Cultural Appropriation?

There has been a surprising increase lately in conversations (or online shouting matches) about the horror of cultural appropriation; usually these derail into fantastical examples of Godwin’s Law and leave the rest of us to scratch our heads in disbelief.

Now a quick dip into Wikipedia shows that cultural appropriation is generally defined as the “adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of elements of a non-dominant culture by members of the dominant culture” and that this is a bad thing because it [cultural appropriation] “differs from acculturation or assimilation in that “appropriation” or “misappropriation” commonly refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner.

Now, I am a stern advocate that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, and as such, it is important to note that for many years it was considered perfectly normal for “the imitator, “who does not experience […] oppression […] to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures” and that this was, at that time, inexcusable and downright wrong.

Of course there is a fascinating and full article on the subject, including examples from art, iconography and adornment on wikipedia, and I encourage you to check it out.

That being said, in today’s global world, most of us are doing our very best to not be “colonial” “culturally dominant” or “oppressive”, but rather inclusive and equal. Do we still have major problems with racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia? Absolutely! But I sincerely believe that we’re not going to solve those problems by creating more artificial divides.

Most people living in the Americas for example, have multi cultural backgrounds, whether they actively acknowledge that or not. The majority of the people living on those continents are the descendants of immigrants, who arrived either voluntarily and forced since the 1600’s, but either way, the chances of anyone being able to trace their roots back through just one culture  and one country until records go no more is almost impossible.

Of course we can not forget what happened in history, but I refuse to succumb to historic guilt. I deliberately say “historic guilt” instead of “white guilt” because if I had to apologize for the sins of every culture I descend from, I would never leave the house for shame. I was not there. I didn’t do it. I will not be guilted.

dressI myself am half German and half Irish (with the right to a British Passport since my Mum was born in Northern Ireland), and that’s just the parts I know about. Chances are if I dig into my family tree some more, I will find immigrants from yet more cultures on either side; for example I’ve been told that my Irish family tree has been traced back as far as the vikings. So I guess that also makes me part Norse? My husband is another brilliant example, his father is a white Canadian with family ties leading back to European roots most of those, with exception of the French ties, are unknown to us; and his mother’s family are Asian. Our children will (at the very least) be German, Irish, British, French, Asian-Canadians … now which culture are they expected to settle on?

That being said, what inspired me to even think about this very sensitive topic, is the recent case of several famous music festivals in Canada banning the wear of indigenous feathered headdresses. I can’t help but disagree with the decision and many people have already labelled me a clueless racist for it. (Which in and of itself is racist by the way.) I don’t disagree with it because I don’t appreciate how culturally valuable the headdress is, or from some sort of ignorant disregard for the ongoing unbelievably poor treatment of Native Americans and Canadians, but because I refuse to see one culture as more valuable than another. There, I said it.

In todays society, I do not find it appropriate to cry cultural appropriation, a very clearly negative accusation, when someone wears a feathered headdress, dreadlocks or a sari, while at the same time it’s 1) perfectly fine to dress up as a sexy German bar wench at Halloween, 2) wear green & get stociously drunk while pretending to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day and 3) celebrate Chinese New Year with cheap fortune cookies and chopsticks in one’s hair.

Yeah… those are a thing….

All cultures are special. All cultures are unique. All cultures deserve to be respected. And in my personal opinion there is no one culture who is more important or more entitled to “protection” than  another. Which is why it is almost impossible to draw a line of what is “permitted” and what isn’t. Cultures are not property. They do not belong to only one group and if they did, we would have an incredibly hard time dictating global rules for what can and can’t be worn/displayed/enjoyed etc.

Let’s just presume for a moment that cultures were actually treated s property, the property of those who belong to that culture. How would we go about that? Well for starters we would have to forbid the wearing of ANY and ALL cultural dress, if you can not prove that you are part of that culture. No Dirndl or Lederhosen, no Irish dancing dresses or Aran Jumpers, no Berets, no Kilts, no Salsa Dresses, no Qipao, no Kimono, no Sombrero … and on and on it goes. (There’s a comprehensive list of international cultural attire here: Where does it stop? Where do we draw the line? Does it stop with cultural attire?

