Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cultural Appropriation: Stuff vs. People

Following up on a discussion I had with a friend on Sandip Roy's article on culture quoted at Racialicious, I've been wondering about the whole issue of individual representation of a cultural group, individual contexts, and where the line is drawn.

As has been outlined, the problem with cultural appropriation isn't so much the problem that "white people" are wearing "our stuff". That's simplistic and problematic. Firstly, cultural borrowing happens all the time. Secondly, no one of us can speak on behalf of our entire cultures (which in themselves may be splintered).

I note that many Asians who do not live in America don't seem to have all this cultural angst over appropriation, and it tends to be Asian-Americans who are particularly possessive of cultural artifacts. Either that, or it's Asian-Americans who are most vocal about it. I think one of the main issues we non-Americans should keep in mind is that Asian-Americans have a hard time not being stereotyped. Stereotyping, of course, happens all over the world, but either we non-Americans can't see the forest for the trees (and they do) or we don't care or we've stopped caring about the effects.

They can't wear their own stuff, so to speak, and don't feel free to express their heritage and what it means to them, without being asked to strip themselves of it in favour of being American. Meantime, other Americans feel free to water down cultural artifacts for commercial use, or even just use it for their own personal reasons. This sort of assimilation isn't inherently bad, but it is problematic when Asian-Americans (et al) feel they can't even use their own stuff without feeling foreign. In fact, using their own stuff usually means they will be treated as foreign, Other-ing them further.

No one should have to feel foreign using their own cultural artifacts. I don't think it's too much to expect a little consideration for our American cousins in their trials to maintain/reclaim their heritage. I also don't think it's too much to admit that the efforts to break down stereotypes are immensely difficult. Which is why we keep a hand over our cultural artifacts - it's so that we have a cultural community to turn to for solidarity, which is really important, especially for people who feel lost in a cultural sea.

The problem doesn't really stem from other poeple using our stuff. It stems from a dominant group forcing us to efface our heritage, so that we will be acceptable, while they swipe stuff from our heritage for their own uses.

When we're really equal, and when we can wear our cultural clothing without being treated like foreigners, it's back to swapping stuff freely, because we'd know other people are cognizant of our humanity.

Until then, it can't hurt to be a little selfish.

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