I have already expressed my displeasure with the movement of policing “cultural appropriation” back when there was a backlash against the Kimono Wednesday event at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Like all moralizing efforts, cultural appropriation policing is rife with contradictions and hypocrisies.
There may have once been some merit to the idea of cultural appropriation. If you wore a ceremonial Native American headdress without actually being a Native American performing a ceremony, you could be disrespectfully appropriating a culture that was not your own, at least in the eyes of people who are offended. It doesn’t hurt to be a little mindful of these things when the doctrine is not taken to an extreme, but the margin cam be razor thin.
I once traveled to Okinawa and talked to a local cab driver who told me a little about traditional Okinawan culture and how he was sometimes offended at the insensitivity of the tourists from the mainland. Private grave sites, though unusual and spectacular as they may be, should not be a place for taking photographs, for example. He also did not like hibiscus patterns used on swimsuits and hibiscus worn as hair ornaments. Hibiscus, in his view, was a flower for the dead to be solemnly offered to graves. It was insensitive, he said, that the flower be treated so frivolously. In Hawaii, however, a hibiscus worn behind a woman’s ear represents her romantic situation, vaguely like an engagement ring though not as constricting. As such it has become widely accepted as a tropical symbol of love. The hibiscus is also the national flower of Haiti, Malaysia, and South Korea. It also represents the Hindu goddess Kali. Thus I believe the Okinawan cab driver, though genuinely offended he may have been, was over reaching when he claimed ownership of the hibiscus flower and tried to dictate how its symbolism could and could not be used.
As for the Native American headdress, almost none of the feather headdresses in use in North America are traditionally made. Most employ the use of epoxies and other modern materials. The vast majority are factory-made in China. Few actual Native Americans actually possess the skill to make traditional headdresses with traditional methods. The best traditional headdress craftsmen are Japanese. The skill is being preserved by a small group of enthusiasts who were initially inspired by Hollywood Westerns.
Hollywood Westerns also influenced Japanese movies and revolutionized the samurai movie genre. Samurai movies were once derisively called “chambara”, which is a word that represents the sounds of swords clashing. Like pornography, the point of the movie was not the plot but the action. The influence of John Ford et al changed that forever. Movies about the samurai no longer climaxed in the battle between the Red Clan and the White Clan. It became a dispute over humanity in the murky middle ground between civilized rectitude and outlaw justice. This in turn influenced Hollywood Westerns by John Sturges and others, Spaghetti Westerns by Sergio Leone and others, all the way to George Lucas. But it did not end there. Terence Young threw a samurai and gunslingers in the same movie in a French-Italian-Spanish co-production Western. The influence went back to a Hollywood Western by Antoine Fuqua. And Takashi Miike took the samurai-movie-influenced Westerns, moved the stage back to Japan, and created a major mashup. That is the nature of cultural cross-pollination.
We live in an increasingly globalized world and we cannot keep foreign ideas out of our local neighborhoods. The tourists wearing swimwear splashed with hibiscus patterns are not appropriating Okinawan culture but are importing a Hawaiian one. You cannot put a lid on everything that offends you.
Except for the extreme ideologues, most people seem to agree that it is the nature of culture to mix. Overly rigid application of “cultural appropriation” to every element of culture only stifles progress and creativity. Some people have been trying to come up with a definition for “cultural appropriation” that is supposed to work.
A writer named Briahna Joy Gray recently suggested that “disrespect” and “economic exploitation” should factor in. I believe this is utter nonsense. A White man presenting a foolish performance in blackface is not “cultural appropriation” but racial mockery. And Led Zeppelin not giving credit to Delta bluesmen who wrote their songs is not “cultural appropriation” but outright plagiarism. In this context, the term “cultural appropriation” becomes an instrument for softening the truth, perhaps in the same ballpark as calling toilet paper “bathroom tissue” and impotence “a virility problem”. Led Zeppelin is not stealing, they are just culturally appropriating.
