Is it Cultural Mis-Appropriation? A Handy Guide

Find out if what you’re doing is cultural misappropriation in 7 questions or less.

A group I am a part of recently had a social justice warrior cry “cultural misappropriation!!!” on a dearly-held tradition of theirs. Unsure of what to do, this group stopped doing the “offensive act” altogether. Years of their tradition immediately ceased because one person felt some minor offense.

Needless to say, I am annoyed. I won’t go into it in great detail right here, but below the 7-question quiz is a list of scenarios to try out the quiz with. I will list the offending act in among them and you can come to your own conclusions on whether or not it is cultural misappropriation.

Is it Cultural Misappropriation? Find Out in 7 Questions or Less:

1. Is someone calling you out on mis-appropriation?

  • Yes. See question 2
  • No. See question 2 or do nothing.

2. Is what you’re doing come from a culture other than your own?

  • Yes. See question 3.
  • No. It’s not mis-appropriation.
  • I don’t know. If you can find out more about and object or a practice that is meaningful to you, do. See question 1.

3. Are you considered the dominant culture over the culture that whose object or practice you are using?

  • Yes. See question 4.
  • No. It’s not mis-appropriation.
  • I don’t know. If you are not sure, then this is a difficult question to answer. If it’s not obvious where one culture stands in relation to another, and it is a practice or an object that is meaningful to you, I suggest doing research. See question 4.

4. Is the object or practice that you are using considered sacred to that culture?

  • Yes. See question 5.
  • No. It’s not mis-appropriation.
  • I don’t know. If you are not sure, and the practice or object is meaningful to you, I suggest doing research. See question 5.

5. Are you using the object or practice in the context it was originally meant to be used, with a sincere wish to learn about another culture, and under the supervision of someone who would be considered a leader or native teacher of that cultural practice?

  • Yes. It’s not mis-appropriation.
  • No. See question 6.
  • I don’t know. If you are not sure, and the practice or object is meaningful to you, I suggest doing research. Skip to question 7.

6. Are you over-simplifying, caricaturing, or making a joke about a cultural object or practice?

  • Yes. It’s mis-appropriation, and you should consider ceasing your use of that object or practice. You can keep using it, but everyone’s going to think you’re an asshole.
  • No. It’s not mis-appropriation.
  • I don’t know. It is unclear if the object or practice that you are using is cultural mis-appropriation or not. If the practice or object is meaningful to you, I suggest doing research to understand better. If it is a practice or object that has no meaning to you, consider dropping it.

7. Are you over-simplifying, caricaturing, or making a joke about a cultural object or practice?

  • Yes. It’s mis-appropriation, and you should consider ceasing your use of that object or practice. You can keep using it, but everyone’s going to think you’re an asshole.
  • No. It is unclear if the object or practice that you are using is cultural mis-appropriation or not. You answered “I don’t know” to the previous question, and if the practice or object is meaningful to you, I suggest doing research. If it is a practice or object that has no meaning to you, consider dropping it.
  • I don’t know. It is unclear if the object or practice that you are using is cultural mis-appropriation or not. If the practice or object is meaningful to you, I suggest doing research. If it is a practice or object that has no meaning to you, consider dropping it.

What this really comes down to is having the desire to learn about other cultures, doing your research, and listening to real people that live in the cultures that you are drawing your object or practices from. Tread especially carefully when sacred traditions are involved.

I think that a special case should be made for art, music, theatre, dance, and satire, but I’m not prepared to defend that claim at this time.

See? Simple.

And please, SJW’s—pick your battles. Ugh.

Scenarios:

All the people in each scenario are from the USA unless otherwise stated.

  1. Carly is 1/16 Cherokee and is going to a Halloween party dressed as a sexy War Chief with a headdress.
  2. Carly is going to a Halloween party dressed as a geisha. She spent a lot of time learning about geishas ahead of time, including watching video on how to apply the makeup, do the hair, assemble the garb, and tie the obi.
  3. Carly dresses as a witch for Halloween.
  4. Ben is going to a Halloween party dressed as a stereotypical Mexican with a sombrero, poncho, and thick mustache.
  5. Ben is going to a Halloween party as a terrorist wearing a vest of fake red bombs, and the traditional religious garb of a man from the Islamic faith.
  6. Susan goes to Chipotle to enjoy a burrito.
  7. Susan enjoys some Japanese tea at a trendy restaurant that features tea ceremonies.
  8. Charles is an Englishman learning Scottish folk dancing.
  9. Charles is learning Native American Pow Wow dancing at the YMCA.
  10. Catherine takes yoga classes at the YMCA.
  11. Catherine is an atheist Englishwoman married to an Indian man. She wears a bindi in India while visiting his family.
  12. George a white man is wearing blackface in the Shakespeare play “Othello”.
  13. George is a white man, and is part of a multi-race, multi-religious theatre group that sings the traditional black spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” before every show.
  14. George is a white man that wears dreadlocks, red-yellow-green striped floppy hat, and likes playing and singing reggae songs.
  15. Sarah wants to seek new religious experiences and tries out the sweat lodge experience being offered at a new-age resort.
  16. Steve has Irish ancestry. On St. Paddy’s day he drinks green beer, and dresses up like St. Paddy with a fake beard and a bishops’s hat.
  17. A sports team calls themselves the Fighting Irish and their logo is a mean-looking leprechaun.
  18. A sports team calls themselves the War Chiefs and their logo is a mean-looking Native American with a headdress on.
  19. Paul, a non-jewish Christian re-enacts the Jewish passover feast every week because Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me”.
  20. A famous american pop-star shoots their music video “with Asian women dressed up in matching outfits and the star is eating Asian food while dressed in a pink tutu.” [1]
  21. A local black American artist visits a small village in Africa. Inspired, she releases a new art collection featuring the patterns and colors she discovered on her trip.
  22. A group of talented white performers put on a belly dancing show at a local theatre festival.

