(Disclaimer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders: The follow article contains images of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders)
Colourful clothes, exotic dishes, unique hairstyles and ethnic jewellery. What do all of these have in common? Well, for one thing most of them are beautiful, interesting and give a feeling of satisfaction to many people. However, given the right (or should I say wrong) circumstances, they can also land one in considerable hot water. Yes, you are the vile individual who has “stolen” from another culture by your “cultural appropriation”. Just so you know, you are a terrible person….
Yet, the question begs asking; “What is cultural appropriation?”
The actual term was apparently coined by Kenneth Coutts‐Smith in 1976 and the original use was somewhat more limited than today’s concept. To understand this concept consider several points, the history of cultural interactions, what cultural appropriation is and what cultural appropriation is not.
A Brief History of Cultural Interactions
Cultures have been interacting for as far back as linguists can trace recorded languages. A sterling example of this being the Rosetta Stone which lead to a deep understanding of many cultures in the Near East, Middle East and Mediterranean. Even today, much of the technology you take for granted is likely borrowed from another culture. For those in rural areas, the horse is often an essential part of farming and agriculture, yet the modern design of the saddle along with the stirrup was readily borrowed from the Mongolians and revolutionised the way these animals were utilised.
Go back further to an invention that no modern day race or culture is likely to be able to lay claim to. The humble wheel. Simple, and yet, none of our civilisations could continue to exist without it….
New technologies have been traded and blatantly copied for millennia. Copper became all the rage and was superior to stone or flint, then iron was adopted and spread readily through multiple civilisations, those who weren’t quick to take up its use were speedily subjugated.
Assimilation of the strong points of another culture was not only something that better equipped one’s own culture but became a prerequisite for survival. Time and again civilisations that became “culturally stagnant” or in other words, too proud to adopt from “lesser cultures” were overthrow and all but razed by those deemed inferior.
Rome, festering in its own illustrious power, wealth and debauchery did nothing as the outskirts of its territory slowly but surely fell to “barbarians”. Instead of learning from and utilising the Gothic tactics, Rome stuck to its “superior” methods as well as resorting to wanton cruelty only to fall to Alaric I on August 24th of 410.
Similarly, the Qing dynasty was slow to adopt modernisation and its people suffered greatly from the then undesirable influences brought by the British Empire and Meiji era Imperial Japan.
Interchange of cultures and ideas mean adaptation and continued survival when those adaptations are made in the correct direction.
What is Cultural Appropriation and what isn’t?
In recent times almost any use of emblems, designs, traditional features, music or anything else designated as part of a culture to which one does not belong can be construed as “cultural appropriation”.
While the stated intention by vigilantes is to “protect” minorities, the reality is that psychologically the effect of playing “the cultural appropriation card” can be far more damaging than beneficial.
Take into consideration a little girl who wants to have a Hawaiian themed party during the summer holidays. Her mother prepares some very cliché grass skirts and other stereotypically Hawaiian themed items. She may or may not include something educational related to Hawaii and its people.
To call this cultural appropriation would not only be absurd it could be damaging to the child. How so?
Imagine that the party continues, everything goes smoothly, but then this girls enjoyment and immersion in faux Hawaii leads her to become mesmerized by it. She starts to watch more shows and documentaries as well as read books on the subject. She learns the sad truths about its history and the damage to its environment. As she grows she decides to help not only the people there but also develops a way to help reduce coral bleaching. All started by a cliché Hawaiian party that a child could understand at her age.
Now consider another scenario. Another mother loudly complains about how this is cultural appropriation, makes a huge scene and ruins the party. That same young girl’s memory of Hawaii becomes anything but positive. She loses interest in the subject all together, does not do anything in the previous scenario and lives an uneventful life working in a dead end job.
Sometimes well intentioned individuals are more of an annoyance to minorities than regular folk who just get on with life. Most of my friends do not enjoy being “defended” from compliments based on ethnic features or clothes nor genuine questions of interest about their cultures even if they are pretty stereotypical sometimes. Stereotypical questions can serve as a lever to explaining more about a culture and correcting inaccurate or downright erroneous ideas. The moral of the story is to treat people as people regardless of their race, ethnicity or culture.
I have literally lost count of times when people ask about my accent and where I am from, when I reply “Africa” the common response is “…but you’re white” which then allows me to explain about my background. Yes, I am a minority too.
Therefore, the cultural appropriation that Social Justice Warriors insist on, does not really exist, it is a fallacy and a polarising force fuelled by virtue signalling rather than an actual sincere concern for the people.
So, if cultural appropriation does not exist then everything is fine and rosy and we can all just get on with our lives, right?
Not really, because something far worse than cultural appropriation exists, cultural exploitation.
Take for example the art created by the Australian Aboriginals. This form of art is usually passed on by one generation to another and the recipes for making different colours from natural materials and pigments are often a closely guarded secret . For these reasons, genuine works of Australian Aboriginal art can be worth many thousands of dollars. This art form provides individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with an income but also affects the communities that they live in.
Sadly, cheap imitations which hold no cultural value have flooded the marketplace. One could be forgiven for purchasing these, of course, when they are marketed as imitations. When marketed as “Aboriginal Art” though, consumers are often deceived into thinking of the item as something genuine, this acts to damage the marketplace where Aboriginal individuals can actually sell their art works. This is an example of cultural exploitation which is often done by large conglomerates which market low quality souvenirs as “genuine” . Another way in which they can be exploited is by signing art contracts which take advantage of their vulnerable situation and pay them far below what is reasonable or even legal.
Then we have the example of remote tribes which welcome guests to experience their way of life. No problem there, very educational and potentially good for the tribes’ people. However, many companies that organise tours to such locations charge exorbitant prices while providing an unfairly small portion of the profits to the communities where they run their operations or to individuals that they hire as guides, etc.
Braiding your hair, wearing an ethnic necklace or sporting a rather stereotypical look does not damage minority communities and are expressions of interest in another’s culture, however, paying unfair prices to indigenous peoples or purchasing items marketed as “genuine” when they are not, is a very damaging form of cultural exploitation
Fair trade often helps to create better working environments for indigenous peoples and improves their conditions of living. Therefore, when looking for a “proper” or “authentic” experience, it would be good to consider purchasing free trade items than can guarantee that an ethical price has been paid.
So what should you do?
Enjoy all cultures just as you would enjoy different food which adds a sense of satisfaction to your life. Ask many questions, read books, watch documentaries and why not go the extra mile and learn another language if you really want to immerse yourself.
Try to support companies that really support their indigenous workers by free trade programs. See people as people and treat them accordingly.
I speak multiple languages and have enjoyed what many would call “cultural appropriation” for a long, long time. I have only ever experienced positive reactions from people when they noticed me wearing something from their culture, reading a book in their language or being able to eat strongly flavoured delicacies. Go ahead, immerse yourself!
Alaric Naudé is a professor specialising in communication, business, education, linguistics and social science. He is widely recognised as having a great face for radio.