Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for some time, but haven’t been able to find the right words.  I am not sure it’s something that I have any definite answer for so I hope it generates some discussion.  Some people say it’s just something made up by the left, like privilege.  I find such people who say things like that are the most guilty of cultural ignorance and what privilege actually means.  However one of the ways the topic seems to continue to come up is in terms of things like dreadlocks, or Halloween costumes.  Most of the times the topic comes up these don’t seem like really clear cases of cultural appropriation, but I try to listen and think about it more deeply because it is important.  Most recently I was listening to a podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis who is a physician and sociologist who, along with his wife, was at the center of a cultural appropriation issue at Yale.  I’ll get back to him in a second.

As someone who is half Indian (not native, but from India Indian) my life experience has been very different when it comes to cultural emulation.  Indians generally see it as a form of flattery.  Whether we have been visiting their country or whether in Canada.  There is a real sense in the community that we are valued when white Canadians want to eat our food, dance our dances, or dress in our clothing.  Growing up there was nothing more exciting than seeing a white person who could eat a spicy curry and then get up in Indian garb a kick ass on the dance floor doing the bhangra.  My dad was always someone who wanted to learn about other cultures.  We would often go out for dinner to different ethnic restaurants and he would order foods he’d never tried and he would always ask the waiter or waitress what the usual way the food was eating.  He wanted to use chopsticks or fingers where applicable.  For my dad experiencing the culture wasn’t just trying the food but eating it in a way they did.  For my dad, part of understanding culture was living it as much as you could, even if it was only in small ways.  The warmth he received by people of those other cultures for his honest interest and attempts to do as they did always inspired me to have the same attitude in my life.

A recent cultural appropriation incident in the NBA. Lin wears dreads.
A gracious response from Lin. Noting Martin has Mandarin characters as a tattoo.

I have noticed in my time in the U.S. the sentiment being different and it has become more heated in recent years.  Now of course it should make perfect sense.  Some readers might already be saying, well the history of Indians in Canada is different than African-Americans in the U.S.  There is no doubt about it.  Cultural appropriation is a real thing and I think Nicholas Christakis did a good job of defining it in the podcast.

“The notion of cultural appropriation, the kernel of the idea there, is that some communities of people are so denigrated that not only are they killed and wiped out, but all of their ideas and culture is stolen from them, they are effaced and that all that’s left is a kind of caricature of who they are and there is some truth to that …it’s like adding insult to injury…[like] not only do I engage in genocide,  but I take all your ideas and your culture as well and don’t even credit you and who am I to do that?”

There is no question that this has been done to native peoples in North America, and that this has been done to African-Americans here in the U.S.  Anybody who doubts the existence of cultural appropriation is blind to some real history.  However, if we are interested in making the world a better place, we still have to answer the question about the best way to move forward.  When I see someone genuinely interested in my culture to the point of wanting to emulate it, I don’t see a thief, I see an ally.  They might not be able to experience the lived experience of being someone of my race, but I see someone willing to defend my rightful place as an equal human in society.  Christakis that things have maybe gone too far:

“…now, the whole history of ideas, culture, art, and music is endless theft.  [because really] it’s endless modification, and transformation and exchange of ideas and of thought and musical and artistic forms and so forth”

I find myself agreeing here.  I mean we could get really ridiculous if we wanted to.  Someone could refer to African-Americans behaving badly as thugs, and this is offensive, because we know what the common usage of that word means, but then if I yelled out…”No that’s not offensive to black people, that’s offensive to me because the word is of Hindu origin and your appropriating my culture!”  As Christakis says to trace back practices and ideas back to one particular culture is tricky business indeed.  Culture has been stolen before, it’s been given, it’s been modified, it’s been incorporated, it’s been fused.  It’s complicated.  How do we right all of the wrongs and still move past it?  I guess we are struggling to answer that question as humans.

As I go back to my personal experience I think what matters most is that attitude you have towards another person’s culture.  If I’ve been discriminated against, which is a painful experience, I certainly don’t want others to experience it, but I want them to understand it.  At the same time I don’t want the best things about my culture to remain hidden, when I can share them.  If people are truly interested in my culture, think it’s beautiful, neat, cool, awesome, fascinating, that to me is when humans come together.  The fact that you might not be able to experience the worst of what I face, doesn’t mean, if you’re interested, that you can’t experience the best of my culture.  At least that’s my attitude.

But it’s true that there are some extremely marginalized groups in this country, and I can’t claim to know what that feels like.  I can understand the source of that frustration given the history, and the fact that we live in a country where many don’t admit there are racial problems, where history is white-washed and there is a lot of glossing over the atrocities in which this country was founded.  There are reasons to be angry, but I still hope there is a path forward.  I still hope there is way to make sure people understand the history and the wrongs that have been done, while still having the wisdom to include those who truly enjoy what your culture has to offer.  I agree that people’s cultures aren’t costumes for Halloween, these are things people of those cultures wear everyday, and so appreciating cultures is also something you do everyday.  I think there are lots of people out there like that and I think it’s something to embrace.

Please share your thoughts, I don’t profess any scholarly knowledge here, and would enjoy hearing other voices on this matter.

*Note:  If you’re interested in learning more about the incident at Yale beyond the article I linked, I encourage to read the e-mail that started it all by Erika Christakis which I thought was a thoughtful one.  You can then watch the YouTube video where Nicholas Christakis is surrounded on campus.  I challenge you to watch the whole video.  I couldn’t stomach the whole thing. He handled the situation as heroically as possible.  Also here is the podcast interview with Nicholas Christakis.  The first hour relates to the incident.