in our case is still white). That's what people are doing when they appropriate.
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  15. Penguinator RPF Modinator and Batmanager

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    It's commodification and accessorization. It turns cultural practices and items into a fashion statement or a conversation piece.
  16. Ramza Administrator Emeritus

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    I'd simply define it as the inauthentic appropriation of cultural identifiers within the context of a disenfranchising power structure and othering of the group. What constitutes inauthentic, a disenfranchising power structure, and othering is perhaps best left up to the individual judge; I don't think you'd get a consensus on them.

    I'd also wonder if it's appropriate to discuss promotion or condemnation of the concept because it's a negative phenomenon but it might not be one you can "actually" do anything about, merely something you can be aware of. That's more my veering into hyper-pessimism, though.
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  17. Penguinator RPF Modinator and Batmanager

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    I grew up as the lone white kid in many First Nations communities, as my dad was a teacher posted to more than a few. I was a toddler when we lived up in Canada's far north, and the Inuit community there really welcomed us with open arms. I have a few stories that are really relevant when discussing cultural appropriation, but I think it's best to leave it by saying that many communities are very happy to share their cultures and let "outsiders" (for lack of a more apt word) participate, provided you are respectful of whatever boundaries they set.
  18. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    Okay, let me unpack that. I can see how appropriation can make it hard to tell who is part of an original culture, versus who is a copier. When this happens with intellectual property, people sue, because they want credit and payment for their work.

    Cultures don't get paid for their original work, so that really leaves the credit issue. As I understand it, part of the objection to the Kylie Jenner issue was that the media reacted as if she'd somehow invented cornrows, when it's obvious she hadn't. Is part of an objection to cultural appropriation the fact that credit isn't given where it's due?

    Or am I misunderstanding? Was your idea more that non-dominant cultures are somehow eroded when people copy them? I'm not sure I see that. It seems to me the erosion occurs when people from non-dominant cultures are forced to copy people from the dominant one, and not the other way around.
  19. Valairy Scot Backpacking One Pack a Day Mod of New Films

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    Well...appropriation itself means taking (no reference to legitimacy of "taking"). So I'd think it would involve "taking" something of another culture and using it oneself. Obviously, that could be entirely innocuous - say an idea, or a tool. It could mean modifying the original by the "taker" but most things change with time, anyway, so the change here is mainly driven by someone/something outside of the original culture.

    Which leads us back to what "things" fall into the wider "cultural appropriation"? If a white American female of Scandinavian descent takes up belly dancing and designs a "typical" outfit, is she inappropriately taking something cultural? A 3rd generation black male hosting a traditional "potluck" which is a tradition of many Pacific NW tribes?

    Neither of those seem harmful, yet who judges?

    So it seems reasonable that 1: cultural appropriation is probably better named cultural misappropriation and 2. any judgment of which falls into that category is probably best made by the original culture (a reasonable amount of, not just one individual who decides to speak for all).

    But again - it falls on those who feel this is an issue to speak up with examples of what they see as a problem and how they define it.

    Edit: new posts above mine address this quite well.
    Last edited by Valairy Scot, Aug 5, 2015
  20. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    Ramza: I'm inclined to agree with you on the hyper-pessimism front. I will be annoying, however, and ask how we can know cultural appropriation is bad if its constituent parts can't be defined? It's like saying "Cultural appropriation is bad because it consists of bulq, burgrg, and frrrf, none of which have definitions."

    I suppose we could say it's like pornography, which is an "I know it when I see it" phenomenon, but if I knew it when I saw it, I wouldn't have posted this thread. Perhaps I just have a cultural tin ear?

    Valairy: it makes sense to look to non-dominant cultures for definitions of cultural misappropriation (I like that term), but doing so requires entire cultures to have spokespeople who can say what is or isn't acceptable, which is problematic in itself.
    Last edited by ophelia, Aug 5, 2015
  21. Lord Vivec Force Ghost

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    I'm not comfortable at all with this idea that "taking" other cultures is bad. It reeks of "stay within your own culture." Who is to say whose culture is whose?
  22. Ramza Administrator Emeritus

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    I'd argue that I'm not saying they can't be defined, but rather that when those criteria are met is sufficiently subjective such that a precise, rulebook-esque definition of the term can be applied without qualification is impossible. For example, inauthentic - most of us would agree that it means you're not being genuine. Where's the line on not being genuine in the context of cultural exchange? I don't bloody well know.

    I guess my point is that it's an insidious phenomenon precisely because it can be so hazy. However, I think that's frequently used (as we're seeing in this thread) as an excuse to dismiss the whole concept as though it is the definition of a thing that gives it substance.
    Last edited by Ramza, Aug 5, 2015
  23. poor yorick Ex-Mod

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    I see where you're coming from, Ramza, but the conclusion that I'm coming to is that the term "cultural appropriation" is just too hazy to be helpful. Worse, it may actually be harmful, since it can be used to discourage cultural exchange, which I see as a positive thing.

    The better term may simply be the old fashioned "racism." When Elvis got credit for the "new" sound of rock 'n roll, the white dominant culture was dismissing whole traditions full of African American music. The problem wasn't that Elvis borrowed things (all artists do), the problem was that a huge swath of the population only liked a certain kind of music if a white guy was singing. That's just simple racism.

    I'd be open to a "pornography"-esque definition of cultural appropriation, if only there wasn't such a risk of stigmatizing honest cultural exchange.
  24. Penguinator RPF Modinator and Batmanager

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    I think calling it racism simplifies it greatly, for better or for worse. The problem is that there really is no succinct term or definition. The "I know it when I see it" is pretty apt, actually, but I'd amend it to say, "A member of a culture knows it when they see it" - basically, if someone is calling it offensive, maybe it's time to think twice on it.
  25. Valairy Scot Backpacking One Pack a Day Mod of New Films

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    Actually I think Elvis is a good example, and yet not. Elvis took something and made it acceptable to a larger society, yet his music was more than just using certain music but taking many elements from the source (if one can even pinpoint source). Something all but shunned by a wide swatch became acceptable - good - but the origins were minimized or overlooked - bad.

    The biggest problem IMHO is this synthesis of exchange becomes associated with the wider, dominant culture, which just contributes to the view that only the dominant culture is relevant. I mean, look at history - contributions of women and non-whites were consistently downplayed or outright ignored because the associations weren't there, or those earlier contributors weren't valued in their time.