Cultural Appropriation: The Illusion of "The Line"

Recently, I wrote a piece called Countering Victorientalism, which has garnered quite a bit of attention. It does, of course, deal with cultural appropriation, because that was what the Orientalist movement was all about - commodifying Asian stuff and bringing it to Europe to prettify the lives and homes of Europeans who may or may not have visited "the Orient." 

Yes, it is a fascinating topic, which is why I'm talking about it here! Because I am both victim and perpetrator of the systems that support cultural appropriation. I can't advocate for either side, because like, you, I don't know enough, and like you, I, too, have questions!

.... Except the questions I foresee getting, repeatedly, is this: Where is the line between appropriation and appreciation?

Short answer: I don't know.

Longer answer: There is no line. There are reasons why this is a debate and why it is tied into systemic racism and other forms of oppression. There are reasons why we talk about this and share our experiences, so we can all see where each other is coming from. 

Ownership of our culture by minorities in white-dominant cultures is an ongoing process of negotiation, re-negotiation, and sometimes, downright possessiveness because some folks simply do not respect our culture and just want pieces of it to make their own personal lives "fabulous."

Cultural appropriation isn't just relegated to things, but also performances - blackface, yellowface, and brownface all play into the system that allows appropriation, forcing us to be minstrels for the entertainment of a greater white audience. It is also about spaces, where what might be a space for marginalized folks must make way for dominant parties, because.... what, everyone has the right to go where they want to go? Appropriation strips us marginalized people of that ability to go where we want to go, while forcing us to accept that our own spaces will be taken over by the dominant group, and if we protest, we are rude and unkind and don't want to share, because, after all, how else will we break down the barriers of racism if we don't share more of ourselves?

Because of all these factors which permeate into so much of our lives, there is no way that there is a single line to say, "this is not appropriative". 

The goalposts always change as the power dynamics are constantly being renegotiated, between countries, between institutions, between groups, between individuals. This is why we have continual conversations, in multiple spaces, from many different angles. 

To ask "where is the line?" is to assume there is a solid answer, which is a fallacy, especially for something as complex as culture. Not only that, but it places the burden of education on someone who probably already has other problems to deal with besides you demanding how you can marginalized me a little bit less. 

Stop looking for this mystical "Line", and start listening to the actual people, folks. There are much better questions to ask.


  1. I can say with some certainty that for myself, "Firefly" falls on the wrong side of the proverbial line. It's garnering some attention as Steampunk since much of the aesthetic is rather Wild West and it's backstory involves China and America colonising space together. The resultant culture has Mandarin swearwords, geishas and beautiful oriental robes. However, none of the extras (let alone the main cast) are Asian in descent. It feels almost as though they're saying Chinese culture is only cool if it doesn't have Chinese people in it. It's as though we haven't moved forward from the 70s series "Kung Fu" (actually, we haven't, c.f. "Forbidden Kingdom").

    That said, I completely agree. Line is complicated, case-by-case basis sort of thing. It is incredibly likely that if someone didn't try to sell me "Firefly" as awesome steampunk in which Chinese culture plays an important role, I probably wouldn't be as annoyed by it. Instead, it might remain a mild irritation.


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