Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Dichotomy of Cultural Appropriation

Mike is an 18 year female to male transman. He is currently studying psychology at The Evergreen State College between making quilts. He someday aspires to be a social worker, and in the mean time, he wants to fix the fact that not everyone is born with an inherent right to be themselves.

Cultural appropriation is the ultimate dichotomy. The conqueror or oppressor says that a group of people are worthless, that they are less than human and don’t deserve equal rights. The oppressors strip these people of their rights, their dignity, and often, their culture. At the same time, this isn’t good enough for the conquerors. The culture that these people have created and the fruits of their labor are frequently bastardized and pulled into the culture of the oppressors. What remains is often a shell or husk of the beliefs and art of the people who created the culture. Western culture takes what they see to be the best elements of a culture and they take credit for it, because surely anything they do is far superior to the efforts of people in other cultures.

This is the start of the dichotomy. The culture and art has been created by the oppressed people. It is created by them as it in turn creates them, developed over decades, centuries, or millennia. Surely, if the culture that has been created is worth valuing, worth adding to our own culture, the culture of the oppressor, then the people who created it have value. They are worth honoring and respecting. It is amazingly illogical, really, to devalue a culture and call it barbaric, while simultaneously claiming elements of a culture to incorporate into our own. It cannot be simultaneously barbaric and worth adding to our own culture.

Until people of different cultures, different races, can be respected, there should be no stealing their toys. Foods from different cultures might be tasty and fantastic, but they are not ours to borrow. This is especially true when people are mocked for eating those same foods, where they are valued less simply for the food that they are using to nourish their body. It should be impossible to steal something from a culture while simultaneously mock people from that culture for partaking in the stolen bit of culture, and yet somehow, this is exactly what happens so frequently in American culture. It seems to me as if most Americans are like toddlers raiding their parents’ closet, completely trashing whatever they pick up in the process, no matter how valuable or beautiful.

In the end, people and cultures have an inherent value. There is nothing wrong with wanting to learn about a culture, to experience the different aspects, as long as there are people willing to teach and share and the students can be respectful. It is human nature to be curious about new and different things, and learning about a culture can actually lead to more respect. It does no good to be greedy and devalue the culture and disrespect the people. Culture is not something to be taken at random, something to be torn and ripped by greedy fingers, morphed until it is unrecognizable. It is something to be respected, something to be treasured because it gives variety and meaning to life.

It is not that difficult, after all, to not appropriate from different cultures. The main difference between appropriation and appreciation has two elements. The first is one of historical and current context. Dominating a culture and oppressing the people is one of the things that leads very easily to cultural appropriation. It is the sense that other cultures are property for the taking, while the people themselves do not need to be respected. It is impossible to truly appreciate something without appropriating it when the people who live in and create the culture are being systematically devalued. For example, when someone from India is made fun of for the food they eat at school, while an Americanized version of that food is sold in restaurants and celebrated, that is cultural appropriation. Appreciation, on the other hand, is going to someone who belongs to a particular culture and asking them to teach you about it. It is very important that this request not be a demand or in any way a power struggle (because that would be appropriation again) and instead be out of a place of respect for the person and the culture that they live in and grew up in. In essence, the difference comes down to a matter of choice. If the people of a culture are willingly sharing the pieces of that culture with people who want to understand and respect the culture without changing it, that is appreciation. If, on the other hand, there is force involved in the transactions, it becomes appropriation.