Do I have your attention? Great!
In no way am I out to attack people for their beliefs, rather, hopefully, people will be able to understand this topic better and view the world through a more understanding and accepting lens. If you are ready to start slinging white privilege, mansplaining, snowflake, alt right, or libtard terminology without even reading the article, you don’t belong in this conversation and you can leave now.
First of all, let’s recap the current status of the cultural appropriation topic:
Bruno Mars, an extremely popular RnB artist, is being taken to task for being non-black and dominating a traditionally black genre of music. Ironically, the person in the video in the article complaining about Bruno Mars uses a handle with the Japanese word Sensei (meaning teacher) even though they do not appear to be Japanese ethnically or nationally — I make this point because in this conversation consistency is everything, the slightest bit of hypocrisy discredits your stance immediately and when you are reaching millions of people you have a responsibility to do your due diligence.
With increasing frequency, topics like this boil to the headlines of every news site giving a platform to people who really aren’t qualified to talk about it. Often, the equivalent of asking the kid who failed algebra to do your calculus is given the pencil and no one is moving the needle in a positive way. Every time, the argument can be distilled to an “I was here first!” mentality — a product of the entitlement culture seen throughout modern-day America. I would like to put a stop to this and hopefully start a positive movement.
So, what exactly is the definition of cultural appropriation? Doing a quick google search, I came up with this:
Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power.
Now, the let’s take a look at the definitions of culture and appropriation separately to see how those words’ definitions add up.
- the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
- the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
For the course of this article we are going be using the second definition as that aptly describes the current state of the word
take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission
Let’s rewrite the Wikipedia definition to say what it should actually be, not the nonsensical, “social justice warrior” jargon-riddled definition.
The act of taking the ideas, customs, and social behaviours of a particular people or society without (the owner’s) permission
Ah, there we go. A definition that actually makes sense!
From this new definition, I already see problems and hopefully, you do too. The biggest problem being that no one owns a society or a people, therefore no one owns a culture, thus a person cannot appropriate a culture because you cannot ask anyone for permission.
Case closed, right? Well, hold on, let’s dig deeper here.
Taking a closer look at a culture, we can rightfully say that a culture is not tied to race. Can a single race be the majority representative of a culture? Of course! But saying “black culture” or “white culture” in general is wrong — it’s 100% just a rewording of racial stereotypes.
I’m using the above Native Americans as an example of this. Just because someone is of Native American descent, does not mean they are a representative of the cultures they ancestors were a part of. The man on the left and the girl on the right might not have as much in common as you may think.
As I was saying, cultures are fluid; they are dynamic; they are constantly growing and evolving. A culture is never one thing at any given point in time. And just like how culture is growing and changing, people are constantly growing and changing. People are a part of many cultures all at once and phase in and out of the cultural stereotypes people within those cultures embody.And just like how people can come in and out of a culture at any time, people don’t necessarily have to be accepted into those cultures, they can just decide to be. There are no gatekeepers to culture, which is in fact what people are trying to do nowadays.
Let’s use the example of Gamer culture. Gamer culture used to be represented by nerdy, acne-ridden teenagers. Those teenagers could be of any race and often would fall into very strict stereotypes in regards to personality and social status.
Yet, gamers were part of other cultures as well — nerds and geeks of all varieties were often the crossovers, even considered the same thing to outsiders. Recently, there was a bit of a revolution in gaming culture because of the evolution of gaming and it became accessible to more people.
Gaming, nerd, and geek culture were infamously known for gate-keeping as people apart from these cultures entire identities were formed from them. Now, as their identity became mainstream, others were identifying as gamers as well — people who did not fit in the traditional gaming culture. These newcomers did not ask for permission, they just appropriated themselves into the culture. There was a lot of backlash from the traditionalist, understandably so, as their identity was being appropriated by the very people who were oppressing them before. Sound familiar?
I use this as an example, because, at the end of the day, I think it was a good thing. However, I’m also using it as an example to pose the question, would you fight for the traditionalists to retain the cultural rights?
If you’re saying right now, “It’s not the same thing.”, stop. It is the same thing. The people who identified as gamers entire identity was stripped from them. It’s just as meaningful to them as any white, black, or Asian cultural backgrounds are. If we are to take this conversation seriously, you have to respect the perspective of others, even if you think they are wrong. You cannot simply write off a culture because you don’t understand it, that’s what this entire conversation is about.
I can sympathize with anyone feeling like their culture is being taken from them. I get that, I really do, but we cannot be gatekeepers, that will never work. As you can see from my example what would be considered cultural appropriation is not only a good thing but an inevitable outcome of culture reaching mainstream popularity. The sooner we can accept this reality, the better relationships we can foster with growing cultures. Whoever the misguided individuals perpetuating the negative stigmatism of cultural appropriation need to be stopped.
Can you Disrespect a Culture?
Another common thing people complain about when speaking of cultural appropriation is disrespecting a culture. The question is, can you disrespect a culture?
Now, on the surface, I wanted to say “yes.” After thinking about it, I am now not so sure. The reason is, in order for someone to disrespect your culture, you assume they have knowledge and understanding of it — you are also assuming that it is not in direct conflict with their own culture. For example, in many Asian cultures, when you enter a household you should take off your shoes. If someone doesn’t take off their shoes when entering an Asian person’s house, are they disrespecting the Asian culture? Or are they ignorant of the fact that is something you should do? Also, what if the person entering the house is from a culture where you do not allow your bare feet to touch the ground. That would put this person in direct conflict with their own cultural values. Now, even if they want to respect the cultural domain they just entered, are they supposed to oppress their own cultural beliefs? If you believe others should deny their culture to appease yours because you think it’s disrespectful of them not to, are you then not disrespecting theirs? Are you not signaling that you think your culture is more important?