Gray goes on to cite Elvis Presley as an example of “cultural appropriation” backed by unilateral commercial gain, which is faulty reasoning on two fronts. In Presley’s day, black artists remained poor and white artists who covered them became rich, not because of “cultural appropriation” but because of racism, theft, and oppression. She also conveniently ignores that Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog, which was a sanitized and neutered version of Big Mama Thornton’s outrageously sex-themed song, would have made even less sense if it were sung by Nat King Cole. Presley was a master of musical sexuality in the way Cole was not. The fact that one singer was white and the other was black becomes irrelevant. Presley was white, but so were John Lennon, and Jerry Lee Lewis, both of whom had covered the same song with much less success. Presley owes his success primarily to Presley.
Jazz and blues, and eventually rock, began primarily as the music of African Americans, which only came into being when Africans, with their own musical traditions, came into contact with Western musical tones and musical instruments. Black music is African inspired music, not actual African music. And Black music, like jazz and blues, are a fusion of African and European traditions; a product of cultural cross-pollination. It never would have come into existence at all if cultures did not mix.
In fact there is very little justification for policing “cultural appropriation” and most examples of “justified” policing, on closer inspection, are not justified at all. The vast majority of the cases are just plain ridiculous. There was a burrito shop in Portland run by two white women that was forced to shut down on accusations of cultural appropriation. That sounds extreme as a stand alone incident, but becomes even more outrageous in light of Anthony Bourdain’s statement that the best French chefs in North America are Mexicans. Why is it cultural appropriation for white people to cook burritos, but not cultural appropriation for Mexicans to be French chefs? No pun intended, this is my beef with this issue.
My problem with making cultural appropriation extend to everything is not only that it stifles creativity, but that it normalizes white supremacism.
Why is it never wrong for an Asian or an African to wear a necktie, but wrong for a White person to wear a Zulu necklace? That is actually a trick question. A “White” person is a fiction. Anyone from Greece to Finland, from California to Vladivostok can be “White”, though almost nobody is purely genetically of European origin. “White” is not an actual race. It is a social race. And there is really no such thing as “White” culture, as one look at Albanian or Polish traditional costumes will show.
If an Asian or an African wears a necktie, he is seen as moving one step closer to “civilization”, while a White woman in a Zulu necklace is seen as moving away. A Mexican who becomes a French chef is moving up in society, whereas white women serving burritos are headed in the opposite direction. An attack on “cultural appropriation” is a reinforcement of the doctrine “White good, colored bad”.
The very concept of “cultural appropriation” is supposed to hinge on the history of domination and oppression. Non-white people have been conquering, oppressing, and enslaving each other for millennia. So if a Chinese woman wears a Japanese kimono, or a Japanese woman wears a Chinese cheongsam, why is that not cultural appropriation? Because White Domination over other races is somehow a special kind of domination. Policing cultural appropriation, which is based on the dichotomy of “white vs non-white”, reinforces this notion and serves to glorify white superiority.
The opposite of “cultural appropriation” is “racial conformism”, which is another way of saying “put the coloreds in their place”. If you object to White people wearing Zulu necklaces, what you are actually saying is “Let the Zulus wear Zulu necklaces.” The end result is racial segregation, not by physical walls, but by culture.
Opposing racism is fine. But if you oppose an ill defined notion of cultural appropriation, and focus it on the “white vs non-white” dichotomy, you are not opposing racism but enhancing it.
What does any of this have to do with writing? Fiction, like movies and music, thrives on cultural cross-pollination. Long before modern publishing, the oral folklore of yamamba, the Japanese witch creature, and baba-yaga, the Russian witch creature, shared similar stories. Krampus, the horned anthropomorphic creature of Eastern Europe, and namahage, the horned anthropomorphic creature of northern Japan, share almost exactly the same legends. Stories have traveled the world and fused and meshed for millennia, changing small elements over time to adapt to different environments. Yet recently, a writer named Catherynne Valente was accused of cultural appropriation for adopting elements of Russian folklore in a fantasy novel. I could respond to this nonsense in any number of ways, but what if I told you that those fantasy elements that segregationists seemed to object to were not Russian folklore at all, but Japanese folklore, which has its origins in Chinese folklore, which was heavily influenced by Tibetan folklore, whose origins can be traced to Hindu mythologies, which has parallels in Macedonian fairytales, which bare resemblance to Russian folklore, but can also be traced to Egyptian origins? Stories cross react over cultural boundaries. That’s the nature of it. It is unavoidable.