Cultural Appropriation: Is it a Real Issue?

Cultural Appropriation: Is it a Real Issue?

Halloween is coming.

As always, one of the spookiest things in American society is bound to accompany this ritual of inversion (defined as an event that allows people to violate social norms): political correctness. On the PC ticket this year, as it is every other, is the idea of cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation really entered mainstream discourse in the worst way possible: with a tweet.

Before this, a lot of public conversation around this idea focused on white folk dressing as Native Americans for Halloween. There’s a certain amount of legitimacy in the claim that genociding a bunch of natives and then wearing their traditional or religious garb as a costume might just be in poor taste. I’d be remiss not to acknowledge this take. More on it later.

First, let’s dig into definitions: I’ve included a few as not to allow the politicization of dictionaries to steer our understanding.

Oxford English Dictionary: “The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.”

Wikipedia: Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.

Cambridge Dictionary: the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.

Definitions are fantastic for people who deal in arguments because they lend themselves to a myriad of a priori assumptions. In other words, definitions demand that you accept certain elements of their propositions as established fact.

One assumption on display is the idea that culture is somehow mediated by only those who consider themselves a part of it. Thus, whether an ‘appropriated’ element is appropriate or not can only be decided by someone within the ‘appropriated’ culture.

The question then becomes: who gets to decide that? Are we to elect cultural mediators who are representative of their ethnic or cultural constituents and have them decide whether out-group usage is justified? And how shall we decide just how ‘authentic’ and culturally significant certain elements are? Assuming that such a thing was possible would also lead us to contend with the thorny ideal that no culture exists in a vacuum. We’re always swapping ideas, stories, traditions, and people. Credit where credit is due, surely, but can we ever really be sure where it is actually due?

The case for whether something ought to be considered appropriated and therefore offensive is a thorny one.

Let’s take the QiPao (the ‘appropriated’ prom dress from the tweet) example from above.

The incarnation of QiPao on display above happens, in fact, to be a stylistic mishmash between Manchu (Cheongsam), Han, and Western-style garb.

Let’s be clear and begin by delineating Manchu and Han people in ancient China. China’s Qing dynasty, in which an earlier precursor to the modern QiPao featured prominently in popular fashion, was a Manchu dynasty. The dominant ethnic group in China today is the Han. If we’re to actually respect people’s cultures, then we’d probably do well not to lump all ‘Chinese’ under the same umbrella, eh?

It seems that the author of the original tweet fails to make this distinction. He goes on in a ‘thread’ to explain how the QiPao was originally made for ‘Chinese’ women.

I can promise you that, for many ethnic groups in Asia, the descriptor ‘Chinese’ doesn’t cut it. The Qing Manchus’ wanted ‘Han’ people to act as like Manchus just as badly as the CCP wants Uighurs and Tibetans to act ‘Han’ today.

To say something like the QiPao is simply ‘Chinese’ is, using the logic of cultural appropriation, to disrespect the ethnic distinctions many people would make among themselves. We can’t just homogenize everyone in ancient or modern China and act like ‘the QiPao is Chinese!’ when its current form was influenced by more than one culture. Which brings us back to the question of who gets to claim cultural ‘ownership’ of the QiPao. Is it the Manchu people? Han people? How are we to treat the divisions among individual people within either culture in such a decision? Should we consult the ruling government, the CCP?

Not to mention the kicker; that the modern QiPao was influenced by Western culture. Are we ‘westerners’ (again, a distinction so broad as to be nearly useless) to take up arms against this historical appropriation?

Now, most people agree that Boh’s tweet was rather pedantic and that the girl who wore the dress isn’t some paragon of white supremacy. However, this example does well to prove that boxing up the idea of ‘culture’ in objects and clothing renders the dynamism of culture too simplistic. There’s far more to unpack in history, culture, and tradition than a catch-all phrase which proclaims ‘object or tradition A belongs to group C’.

The truth about culture is that it is dynamic. Even sociology recognizes culture as something active, a process that’s both informative of the people within and informed by those same individuals. All cultures have, through their dynamic nature and the association of certain people groups with others, appropriated elements from others. Whether they do this for fashion or utility is irrelevant; it would be a mistake to arbitrarily delineate any point at which a culture was ‘pure’ and without any appropriation from those around them.

To understand culture is to understand that it is not static; it moves with people and changes with their ideas. We are allowed to share in these ideas, revel in them, ridicule them. And, of course, we should try and be respectful. With the above in mind, nothing about ‘appropriating’ elements of other cultures that you like ought to be considered disrespectful.

But what about Costumes?

Halloween is the Western world’s most explicitly venerated and societally tolerated ‘ritual of inversion’. A ritual of inversion, something found in most cultures, is (and I’m quoting, with the emphasis my own):

‘…Rituals of inversion, also known as rituals of reversal, occur when a ritual or special event provides a frame that gives license for people to violate everyday cultural norms and social codes. The modifier ritual suggests that these violations are in some sense considered temporary, playful, or restricted to a special time and/or place. It is these constraints and frames that provide license for behavior that would incur social sanctions outside of the ritual setting. Ritual inversions are frequently humorous and often include satire and mockery—expressions intended to elicit a humorous reaction from a given segment of a population by recourse to making fun of another at the other’s expense.