This the muddy ground we tread on when we speak of cultural respect because it is very possible to come into direct conflict constantly. I know the example seems trivial, but it is important. What is the difference between removing your shoes and braiding your hair? You might think the shoe example is silly, but others might feel the same about the braids. It’s all a matter of perspective and as a society, we are doing a poor job of seeing that.
If someone is being willfully ignorant or blatantly offensive, it’s usually obvious and that should be stopped. If someone is being blissfully ignorant, they need to be educated, not crucified. The biggest issue comes from people who can’t distinguish the two — if you are one of those people, always err on the side of caution and choose the less aggressive of the two paths.
Now, I am one to acknowledge when I am in a different cultural position and I will try my best to follow the cultural norms as long as it is not in direct conflict with my moral beliefs, however, I do not come from a strict cultural background, this is why I say it is a yes and no situation, as it is completely situational and context means everything.
Can you exploit a culture?
I do believe it is absolutely possible to exploit culture. However, it is almost impossible to prove that someone is because exploitation needs to prove intent and the only way you could get proof of someone’s intent is for them to have explicitly said so. We cannot simply run around in a witch hunt claiming every little-perceived slight is an exploitation of culture. We cannot say the commercialization of a culture is exploitation either. This is a natural part of exposing culture to others and isn’t inherently exploitative. Making money off a culture as an outsider doesn’t mean you are exploiting it. In fact, exposing a culture could absolutely be incredibly beneficial to it. We wouldn’t have a lot of things today if it wasn’t for the commercialization of cultures.
So while I think it is possible to exploit a culture, it is a moot point because it is a battle that can never be won and doesn’t necessarily mean that the exploitation of that culture is negatively impacting it. If an outsider is exploiting a culture, but in turn is benefiting everyone in that culture, is it a bad thing? Also, you don’t have to be an outsider to exploit a culture, a person can very well exploit their own culture. How do you differentiate the two? These are questions you have to ask yourself.
Where does this all come from?
So, what’s the real issue today? Where does this all come from? I think it’s a mix of a desire to protect your own culture and it’s a part of the loss of identity through culture in America.
It is very natural to object to change. Change scares people. Change leads you into the unknown, you don’t know where you’re going to end up. So, you object to it, you try to keep the status quo because you know exactly where you can go with it. I do not blame people for this, I myself have objected to change many times and will continue to do so. But, we have to be more open-minded about it. We cannot simply object to change because it is a change. We have to understand where it can take us and that it is an inevitable part of evolution and adaptation.
The cultural backlash of minority Americans today is just part of the process of them losing their cultural identities — the identities that most white Americans have already lost. You can see the denial of this identity crisis within white Americans by how they cling on to anything that is even remotely tribal.
Ask a white American their ethnicity and they’ll give you a pie chart of their breakdown, none of which they can actually identify with if they actually went to any of those countries. Every white American loves some sports team, or the college they went to, or the state they are from. This is part of their attempt to give them some sort of cultural identity as they lost it a long time ago.
When people in the South don’t want to let go of their confederate flags, they are just trying to keep their identity. They legitimately do not care about the Confederate armies or the confederacy ideals, they just see those flags as part of their identity, just as an African-American person might wave a Ugandan flag, but was born and raised as a 3rd generation American in Atlanta. Yes, there may be some people who identify with the racist ideals of the Confederacy, but some of those people might also identify with the ideals of the Unabomber, are we supposed to clump all Confederate Flag owners as serial killers too? No. I understand the Confederacy has a very ugly past and I’m not coming to their defense at all, but we can’t just come in and rip away their identity. Do you know how incredibly lost they would be? That is not the solution, we have to give options to change with. We need to approach topics like this with more tact.
How do we change?
Well, the first step is to stop yourself whenever you are feeling offended by something culturally. Try to assess why you are offended, what makes you angry about it. If you think your culture started something first, take a moment and educate yourself on the subject matter, because not only are you most likely wrong, but the history is probably so complex and convoluted that there isn’t one single origin point.
Second is to change your perception. Instead of seeing it as someone stealing from you, see that your culture is worthy enough to give birth to a new sub-culture. What is really going on is that someone sees your culture, likes it, and they want to express themselves with your culture, but using their cultural identity. This will go a long way in life if everyone can view these changes like this. We can celebrate culture evolution by making a cultural revolution. Afterall, if we opposed, we would never have gotten Sushi Rolls (Uramaki), modern day EDM, or MMA. There would have been no Bruce Lee, no Lebron James, no AC/DC. Essentially, everything that exists today is a product of appropriation and it has always has been that way.
The third thing you can do is expose yourself to a culture you know nothing about or don’t like at the surface level. Dig in deep and try to get a good understanding of how those people think and work. It will help give you a new perspective on how to view different cultures and how someone from a different culture might view you.
Finally, let’s stand together, unify, and celebrate because, at the end of the day, we are all Americans. And for those of you who are not American, we are all people. We are all human. This is the culture of Earth.