Oct 8, 2016

Happy Halloween! (Actually a post where I try (mostly unsuccessfully) to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation.)

I have been trying to wrap my head around the idea of cultural appropriation for a few Halloweens now (since that's when the controversy seems to come up the most often). I've read persuasive arguments on both sides, and I've tried to express my thoughts about it in the past, with little success. But here I am, undeterred, trying again. Happy Halloween!

Maybe it's because I don't have a particularly strong sense of my own cultural heritage (beyond really appreciating the German food my dead maternal grandmother used to make - throw a cinnamon stick into your chicken noodle soup the next time you make some), but I think that the idea of maintaining different cultures in our increasingly global society is inherently divisive and ultimately harmful, rather than accepting and inclusive. 

In my utopian vision, interracial relationships have created a world where it is impossible to ask anyone, "What are you?" Races, and therefore cultures, are so diluted that there is no single identifier of someone's background. I believe that when we can't immediately see an "other," we will be able to stop focusing on our differences and instead embrace the things we share as human beings.   

"Cultural appropriation of ceremonies and objects removes and distorts these traditions and things from their original contexts and into gross caricatures that are a slap in the face to the original practitioners of the ceremonies, with complete disregard for the history and present day reality of oppression" (https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation).

Again, maybe it's because I don't have any particular religious affiliation, but I don't see anything as sacred, especially not physical objects. A symbol or artifact may be sacred to you, but that doesn't mean it has to have the same meaning for me, and for you to insist that it does seems egotistical. I don't think my lack of recognition should have any impact at all on how you view that same thing (your headdress, for example, or your crucifix, or your tattoo). I can respect your beliefs and customs without having to believe in them myself. A belief, by definition, is something in which you have faith or trust - it is not an absolute truth or a tangible thing. I can't take a belief away from you. (I'm not going to piss on a statue in the Vatican, but I'm also not going to bow my head and thank Jesus for his sacrifice.)   

Appropriating something can certainly change its meaning (hello, swastika), but I don't think that change itself is intrinsically negative. I believe in learning from the past, but not in being stuck there. Progress or perish (writes the girl without a cell phone). And, yes, maybe that's easy for me to say because I have not personally experienced cultural discrimination. We can never truly know what it is like to live in another person's skin, but that's what literature is for. I've read too many books with Jewish or black or indigenous protagonists to be able to flippantly say, "Get over it already," but I do think it is important to deal with past trauma and try to move forward in a positive way.   

I can't think of a single example of appropriation where one culture took something from another culture that they didn't find value in, either aesthetically or emotionally or spiritually or practically. Yoga, rap, beaded jewelry, rock and roll, dreadlocks, denim, tea, tapas - none of these things were popularized because other people thought they weren't worthwhile. 

"Once diverse cultural identities are stripped away, the only culture left to identify with is capitalist culture" (https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/cultural-appreciation-or-cultural-appropriation).

I have read arguments like the one above that suggest that it is the commodification of these culturally specific things that is the problem, the idea that the dominant culture is taking these things from the oppressed peoples and trivializing them by making them something to be bought and sold. Unfortunately, that is the world we live in now; materialism is unavoidable. But that doesn't mean that the appropriated things themselves are trivial, it doesn't negate their original (and still culturally important) meaning, and it certainly doesn't negate their worth to either originator or appropriator, even if those values are different. 

I know that oppression still exists in the world, but I also think that there is currently an unfortunate trend to see oppression where it does not exist, to impose a perspective that creates oppression rather than frees us from it, and that this trend is actually preventing us from moving forward as a global community. 

I don't think cultural identities will be "stripped away." I think they will become more diffuse, maybe, integrated, but I don't think that's bad. I think it will help the world in the end. As a united group of Earthlings, I wish we could take the things that are positive and beautiful and beneficial and reject cultural aspects that are violent or oppressive or antiquated. There is no culture that does not have both. 

(Who will decide which is which? Whoever has the biggest guns, I guess.)

So, since my utopian vision is unlikely to be realized anytime soon, in the meantime we should all try to be a little nicer to each other, to respect our differences, to try not to get too worked up when someone doesn't know everything about everything (learning is a process - remember that once you thought it was totally cool to sit in your own feces), and to realize that we're all pretty much the same when you scrape off the skin. 

Ah well, and riot on.