Thursday, July 9, 2009

Language Disconnect: Appropriation vs. Assimilation

So I read somewhere, I can't remember where, "The Japanese do not appropriate, they assimilate".

This meant, of course, a Great Long Think on what the difference is.

No one can yet define what cultural appropriation is, but from the discussions I've seen, it's a common theme that appropriation happens when a dominant culture takes a cultural artifact from a minority (or subordinate) culture, strips it of its meaning and takes it on as part of its own cultural identity. Hence why, in this day and age of globalisation and underlying fear of white supremacy, minorities are holding their heritages tight to themselves, wondering how much they should share, and if they do, whether the dominant culture appreciates it or sees it as just another source of empty amusement.

This is, of course, the issue of cultural appropriation from my point of view. There have been many discussions on this very fraught topic, for example at Racialicious, What Tami Said, and the Angry Black Woman. The threads are long, exhausting, but ultimately, demonstrate some the problems that PoC have with appropriation.

But cultural assimilation? I had no clue what that meant. I assumed, based on the context I originally read it in, that it meant that one's heritage took a backstage and took on the cultural artifacts of a dominant culture. I didn't understand why it would happen.

Here's some stuff from Wikipedia:
Cultural assimilation is the adoption by an individual of some or all aspects of a dominant culture. Cultural assimilation is a process of socialization. It can be a voluntary process, but can also sometimes be the result of involuntary political decisions.
...
A group (a state or an ethnicity) can spontaneously adopt a different culture due to its political relevance, or to its perceived superiority. The first is the case of the Latin language and culture, that were gradually adopted by most of the subjugated people.
So far, so good. But didn't explain to me how far an imperialistic culture could stretch, to what extent it could dominate, and, more importantly, why.

Today, I found this: an abstract for the German Anthropological Association Conference, in which assimilation is described thusly:
The term assimilation refers to the selective adoption of cultural imports, in which the adopted ideas or things are adapted to customary life ways and accorded with alternating meanings. In contrast to such forms of cultural nostrification, adaptation to dominant orders results in a break with a group’s own traditions, which – insofar as this break fails – often sparks attempts at retraditionalisation. Finally, the term camouflage highlights a strategy in which external demands are only apparently complied with, so that actors can secure sufficient latitude to pursue traditional goals.
Now, a commenter in my Racialicious thread had mentioned about Japanese steampunks taking on Victorian clothing while still maintaining Japanese rituals, behaviour, and ideals. I refused to touch discussions of Japanese subcultural expressions because I know little to nothing about them. But it seems to me that this quote is perhaps the most relevant quote I've ever come across on the matter.

Of course, it means very little because I don't actually know what the context of the quote, nor what "cultural nostrification" means. But it does make some sense. The other terms being discussed at the conferences, Adaptation and Camoflage, look just as tantalizing to this egghead here.

I asked on Twitter what the difference between appropriation and assimilation is, and I got: 'the former steals, the latter effaces'.

Which sounds as bad as each other, because to efface is to "wipe out", to "erase".... to be self-effacing is to withdraw one's self. What does it mean, to assimilate? Who assimilates? What are the power dynamics involved in assimilation?

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