What are your answers to these scenarios? Would you like me to add more attributes to a scenario in order to help make a decision? Do you have scenarios to add? Place your questions, answers and comments in comment area below “further reading”.

Further Reading

Here are a smattering of quotes from various articles I read on the topic. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with what is being said in them, but I did find them interesting.

Wikipedia: Cultural appropriation

“Proponents of cultural appropriation view it as often benign or mutually beneficial, citing mutation, product diversity, technological diffusion, and cultural empathy as among its benefits.”

“Critics of the practice of cultural appropriation contend that divorcing this iconography from its cultural context or treating it as kitsch risks offending people who venerate and wish to preserve their cultural traditions.”

[1] “I love Japanese culture and I spend half of my time in Japan. I flew to Tokyo to shoot this video…specifically for my Japanese fans, WITH my Japanese label, Japanese choreographers AND a Japanese director IN Japan.” —Avril Lavigne

The Atlantic: The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation

“…in the morning and pull on a vintage cotton kimono. … I make coffee with a Bialetti stovetop espresso maker … pull on an embroidered floral blouse I bought at a roadside shop in Mexico or a stripey marinière-style shirt—originally inspired by the French, … my favorite purple pajama pants, a souvenir from a friend’s trip to India. I may wear Spanish straw-soled espadrilles (though I’m not from Spain) or Bahian leather sandals (I’m not Brazilian either) and top it off with a favorite piece of jewelry, perhaps a Navajo turquoise ring (also not my heritage).”

“No matter how much I love cable-knit sweaters and Gruyere cheese, I don’t want to live in a world where the only cultural inspiration I’m entitled to comes from my roots in Ireland, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.”

“In a recent video that went viral, the African American actress Amandla Stenberg’s offered an eloquent discourse on the complex cultural context of cornrows. But the real problem at Valentino was not the hair; it was the conspicuous absence of women of color on the runway. ”

In the comment section:

“Pushing for cultural purity already has a name: its called racism. You’ve heard the word before, now you know what it means: wanting to preserve the purity of our artificial divisions. Changing the name doesnt make it magically become more progressive. Its still just racism.”

“no culture is an island and over eons of civilization every culture has borrowed from their neighbors and with whom they trade.”

“A far greater modern tragedy than “cultural appropriation” is that traditions of language, music, arts and crafts, etc. are rapidly being lost to the overwhelming homogenization of global capitalism, abandoned by choice by their own ethnic groups. Take a look at a book like “Africa Adorned” and you see extraordinary jewelry and fibre traditions, now supplanted by cheap western t-shirts and shorts. No one forced tribes to abandon their cultural arts. It’s just cheaper and easier to buy western stuff than to make one’s own.”

Everyday Feminism: What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm

“But now that you know that popularizing “ethnic” food can be one way to harm a group of people while taking from their traditions, you can think about ways to satisfy your international food cravings without participating in that harm.” <— and just how in the fuck are we supposed to do that?

“Sam Phillips, the record executive who discovered Elvis, summed it up when he apparently said, ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'”

Comparing Pocahontas with Anne Frank “They’re both girls with harrowing stories. But more of us believe that trivializing Anne Frank’s life is in very poor taste. Can you imagine the outcry if Disney tried to romanticize her diary by aging her into a young woman with a love affair with a Nazi officer and a happy ending? Now imagine if that Disney movie was mainstream culture’s primary reference for the Holocaust. And if it was marketed to Germans, who were told that the historical figures who oppressed the Jewish people were their country’s heroes.”

“That’s what the commercialization of yoga is doing to South Asian people today – increasing white people’s access, while continuing to take it away from people who had to fight to keep it alive in the first place. Barkataki also says that this doesn’t mean white people can’t practice yoga. But if you’re doing it in a way that contributes to excluding Indian people from it, prioritizing white practitioners’ desires over South Asian people’s needs, or making white people the image of yoga, you’re part of the problem.”

Everyday Feminism: 7 Ways of ‘Honoring’ Other Cultures That Are Really Just Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural appropriation, on the other hand, would look like buying “Navajo-inspired” designs, imitations of South Asian accessories, and decorations labeled “Japanese” from Urban Outfitters. You buy it because it looks cool, and the only people who benefit are you and the corporation that’s mass-producing these items for a profit.”

“This often happens with dances that begin in Black communities. A few years ago, it happened when (mostly non-Black) people took over YouTube with videos of what they called ‘the Harlem Shake.'”

“Food stamps for a week, a fat suit for an afternoon, a wheelchair for a day – it’s pretty common these days for people in positions of privilege to “try on” marginalized people’s experiences to see what their lives are like … What’s worse is that it’s insulting for you to claim you can understand someone else’s experience this way. You’re putting the attention on yourself, and prioritizing your voice instead of listening to the countless people who are out there sharing about their own experiences.”

“You can avoid appropriation by listening to the people whose culture you want to participate in.”

Image Source: Parker Knight

One thought on “Is it Cultural Mis-Appropriation? A Handy Guide

Leave Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s