Cultural Appropriation in 2017: Are We Moving Forward?
Recently I made a decision to try a certain hairstyle.
This seems like something that would generally be simple — we make basic choices about our style and appearance daily. To my surprise, this particular choice took me into the depths of the opinionated internet, into a very real conversation that’s happening now.
Cultural appropriation. What is it? Is it a good thing? A terrible thing?
Let’s start with the definition of cultural appropriation:
Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.
Ok… seems easy, right? And to me, it actually sounded like a great thing.
Western culture has been influenced and is influencing a ton of advancements thanks to the connected-ness of our current world. Technology, fashion, education… all of these things are the way they currently are thanks to cultural appropriation by its above definition.
But in 2017, cultural appropriation is anything but an easy topic. In fact, before the definition comes up at the top of my Google search results, endless articles about celebrities being “called out for cultural appropriation” top my feed.
Go ahead, try giving it a search.
The term is now used around the same frame as cultural misappropriation:
“misappropriation” refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture…
Phew. You see how things are getting A LOT more complicated?
The outcries for social justice are louder than ever thanks to the internet and virality. In particular, celebrities, due to being under the microscope of fame, frequently are left defending or apologizing for the way they dress or portray themselves. They’re frequently offending someone.
Cultural appropriation is likened to theft. The stealing of tradition, style, music… without acknowledging where these ideas stem their roots from.
In an era where the whole world is connected and cultures are messily coming together on a regular basis, this concept has created extreme movements and sometimes ludicrous demands.
Yes. You heard me… yet again, our generation has taken things too far.
Here are a few examples of extremity that beg the questions — When does the fight for equality stop doing good? Is our quest to defend cultures and lineage in fact doing quite the opposite? Are we actually becoming racist in an ironic way, towards the majority?
In Canada, Editors Lost their Jobs after Defending their Opinion
The then-was editor for Write magazine, Hal Niedzviecki, lost his job. He wrote a piece saying that white authors should be allowed to create characters from indigenous or minority backgrounds.
Moved by Hal’s conquest to defend literary mastermind’s ability to create powerful fictional characters who are unlike them, Jonathan Kay of The Walrus defended the article. He was then “compelled to stepdown” for his opinion.
CBC felt it was necessary to move Steve Ladurantaye, the editor of The National, to a new post when he also showed his support of Hal’s opinion. Ouch.
Can we talk about this for a second?
As an avid reader, I’ve read multiple works of fiction where the author and myself don’t identify with the main character’s origins. Haven’t you?
Canadian born Lawrence Hill, for example, wrote one of the most compelling and inspirational books I’ve ever read in 2007: “The Book of Negroes”… The story follows Aminata Diallo and her trouble-fraught life after her abduction from her West Africa village at the age of eleven.
It’s a beautiful book. And while Mr. Hill (who was born in Ontario, Canada) has a black father, it’s hard to argue that he can fully identify with the main character’s culture and origins.
How boring our literary landscape would be if authors were forced to stick to only what they know? If we were constantly forced to read re-hashed biography like content… we wouldn’t have the majority of literature’s most beautiful pieces.
Artists Have Destroyed and Dismantled Pieces that Could Have Been Part of History
Dana Schutz, a white artist, painted a piece that was so powerful it was chosen by New York’s Whitney Museum for its Biennial Exhibition. It depicted a tragic moment in history when 14 year old Emmett Till was murdered by two white men in Mississippi, 1955.
Rather than be heralded for creating such a poignant image that resonated with the masses, Shutz’s piece was the forefront of an uprising lead by British artist Hannah Black. She organized a petition to have it destroyed.
How dare someone white paint the mutilated corpse of a black person to commemorate our mistakes in history. Apparently, we are only supposed to identify with the white murderers.
The sculptor Sam Durant underwent similar scrutiny when he created the piece “Scaffold” — A sculpture honoring 38 Native Americans executed in 1862 in Minneapolis. After being badgered for committing cultural appropriation, Durant dismantled the piece.
It seems the only ones allowed to honor and remember history in an artistic way are those who can directly link their lineage to the event.
How are we supposed to grow and develop as a culture if we are stifling our artists and forward thinkers from expressing themselves?
Fashion and Popular Culture Can No Longer Be Influenced by Outside Perspectives
The most common and current way we see cultural appropriation upheavals depicted is by rage against popular celebrities.
The Jenner sisters are wearing cornrows again without acknowledging its origins. Justin Bieber wore his hair in dreadlocks. Beyonce was influenced by Indian culture for her music video. Vanessa Hudgens wore a dreamcatcher in her hair. Taylor Swift wore a tracksuit and flat brimmed hat with a boom box hoisted on her shoulder.
No one can escape the criticism.
If everyone is doing it wrong… is our definition of wrong, well, wrong?
North America is a melting pot. There are people of every race, color, and background living in a hectic commercialized landscape that’s hard to navigate.
I don’t understand why we can’t all identify with each other anymore. Why our movement towards segregation is drawing us farther away from sharing and exchanging?
I’m all for understanding the roots of an idea. There is a problem when a concept is taken and claimed as “trendy” or “new” or “revolutionary” when its origins stem from another culture. But can we not still share nicely? Why must white people only wear what other cultures dub as white people clothes and hairstyles?
When is it Too Far
Cultural appropriation is real. The question isn’t about its existence or relevancy. But when is it bad? Where is the line between social justice and social indecency for those who advocate its movement?
The fact is, the movement has even caused bouts of violence. Recently, a Hampshire College student was charged with assault after resorting to physical violence when a white player on the opposing team had braids in her hair. I struggle to understand what constructive purpose this had for the social justice movement.
We are dismantling art, prohibiting writers from creating certain characters, and resorting to violence if we disagree with someones hair.
To me, this seems like backwards momentum.
What’s your opinion? Do you agree or disagree? I want to be enlightened. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.