So this has been bothering me for a while, and it seems to be building into a culture war climax on college campuses, Twitter feeds, and YouTube reaction videos everywhere. It’s the alleged scourge of “cultural appropriation.”
For those who haven’t been following, cultural appropriation is the act of members of one group adopting elements of another group’s culture, like white people using African American slang, or getting tattoos of Chinese characters. This is described as extremely offensive, and deeply harmful.
And although clearly everyone borrows from everyone else (just look at how many countries have “appropriated” jeans), an often-cited second part of the definition specifies that it only qualifies as cultural appropriation––or that it only matters––if the culture is taken by an oppressive group, from an oppressed group.
In other words, given the current balance of global economics and so forth, the entire planet can steal from white people, but white people can’t steal anything from anyone else.
Brushing aside the assumption that white people form a cohesive, monolithic group that’s all the same (while many often complain, correctly, that Africa’s many cultures shouldn’t be lumped together into a single group), it still doesn’t make any sense.
I was prompted to write this based on several things, but was finally pushed over the edge by a Persian-American woman shouting into a camera about how offensive it is to see “her” clothing worn on white skin. I’m choosing not to include the video, as I have no intentions of identifying specific people, and I expect she will eventually be deeply embarrassed by how hypocritical and contradictory it was. Because while she was busy shouting at white people for stealing Persian culture, she was busy stealing British culture, by wearing an Oxford shirt. In the video.
While it’s true that British (and American) administrations have done horrible things to Iran (AKA Persia), for which there is no reasonable excuse, part of the general understanding of cultural appropriation is that it’s offensive and unacceptable to appropriate elements of culture from historically oppressed groups. In other words, the oppression doesn’t need to be current. It can be from whenever.
If you payed any attention in history class, you’ll remember that Middle Eastern empires have repeatedly conquered and ruled over European territory for centuries, such as the Muslim conquest of Spain, or the Ottoman rule of pretty much all of southeastern Europe, including Greece, often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization. They even kidnapped the children of non-Muslim families and forced them into slavery to serve as the personal bodyguard of the sultan. If that’s not oppressive, nothing is.
As for Persia specifically, Persian dynasties conquered the Greek city states in Western Anatolia during the Achaemenid Dynasty, and later ruled over Greek-at-the-time Alexandria, the world’s greatest repository of human knowledge (and literally named after a white person), during the Sassanid era. Might as well throw in the Iranian hostage crisis, too.
I mean, come on, people. If you’re going to get ferociously upset that historically oppressive groups are “stealing your culture,” you’d better not be doing it while wearing clothing from a culture you’ve oppressed.
It gets worse. Not only are people hypocritically complaining about stolen clothing, but they’re also arguing about how “disrespectful” it is when the cafeteria at the Oberlin College was serving a “gross manipulation” of “traditional” Vietnamese food, by serving Banh Mi sandwiches on Italian ciabatta bread, rather than preparing it the correct way, which requires French baguettes.
Yes, the students were upset at how the “traditional” and “authentic” Vietnamese sandwich was being “culturally appropriated” when the dish itself is an example of cultural appropriation.
Even the word “sandwich” comes from Sandwich, England, which is allegedly the origin of the term in the first place. So even if Vietnam deserves a pass for being colonized by the French, which allows them to steal as many baguettes as they want, they still can’t eat or sell any sandwiches, because they’re from England. And remember, if you group every minor ethnicity of “white” into one big supergroup, then it’s also okay for white people to steal whatever Asian tradition they want, because the Mongols conquered Russia and Eastern Europe and brought the Black Death right along with them. See how self-contradictory this is?
It keeps going. Students also complained about inauthentic General Tso’s chicken, a dish virtually unheard of in China, even by the descendants of General Tso himself, and its origins remain controversial. So the dish itself is already inauthentic, and they were complaining about how inauthentic it was. Quick, someone tell the Italian students about Hawaiian pizza! And the French kids about California champagne! And the Russians about Texas vodka!
And while we’re on the subject of pizza, this is a good time to mention that pizza itself is culturally appropriated, because tomatoes came from the Americas, along with a million other things. They didn’t exist in Europe until after Columbus got lost and accidentally found a new continent or two. So no more pizza!
