Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation: Where to Draw the Line
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Politics and Activism

Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation: Where to Draw the Line

Beware: It's not a straight line.

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Cultural Appreciation and Appropriation: Where to Draw the Line

The other day, I came across this Buzzfeed article, "Thousands Are Sharing This Hilarious Korean Show Clip Of A Girl Pretending To Be 'Indian'" shared on Facebook by Buzzfeed India. Under the post, I saw a few comments criticizing this clip as cultural appropriation, with one commenter even claiming that no one was calling this out only because it wasn't a white person doing it. Intrigued by this discussion, I clicked on the article and actually found the video quite humorous and not at all cultural appropriation. Yet, the comments lingered in my mind and prompted me to further question the immensely complex issue of cultural appropriation that I, as a person who regularly engages with other cultures, have been contemplating for years. Coincidentally, as Halloween season just passed, this issue is especially relevant.

As a disclaimer, I do not claim to represent the voice of other cultures or even my own, or have an answer to every facet of this difficult issue. But being a person who appreciates many cultures (I mean, I'm a Taiwanese-American who is a member of a mariachi band and a Bhangra team), I believe I may have an interesting and valuable perspective to offer on this subject, from what I have observed and learned through these interactions with other communities.

What is "cultural appropriation"? This is an incredibly difficult definition to put into words, and maybe the best way to approach this is to define what cultural appreciation is. As I see it, cultural appreciation is genuine interest in a culture and making the effort to learn and understand the perspectives, the history (including the hardships), and the values of the people in the culture, and to develop relationships with the people based on that understanding. In this way, it is practically impossible to appropriate a culture if you understand how a people would feel about you borrowing an aspect of their culture. Culture isn't some abstract idea that ties a group of people together, but rather a living philosophy that is manifested in their daily lives.

Now, the daunting challenge of defining cultural appropriation. I can't say I have a complete definition, but I can propose a few criteria that I believe are important in drawing the line between cultural appropriation and appreciation.

First, context. Is the context in which you are adopting an aspect of a culture appropriate? The examples that come to mind is the cherry-picking of parts of cultural attire by music festival-goers: wearing bindis, which hold cultural and historically religious significance in Indian culture, and feather headdresses, which are symbols of status and spirituality in Native American culture. It's not that these accessories are strictly off limits to those outside of the culture, but the context should be relevant to the culture. For example, wearing a bindi to a Diwali party would mostly likely be embraced as celebration of the culture. In the case of music festivals, consider these questions: Does the context of Coachella have anything to do with Indian or Native American culture? Why do you feel inclined and does it warrant you to take these specific parts of those cultures? Unless you have a solid answer to these questions, you probably shouldn't wear that accessory.

But in the event that the context doesn't clarify whether adopting a part of a culture is appropriate, consider your relationship to the culture. Namely, do you have a relationship to the culture? Recently, several music videos have been set in India, such as Iggy Azalea's "Bounce," Coldplay's "Hymn For The Weekend," and Major Lazer's "Lean On." And what connection do these artists have with India? For Iggy and Major Lazer, nothing. Coldplay? Minimal, at best. Without a personal relationship to a culture, what justification do you have for choosing it as a backdrop? Is it, perhaps, that the song's lyrics are somehow related to that culture? Nope, keep looking. Again, if you don't have a reason for being inclined to use a culture as a background, you are essentially using it for its aesthetics, and there is so much more to culture than how it looks.

More specifically, you should consider your relationship to the people of that culture. Do you personally know people from that culture and their perspectives? And I don't mean just that one "token black friend," but a variety of individuals with different points of view. No culture is homogeneous in its ideas, and part of understanding a culture is knowing the different perspectives its members have. And the understanding shouldn't just be remote observation from a distance, but rather real, personal friendships (note: not necessarily friendships) in order to recognize these living, breathing ideas. As mentioned before, the biggest offense is picking and choosing elements of a culture and ignoring others, mostly the unappealing ones. Amandla Steinberg's question "What would America be like if it loved black people as much as it loves black culture?" has been cited repeatedly in the discussion on cultural appropriation but is such a poignant and relevant postulation. Of course, it's natural to want to avoid the unpleasant issues in a culture. What drew me to Indian culture was its celebration of joy and life through the music, dance, and (forgive the cliché) vibrance of the attire and other things. But I am conscious of this bias and make an effort to counteract it by trying to understand some of its problematic facets, such as the gender inequality, treatment of women, the wealth divide, India's relationship with Pakistan, etc.

Lastly, and perhaps the most straightforward criterion yet somehow the most violated: respect. This includes respect for the people's opinions on cultural exchange and for the presentation and usage of the cultural element you borrow. If a significant number people has expressed offense to appropriation of a part of their culture in certain or all contexts, just don't borrow it. Simple. Even if some don't mind your borrowing, you still probably don't have any good reason to do so. And if you do choose to borrow a cultural element, hopefully under the appropriate circumstances, wear or use it right. The most offensive thing in that Korean video was probably how short her pallu was.

Returning to the Korean show, I didn't find it cultural appropriation because the show makes it clear that the character's attempt to depict Indian culture is very inaccurate and makes humor of that fact, and not Indian culture itself. At least the Korean actress's attempt at speaking Hindi is better than Donald Trump's and Vin Diesel's (despite Deepika's approval).

I've heard a counterargument to cultural appropriation that if German people aren't offended when people dress up as a barmaid for Oktoberfest, why are you so sensitive to people wearing your attire? Perhaps Westerners (meaning white Europeans) have a hard time understanding why cultural appropriation is so offensive is because on the contrary, European culture has a history of actually spreading their culture (think colonization and missionaries). However, even for me, this issue pushes me to my limits. In my search for a line to draw between cultural appropriation and appreciation, I realize that these guidelines that I have mentioned may still have gray areas within them and I continue to have questions about them. But I think it's important to have this discussion because this exchange is exactly what is necessary to learn to appreciate a culture.

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