Saturday, August 2, 2008
On Cultural Appropriation
What is "cultural appropriation"? Boiled down, it's taking something from a culture that isn't yours. Period. There are all kinds of different explanation behind that definition - positive forms, negative forms, etc. - but that's pretty much what it is: taking from somebody else's culture.
Now, this is something I've thought about a lot, largely due to my bi-racial background. Since I feel like Chinese culture is not really "mine" in a number of ways, I make sure that I think carefully about any Chinese cultural traditions or values that I want to take on (or re-adopt). In simple cases, I make sure that I am asking family members who actually grew up with these traditions or values to explain it to me. In situations where that is not possible, I try to do as much research as possible in advance - so that I truly know the story behind it. And if it feels right, then I try to engage it with as much respect and honor and self-consciousness as I can.
But it gets sticky - because taking on traditions that you did not grow up with is difficult. There are a lot of opportunities to make mistakes and accidentally make a mockery of what you are trying to honor. And the question always follows: what gives me the right to try to adopt this tradition? What is my purpose behind it? And am I ignoring larger parts of the culture as a whole to just pick and choose what I like?
Mind you - this is how I feel about my attempts to gain a better foot-hold and understanding of Chinese culture, one I am linked to by blood and immediate family members (although my grandmother's death severed the most direct link). And I still don't quite consider it my right - to some degree - to take on aspects of this culture, since I was not raised fully "Chinese." It's difficult.
However - it becomes much less difficult when a person has absolutely no blood or birth link to a culture. Then - it becomes simple cultural appropriation (and I seldom use that in a positive way).
Now, by no means is "cultural appropriation" solely a problem of white people, but it stands out more in that context. First, because white people in America often lament the lack of their own culture*, and so try to compensate for this perceived lack by borrowing from others. Second, the situation of white privilege often puts white folks in a naive mentality where they believe it is their right to take from any culture that they desire - that being barred from that would be "unfair" or "not inclusive" or (this is the one that I hate the most) some form of "reverse racism."** So I will mostly address "cultural appropriation" from an angle of white folks borrowing from non-white cultures (but repeat that it can go in a lot of different ways).
The most obvious examples (ones I see here in Portland all the time are): Zimbabwean marimba music, "African" drumming, Brazilian capoeira, and Zen Buddhism. I'll just try to hit them up in order (and, by no means are these the only ones).
There is a large contingent of white "liberals" in this town who love to play Zimbabwean marimba music. Now, I'm not going to go into the psychology of this obsession, but let's just say these folks are REALLY into it. Which should be fine. Because music is an art-form that should be shared and appreciated cross-culturally. However, these white liberals like it so much, they learn to play it. Again - not so bad, as learning to play a kind of music is a form of further appreciation (if in the comfort of their own home).
No - the problem is that these white Americans form "Zimbabwean marimba" bands, that play "traditional" Zimbabwean marimba music. First off - how can they possibly be a "Zimbabwean" marimba band, if none of the players are Zimbabwean (and I do know, for a fact, that they aren't - and I'm talking about multiple bands)? Second - why the Hell are they playing "traditional" Zimbabwean music? It is not their music. How is it "traditional" if Zimbabwean people aren't playing it? Some of these bands sing in Shona.
My question is why? Why? Why this kind of absurd theft? Appreciation is one thing -but this is mockery. It is not honor or respect. Respect is not claiming to play "Zimbabwean" music if you are not, yourself, Zimbabwean. Respect is not singing in a language you do not speak fluently, nor do you have opportunity to speak on a (very) regular basis. Respect is not stealing "traditions" out of context and that have no direct connection to you.
How could this be okay? Well - if these groups just said they played marimba music. Maybe make a nod to "Zimbabwean influences," but without a claim to play the music. If they NEVER played anything "traditional," and if they sang songs in their own damn language. Music is all about influences and adapting styles to your own. Therefore - if they truly like the music, they can adapt it to have songs with lyrics relevant to their own lives, in their own language. Why try to pretend to represent Zimbabwean music, when a Zimbabwean band could do so much more effectively? Why believe that that is okay?
On another level, this kind of thing bothers me in that very little else of "Zimbabwean" culture is known or actively appreciated by these folks. Seldom have they been taught by a Zimbabwean teacher, nor do they have any true Zimbabwean friends. They - perhaps - may know some Zimbabwean folks (not always), but never are those truly their friends. People they see and talk to regularly. Confide in, listen to, support, etc. So if they are not willing to put in that effort and social investment, how have they the right to profit from somebody else's culture in this way?
That's what kills me.
"African" drumming is much the same. I don't need to go into it in detail, but it's even worse, in some ways (because - although different styles of drumming in Africa are similar, most people are learning West African styles - specifically Ghanaian, Senegalese, or Gambian)***. Again - appreciate, learn (from an "African" at least), and play - but never claim it as "African" and please go immerse yourself in the culture - all of it.
Quickly - capoeira. For those unfamiliar with capoeira, it is a Brazilian martial art/dance style with roots in the African slave trade in South America. As slaves were not allowed to practice anything that resembled aggression or violence, these slaves (and later, their ancestors) disguised their martial arts and rebellion as a dance - capoeira. It's a beautiful story - quite inspiring. But - again - it kills me when I see an all-white-American troupe doing an exhibition for even more white folks. Practice on your own. Learn from a Brazilian master. But don't f-ing exhibit it in public as education/entertainment. If any of these things were truly for only the person, themselves, out of respect and appreciation - then there would be absolutely no need to bring it to the masses - that is the job of those whose culture it is. And if they don't choose to do so - respect that and don't take it upon yourselves.
Finally - Zen Buddhism. This one's more sticky for me because it's (vaguely) a religion. But it bothers me. As a (part) Chinese-American, it bothers me that the majority of Buddhists and Buddhist temple-goers in this town are white. That feels wrong. White Buddhist "monks" choosing Chinese or Hindu names - when they don't speak Chinese or Hindi (except for a smattering of terms). This one hurts me more as a representation of Orientalism**** than anything else. Because - obviously, this one is less public and more personal, which treads on territory I don't have a right to dispute. However . . . it doesn't feel right.
So - a number of examples, but there are so many others out there (I'd like to hear other people's pet-peeve forms of cultural appropriation). But it all boils down to - do not share what it is not yours. Do not presume to teach what you have not been immersed in. Learn only from those who have right to claim it. And question - deeply - your need/interest in learning and taking on aspects of another culture - and why it is only that one single aspect of the culture you are taking on, while leaving all the rest. Doing anything else is an insult. Anything else is disrespectful and smacks of privilege and ignorance.
And causes me to get all uppity and pissed off.
This is a topic I could go much deeper into, but I think that would work better as a conversation or dialogue. So, hopefully there are some timid non-commenters out there ready to ask some questions and get some clarification (and to challenge me if I sound just too sure of myself, and too judgmental).
But I leave you with this - we all learned as children (most of us, at least) that - if it isn't ours, we should leave it alone. And if we borrow something, we should do it with the intention of giving back. Why should culture and tradition be any different?
* I'll address this is at a later date, but - in short - I call B.S. on those claims.
** This will be an even longer post. Just thinking about it has me ready to spit fire.
*** I suppose the "Africa is not a country" post will have to happen sometime, as well.
**** This single post has touched off so many future off-shoots - the Orientalism discussion definitely needs to happen.