Cultural Appropriation? What’s That?
Cultural appropriation is a technical academic term, which can make this principle sound more complicated than it actually is. It’s the name for what happens when one culture picks up and takes over the creative ideas and symbols of another culture that doesn’t have as much political or social power.
It’s different from cultural exchange and multiculturalism. Cultural exchange has been around as long as there’s been culture and has lead to brilliant things like the English language and haggis pakora. Multiculturalism is a slightly more recent thing, and is about the political idea of having all sorts of different cultural groups co-existing in the same places without forcing everyone to adopt the same culture.
Why Are Some People Angry About Cultural Appropriation?
People don’t like cultural appropriation because of the power dynamics. It can keep marginalised cultures marginalised and entrench stereotypes. A cultural appropriation pattern often goes like this:
- Culture B discriminates against Culture A
- Culture A has a cool thing
- People from Culture B start adopting the cool thing to show how exotic and cool they are. Some of them might start making money from it too.
- People from Culture A continue to be discriminated against, sometimes even for doing their cool thing.
- Culture B say ‘we’re doing this to show how much we appreciate you!’
- Culture A doesn’t feel very appreciated, actually.
Appropriation can strip cultural symbols of their original context and reduce complex, intricate cultures to dressing up costumes. Think of it as insulting stereotyping, but with the painful twist that the privileged people appropriating the symbols get praise and recognition that the original culture just doesn’t.
Talking about cultural appropriation is not about policing what you can and can’t wear, it’s not about stopping people from being inspired by other cultures and it’s not about curtailing freedom of expression or forcing people to stay in their boxes. The conversation about cultural appropriation is about trying to be more thoughtful and considerate about using other people’s symbols, especially religious ones, and trying to make sure that the full context and meaning comes along with the symbol.
It’s also about starting to defuse the tangled web of racism in our society.
But I’m Not Racist! I’m A Eurofan!
No, of course you’re not. But our society is. And because our society has racism and discrimination built so deeply into it, it would do us all good to think about how our actions fit into this and how we can be more thoughtful about it, in an attempt to make society less racist in the future. That’s what we’re saying when we talk about cultural appropriation – it’s about how we can accommodate each other and make our entertainment and culture hurt other people less.
I can’t tell you hard and fast rules about what is and what isn’t cultural appropriation, but I can give you these questions to ask yourself when you’re looking at pop-culture & fashion from this point of view:
- Are garments from another culture being worn as an exoticised or sexualised dressing up costume?
- Is someone else’s religious symbol being used in a disrespectful manner?
- What is the original meaning of this garment/accessory/action/song/dance? What am I using it to mean?
- Is this making light of someone else’s historical suffering?
- Would I let someone put a photo of me wearing/doing this on public social media?
But What About…
Yes! What about the blues? We wouldn’t have modern pop music at all if it wasn’t for cultural appropriation. In the early years of the recording industry, white record producers went out to record black musicians all around the United States in order to capitalise on their unique sound because it was exotic to the rich white city dwellers who could afford the new musical technology.
These records crystallised in a relationship between the black musicians who supplied the creative content and the white producers who ended up making the money. Modern rock music, which let’s not forget is quite painfully white, male and middle class, is a product of this original appropriation. It doesn’t stop rock music being fun or enjoyable, but it’s an unavoidable factor in considering it.
What can you do about this? Well, if you’re a rock fan you can go back to the work of innovative black musicians – Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, the list goes on and on – and find out about them and give them their due.
Why Are We Talking About Cultural Appropriation In Eurovision?
Primarily because of Italy. Before I looked at what the lyrics meant, the video for ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ made me do a sharp intake of breath. Straightforward culture as a costume there, I thought. We’ve got a white guy in Buddhist robes doing tea ceremonies and mucking about with incense and shrines. And then, oh my god, he does a funny dance with a gorilla – a primate who through no fault of its own is used in racist caricatures.
But when you put it in context and look at the lyrics, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is actually about Western cultural appropriation – specifically the kind of orientalism that the West has been indulging in since Marco Polo apocryphally came back from China with noodles.
In the first verse, the lyrics talk about various forms of modern existential doubt (il dubbio amletico) but the pre-chorus and chorus talk about how the philosophically challenged Westerners are searching for meaning in the stories of their lives and they look to the thought systems of other cultures (Lezioni di Nirvana). Linking it into the idea of evolution stumbling and our animal nature emerging (la scimmia nuda balla) sort of muddies the waters, but once examined, the song places Francesco as playing the character of a Western idiot indulging in pick and mix cultural appropriation in order to satisfy his soul.
So ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is poking fun at cultural appropriation, which you can either view as a sly creative point, or an interesting way of being able to dress up in your fancy chinoiserie suit and stay on the right side of us social justice warriors.
People are concerned about cultural appropriation, not because it’s the biggest problem in the world right now, but because it’s an easy to tackle sign that we live in an ignorant society that doesn’t equally value all the cultures within it. By being more considerate about how we represent other cultures and use their iconography, we can start working towards a society where we can be free to share our cultures on an equal basis.
Further Reading And Resources
- Cochella’s Cultural Appropriation (Teen Vogue)
- An extensive collection of articles can be found at Everyday Feminism.
- What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong? (Thought Co)
- Native Appropriations is a forum for discussing representations of Native peoples, including stereotypes, cultural appropriation, news, activism, and more.
- Faking It: The Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music (Amazon)
- Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation (Amazon)