5 bucks to anyone who knows the history of the jack-o’-lantern

So, even ignoring my criticism of ‘cultural appropriation’, we can glean from this definition that the sociologically-validated idea of inversion rituals offers a special sort of license to offend the sensibilities of the masses.

Which brings us to the most contentious of costumes in the US: Native American clothing, specifically religious garb.

The arguments against dressing as such are many, so let’s list a few and respond to them in kind:

  1. Americans are responsible for the genocide of Native Americans and thus shouldn’t make light of their cultures, which the US government essentially destroyed and made illegal. In earlier days, these people were not even allowed to dress as their culture prescribed or even speak their own languages.

No doubt this is true. However, there’s a tendency in contemporary American culture to conflate white people with the sins of previous American settlers and governmental administrations. For example, I’m a white man whose family on both sides came to America 2 generations ago. I’ve got British (English, Irish), Czech, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, and German blood. None of my personal ancestors were involved in the subjugation of Native peoples of any stripe that I know of. I’ve no association with the current US government. Most other Americans can safely say the same thing.

Therefore, though I’m not myself a marginalized person, my lineage and American citizenship cannot be implicated in the marginalization of others. Even if ‘silence is violence’, I’ve repeatedly denounced the actions of the US government at places such as Standing Rock. So I’ll in no way accept the associative tendencies of those who would lump myself and other Americans into the oppressor class for nationality, ethnicity, or heritage.

There are no longer laws on the books which allow for discrimination against people for their language or garb. All tribes are free to practice their religion, speak their language, and dress how they please. According to an article by Teen Vogue (not that they’re a reputable publication, but they are representative of anti-appropriation arguments):

“Appropriation is just a different, modern form of Native cultural erasure: it sustains the Western idea that Native attire is only acceptable when worn by a white person and when viewed under a colonial gaze.”

No one is making that argument today Good luck finding any examples of modern-day Americans opining that only white people are allowed to dress in native clothing.

With this in mind, I fail to see how Americans with no government ties or genocidal lineages are contributing to the marginalization of native peoples by dressing like them for Halloween. Is it in bad taste? Probably. But it is actually causing harm beyond offending the individual people who see the costumes or people wearing them? Hardly. In fact, our yearly ‘appropriation’ conversation often serves to bring the issues surrounding indigenous communities into the limelight – and, as you’d guess, most Americans today agree that the US government needs to do more.

Trust me, no elected officials are going to look at people’s Halloween costumes and say ‘guess the people have spoken and we can continue on the path of oppression!’ They’ll be on that path with or without your costume. Policymakers are the ones who need to be held accountable, not sorority Jane and her badly-woven moccasins.

2. The religious garments of Native Americans are sacred to them and should not be used outside of their ritually signifcant contexts.

This section is not exclusive to native traditions, but all traditions and cultures not our own.

Remember what I said about Halloween being a ritual of inversion? Well, it’s an American cultural tradition. And the tenets of that tradition clash with the traditions of other cultures. America has a long history of making fun of everyone and everything; couldn’t we say that’s a part of our culture? If it is, then the doctrines of ‘cultural respect’ and ‘cultural relativism’ would have to lend our traditions as much weight as the traditions of other people groups. Therefore, disrespecting the culture of possibly disrespecting other people’s cultures would be culturally insensitive!

Do you see how confusing that got? Yeah, that’s cultural relativism in a nutshell. And without positing the ideas of relativism and respect you’re hard-pressed to find an argument that would logically support forcing people to be respectful of other people’s cultures.

Nothing is sacred in the domain of secular society. We are all free to criticize or applaud as we see fit. If someone wishes to vet themselves as a person of poor taste by trick-or-treating while dressed in native clothing in Montana, that’s their right. And just as many of us are as critical of our own traditions vis-a-vis Christianity, we retain the right express ourselves using the cultural symbols and artifacts of other people so long as we’re not directly hurting or contributing to the marginalization of those people. Such is the peril of a free society.

The same goes for other religions and customs. If speech and sartorial expression alone can damage and/or change them from they’re at now, in the 21st century, in a country that prosecutes actual hate-crimes judiciously on the federal level, then maybe they were flimsy to begin with. Secular tradition has shown that all ideas must weather the attacks of detractors and hecklers; you cannot throw something under the umbrella of ‘sacred’ in this country and make it immune from ribbing, criticism, or disrespect.

We’re of course just as free to criticize the people who do ‘disrespect’ other cultures. The discussion can get as meta as we please, but I firmly believe that no strictures should be placed on the sale and proliferation of material that any people may find offensive so long as it does not violate the law.

I personally hope the costume conversation continues every year; it inevitably leads to putting the issues facing indigenous people at the forefront of public consciousness.

If you’ve got a bone to pick on these issues, maybe forsake writing a strongly worded email to Etsy and call the offices of your local representatives. Tell them to investigate violence against native women and the violation of treaty rights. Tell them that the US government must live up to the promises it has made, in writing, to native people.

That’s what I’ll be doing. Still unsure of what my costume’s gonna be, though.

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