While we’re at it, we can’t drink beer anymore either, because it’s stolen it from the Middle East, along with wine. No more drinking ever again, people! It’s culturally insensitive!!!
Perhaps someone out there is saying “but how would you feel if someone served your traditional food, or failed to produce it authentically?”
I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s exactly what happened when I was studying abroad in Spain, and the staff organized a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone. We were American students, thousands of miles away from our homes and our families, so they wanted to get us all together, throw us a dinner party, and give us a little taste of home.
And you know what? It was great! They wanted to surprise us with comforting, familiar, lovingly-made dishes that we, as Americans absent from our homeland on a beloved family holiday, were probably craving. Sure, they didn’t get everything just right. But so what? They were on the other side of the planet, and they were making do with the ingredients available, and had probably never made it before.
You know what I didn’t do? I didn’t shout at them and write letters to the administration telling them it was a “gross manipulation” and “disrespectful” to my heritage to be served such “inauthentic” and “stolen” cuisine, and you know why? Because that would be disrespectful, you ridiculous morons! If someone tries to serve you a meal, just eat the damn thing! Shouting at people for not doing it right isn’t defending your heritage. It’s just being a jerk.
It gets worse. Not only are they complaining about “stolen” cultures, but they’re also getting them banned, like when the University of Ottawa shut down a yoga class because of “cultural genocide.” I am not making this up.
Minor public service announcement: If you’re going to throw around the word genocide, you’d better be doing it right. It means destroying. And you know what happens to authentic Indian yoga when skinny white American moms do it just for exercise and fun? Absolutely nothing! Authentic yoga is still in India, no matter how many fitness-focused yoga studios open up on the other side of the planet.
You know what’s a lot closer to “cultural genocide” than a yoga class? Shutting down a yoga class.
For a lot of people, their first experience with exploring other cultures may have been something as simple as eating in a Chinese restaurant, going to a Cinco de Mayo celebration, attending a French film festival, or doing yoga. Shut those down, and what happens? You keep people stuck in a bubble of ignorance. Americans are already pretty sheltered from the world as it is, and I’d be willing to bet that the ones most ignorant of Indian culture live someplace without any yoga studios.
And that’s really the problem I have with all this. The very same people that purportedly care about cultural understanding are smashing a powerful avenue of cultural exposure. By shutting down yoga classes or shouting at people for making their food wrong, they’re participating, far more ferociously, in the same sort of “cultural erasure” they get so angry about.
It also draws identity exclusively along racial boundaries. It says “You’re a white person. That is all. You can only do things invented by white people, and nothing else.” Can any good come from dividing the world this way? To consider race not a heritage, but a restriction?
To be fair, I can see the frustration in some cases; white people wearing Native American feather headdresses at music festivals, for example, seems to be in rather poor taste. But I don’t see any Chinese people complaining when someone dresses up as a Shaolin monk. And why would they? Nothing happens. People often say cultural appropriation is hurtful, but how is it hurting anyone?
It reminds me a lot of the opposition to gay marriage, when people kept saying it would damage their lives, so no one should be allowed do it. But really, what damage is there?
Though I can see the problem with fraternities throwing racial stereotype parties, or offensive stereotypes appearing on TV, it’s really not the appropriation that is the problem. It’s the mockery. Just look at the opposition to the Washington Redskins compared to the acceptance of the Atlanta Braves. Mockery and racial slurs should be rightly condemned, but embracing other cultures should not.
Imagine a world without cultural adoption and experimentation. We wouldn’t have British rock, Korean pop, or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. No one but white people could enjoy classical music, or the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, or the polio vaccine. Only France could use the metric system, only China could use paper money, only Croatians could wear neckties, and only Scottish people could wear plaid.
And maybe while we’re at it, we’d have to ban democracy, because it’s Greek.
See how silly this is? Come on, guys. If someone’s treating you like garbage because of your racial background, go ahead and kick him in the shins. But if people enjoy the artwork, music, fashion, and cuisine of your homeland, go ahead and let them enjoy it. Even if they’re not doing it quite right.
Because no one wants to go back to Roman numerals.