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 12.20.21 PMOf course not, since cultural appropriation also incorporates music. Yes music! Can you imagine a world where instruments are segregated? Only Europeans are allowed to play the guitar and the piano, almost any “classical” instrument for that matter; bodhrans are reserved only for the Irish, bagpipes for the Scottish, cajòns for Peruvians and the Didgeridoo only for indigenous Australians. (Who own’s computer and techno music then, by the way? Just out of curiosity…)

The next big one of course is religion and spirituality. If we are going to say that one religion or spiritual branch is more sacred and valuable than the other, and that it’s practises and symbols (such as the feathered headdress) are not to be worn or used by other cultures, well then we have a problem that dates back thousands of years and needs to have an end put to right now. (<- sarcasm)

treeIf you are not a christened Christian: no decorative crosses, easter celebrations or Christmas for you. While we’re at it, there should probably also not be any non Celtic Shamans or pagans, if one is not Asian is some way then Buddhism is not for them either, and of course there can’t be any Islam, Judaism or Hinduism outside of their own respective countries, cultures and races. Needless to say this would also mean no Yoga, Reiki, hot stone massage, Thai massage, acupuncture or herb-lore outside of their own respective boundaries either.

Am I the only one who sees how stupid that sounds?

We are a GLOBAL world. Yes, we have shared a past that is overflowing with racism, xenophobia, cultural crimes, atrocities and more but we are not going to heal these wounds and stop them from ripping open again, by continuing down a path of cultural segregation.

We need to work on our tact – absolutely. I know that it can be hurtful seeing someone taking something special to your culture and just messing with it as if it were a play-thing.

For me personally it’s not the headdress, but it’s exhausting to hear the Irish be the punchline to every drunk joke; seeing the whole world get putridly intoxicated on March 17th pretending to be oh so very Irish by being belligerently inebriated (thanks for that stereotype) while completely ignoring the very deep and dark history of the named St. Patrick himself.

It’s embarrassing to see people squeeze themselves into cheap and flimsily made Dirndl costumes or imitation Lederhosen for the other big annual European piss up, Oktoberfest. Those are both a very old and interesting cultural dress, expensive to make and to own, and yet they are only ever used as the “bavarian bar wench & her boyfriend” costume when Oktoberfest rolls around. Show of hands for anyone who actually knows the history of this event? … … …

Thought so… for those who care to know, it started as a royal wedding, with adjoining horse races and beer and wine tastings, that ended up getting repeated as an anniversary and cultural celebration in the same filed (named after the bride) every year there after and evolved ever further. Today it even concludes with celebrations of the day of German reunification …  but thats okay, who cares as long as we can all get drunk, right? *eyeroll* History this way ->

Of course there are so many more examples such as Chinese New Year being celebrated around the world with oh so many stereotypes (as already mentioned) as well as the world having a surprising amount of bagged and tagged stereotypes (not good ones at that) for the French.

But with all of this in mind, do I want to ban any of it? OF COURSE NOT! How is anyone going to learn the true history of St. Patrick, Oktoberfest, the Chinese Lunar Calendar and Bastille Day if we don’t have open conversations about them? The Claddagh, the Dirndle, the Qipao and the Eiffel Tower aren’t just symbols and adornments, they have history and meaning. History and meaning that is best shared, learned about and appreciated.

I sincerely believe that all cultures deserve to be maintained, kept alive, appreciated, admired and most importantly respected and that also means sharing them with others, so that our beliefs, our ideologies, our songs, our foods, and our languages do not become forgotten bygones.

The future is in a cultural equilibrium not in cultural segregation.

So no, even though I think we need to have a serious conversation about respect and appreciation, I really don’t believe that outright banning the headdresses (or any other cultural anything for that matter) is the right move – at all.

I just hope that with this, I can spark some enlightening, helpful and maybe even multi cultural conversation.

As always, thanks for reading. Take care. xoxo