Over the past few weeks, this issue of cultural appropriation has exploded onto the scene, largely in reaction by the Native American community to the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, though the resolution of a battle between clothing designer Paul Frank and indigenous right’s group Native Appropriations doubtlessly fueled the conversation.
Now I know you’re all saying, “Gordon, you lightning bolt of the gods made flesh, slow down a second. What on earth is a ‘Cultural Appropriation’?”
Well readers, in and of itself, the term just means the adoption of certain cultural elements by another culture. In most use, however, it’s used to describe one culture essentially taking an important symbol or tradition from another and using it for their own purposes (usually profit- surprise, surprise).
Let me throw a few examples out there. Having grown up in the Middle East, a “cultural appropriation” I’m especially familiar with is “Orientalism.”
Back in the 1800s, Europeans became increasingly fascinated by the Middle East and Asia, and began collecting Arab, Turkish, and North African art, stories, furniture- you name it. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong there- it’s what they did with all that “appropriated” culture that was messed up.
See, back in the 1800s, the Europeans were (comparatively) prudish. Once they got a hold of Middle Eastern culture, they began embellishing it, sexualizing it, and generally exoticizing it to a ridiculous degree. Just take a look at what happened to dancing.
You’re all doubtlessly familiar with belly dancing- that erotic Arabian tradition, yeah? The veils and skimpy clothing and wild gyrations?
Here’s what Arab dancing actually looks like.
Pretty tame, eh?
Well, for the European explorers who saw this, those wanton hand motions were apparently enough to get their pantaloons in a twist. They went back to Europe with tales of the most depraved thing ever witnessed. Tales grew over time over the savage and sexual Saracens until we have the image of them we do today.
Now I would’ve shown you some Arab women dancing, but I can’t because if you type in “Arab Dancing” into YouTube you just get ****ing belly dancing!
That’s what it really comes down to. The issue isn’t one culture adopting the traditions, art, or symbols of another culture. We do that all the time, and I think we’re a richer, more diverse world for it. The issue isn’t even with twisted or changing those very traditions or symbols- we certainly don’t use corn flakes for their intended purpose, and I’m not seeing the outcry over rappers wearing crosses.
No, the issue is when a culture you take something from is poorer for you having done so. When you take something, twist it, and then say “this is what Native Americans are,” “this is what Arabs are,” “this is Latino/Redneck/Blue Collar.”
There’s actually a whole sub-genre of trashy romance novels with the theme of the independent white woman being captured and married by the savage-yet-tamable Arab or African or South American or pretty much any brown person who can be played off as mysterious, primitive, or foreign. I know, because I was with Evan when he spent three hours trying to find one where the male in question was East Asian, growing increasingly insulted when he couldn’t find one.
Of course, it’s not just sexualization that’s the issue. Appropriations take many forms- like this one, for example:
This is the logo of the Cleveland Indians.
Not the Cleveland Indian Warriors. Not the Chiefs. Not the Dog Soldiers.
And entire subset of people have been reduced to a racist caricature and a team mascot.
People, if I tried starting up a national team called “The Jews,” there’d be an uproar. People would be ticked off, and rightly so.
People try to defend the logo by saying “Hey! We’re honoring them! We named the team ‘the Indians’ because the Indians are brave and mighty fighters!”
Really? You’re going to take it upon yourself to assign characteristics to an entire people?
Readers, it doesn’t make a difference whether your appropriation is negative or positive- it’s still wrong. Let me be perfectly clear- other people do not need your ****ing definitions or descriptions. To tell people who or what they are is patronizing and arrogant beyond comprehension.
Which isn’t to say people can’t take it to an opposing extreme.
Recently, Evan covered a site named “Your Fave Is Problematic,” essentially a documentation of everything negative your celebrities of choice have ever done or said (even if it was in character). While occasionally exposing some racist or sexist remarks that may make you reconsider supporting an artist and his or her work, “Your Fave is Problematic” has a bad habit of jumping on anything even hinting of appropriation.
Let me throw out another example.
The authors attack a member of One Direction and Nicki Minaj. Normally, I’d be applauding any criticism of these guys, considering my own taste in music.
What Zayn Malik (of One Direction) and Minaj get criticized for, however, is not their lousy music, but the unforgivable sin of tattoos of the Yin-Yang symbol and some Japanese characters, respectively.
Malik isn’t getting slammed for sporting a Yin-Yang and not subscribing to a certain school of Chinese philosophy, mind you- he’s getting called out just for having it. The implication here is that the Yin-Yang is a symbol only for East Asians, which really is just as racist of an idea as anything else discussed in this post. The same goes for Minaj’s Japanese tattoo- if the authors say can’t have some Japanese writing on you because you’re not Japanese, surely using modern English, which has appropriated words from French, Latin, Arabic, Spanish and a host of other languages is just as bigoted.
I can’t say it enough. Who other people are is who other people are. A site trying desperately to champion the cause of transsexuals should know this better than anyone.
So again people, abide by this simple rule:
There’s nothing wrong about copying something from another culture, but when that culture or people group is lessened for what you’ve done, that’s not copying– it’s theft.
That’s it for me tonight- be sure to check in tomorrow for rookie Culture War Reporter Kat Goertz’s first foray into the wonderful world of Shame Day.
Gordon, I love the way you talk about yourself. Do it forever (please).
On the theme of East Asian untamable-but-tamable male characters in trashy romance novels, if Evan really wants to see that, he should check out the josei genre of manga (though that wouldn’t really be appropriation). Thinking back on my grandmother’s collection, I can’t think of any featuring East Asian men off the top of my head (her library primarily featured spaniards and cowboys, which i think are what fill the bargain bins at Goodwill), but I suspect that this is merely because authors haven’t thought of it yet. This is an untapped market! YOU COULD FILL THE VOID FOR RACIALLY-SENSITIVE TRASHY ROMANCE NOVELS CENTERED AROUND EASTERN ASIAN MEN.
I think I’ve found your calling in life.
(You can thank me later.)
I will never cease to be amused and amazed by the Cleveland Indians situation. Something that would have raised eyebrows during the blackface era is accepted without so much as a shrug by thousands of fans. It shows you that apathy goes a long way.
Sharply written piece.
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