I have been asked to speak on Cultural Appropriation tomorrow; the act of a culture (often majority or dominant) absorbing cultural traits of an often less dominant culture into their own.
This has been a heated topic of discussion as of late. However I think that there is an underlying narrative which is more interesting than the superficial accusation of cultural appropriation.
To understand cultural appropriation we need to firstly question
- What is cultural appropriation
- Is it good or bad? Does it matter?
- If it isn’t bad, why do so many think it is so?; hence the need for further exploration
Cultural AppropriationCultural appropriation is the act of an often seemingly dominant culture taking on the cultural features of an often less dominant culture without acknowledging the culture in which they have absorbed these traits from. For example, Pharell Williams wearing a war bonnet; a European woman braiding her hair etc.
One topic to explore is as to why this differs from the appropriation of innovation. For example, our language is germanic / french in origin; our mathematical system is Indian; our seasonal fashion trends are Moorish; our music is heavily influenced by the blues; our clocks are Chinese in origin; Pythagorus’ theorem was used thousands of years prior in Egypt before Greece. Yet no-one bats an eyelid at the use of these innovations without credit to the innovators
Is it good or bad?Surely the appropriation of technological innovation is more important than easily observable traits? Yet we celebrate innovation under the banner of science and ingenuity.
Yet to many members of the public cultural appropriation is something to be crushed. Cultural appropriation creates societal stress ironically in areas of cultural diversity and in imitation, removes the identity of a people. Why the difference?
The difference lies in the power structure.
NarrativeThere is a narrative underlying the accusations of cultural appropriation and that is “Haven’t you taken enough?… When will you acknowledge us?”As I have said, it is the present and historical power structure which rings through these accusations. The notion that it is not a fair exchange. The ancestral arguments of people of the Indian diaspora “you used to mock the coconut oil in our hair and now it’s ok to use it?!” or the West Indians “you used to pull and slander our box braids and now you want to plait like us”For the last 400 years it has been anything but a fair exchange and this inequality is the foundation for the accusation of cultural appropriation. The sharing of cultural traits and ideas will always remain, but rightly it should be between two peoples who view each other in the same respect as they view themselves.
How cultural appropriation has effected the black community, specificallyThe English have had more contact with the Scots, Welsh, Irish and West African diaspora than any other people in the past 300 years. Barriers to language and religion are smaller between the British and the West African diaspora than say, the other descendants of the commonwealth.
Equally, never has there been such a divide in power between two people. The scale of tyranny inflicted on us is unequal to any other group in history when we consider the souls who perished, were enslaved, tortured and demeaned over a length of time.
The nature of this demeaning yet proximal relationship is a recipe for cultural appropriation which very clearly says “we want one or two aspects of you… but not you at all”.
In other words, we want to listen to your music but not with you. We want to dress like you but not around you. We want to dance like you but not in the places you go to.
A complete absence of respect and a refusal to see the people behind what is superficially desired.
The solution? To see each other as equals. Let culture exchange as it has done for multiple millennia. But to do so, takes time and effort akin to as if the entire nation were to go to therapy. Work out our conflict and walk away from the table as friends and as equals with all of our beautiful differences intact.
Yet equally, our culture is worth more than its superficial features. You can’t imitate the fire of revolution, the cry for freedom, the mouth that has spoken truth to power for half a millennia, the ingenious blend of African drums of your lineage and the wind instruments of those who oppressed you with the staggered beat and poetic, revolutionary lyrics of love that is reggae. You can’t appropriate the love that my Nanna poured into her cooking, nor the rich literature that comes from the diaspora. You can’t imitate the cocktail of love, grief and celebration at your funerals nor the tough yet nurturing love of a Jamaican household. Your village can’t raise a child because it doesn’t have 1000s of years of practice. These aren’t things that can be appropriated and for good reason… they’re the most important parts.
As we see from the comment section on the clips that were posted. Many ignored what I said and instead accused me of being poorly pronunciated, ghetto-ised, called me a “half caste” and assumed my narrative without listening to what I actually said.
Why would I care if someone wears their hair in a certain style or Jessy Nelson’s appearance when the underlying narratives provide a statistically significant effect on my health, likelihood of my wife surviving childbirth, my ability to get a job etc.
If we can work to understand and address the deeper racist narratives which are at play, we can celebrate appreciation rather than form a battleground around appropriation
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