What is cultural appropriation? 


The term has been thrown around quite a lot lately, especially after the rise of online activism. The internet is a powerful tool when utilized to its full potential; unfortunately, most social activists remain behind their keyboards, which is a decent start, but not powerful enough to make a noticeable difference.

The Kardashians threw on headscarves and bindis, subsequently fans and media outlets alike lost their minds. The spectrum of comments ranged from raving about their “exotic” beauty to becoming increasingly upset at the “Culture stealing vultures”. However, who’s to say that either party is right? What is considered cultural theft, and how fine is the line separating cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation?

Unfortunately and shamefully enough for those who refuse to acknowledge that fine line, the answer is right before our eyes: When the same magazine titles their article “Rihanna shows off her new dreads and we’re not sure how we feel about that” after praising Kylie Jenner’s dreads a few months prior.

If you believe that this only occurs online, then you’re in for a big surprise. Indeed, this phenomenon is perceived very differently depending on its contributor, and this is where I can bring no logical explanation:  When plain Lebanese girls with straight Caucasian hair get box braids, it’s considered a fashion statement, but when house workers of African descent get a similar hairdo, it’s considered unhygienic and frowned down upon. This is privilege, privilege that comes with being born part of a racial majority. We cannot deny that this is cultural appropriation.

With online activism gaining such pace, the line seems to be crossed in both directions more often than we care to admit. Not everything can be labelled “cultural appropriation”.

Screaming culture theft whenever seeing anyone wearing anything deemed “ethnic” is not only an extremely Eurocentric way of seeing the world, but it also deadens the impact of such a powerful term.

In fact, cultural exchange is exactly what brings about the beauty of globalization, one of the most important worldwide movements of the 21st century.

 

That being said, things aren’t always black and white, good or bad. Cultural exchange isn’t always “equitable” and fair. Appreciation is commonly defined as the “recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something[1]”, but in a country where house workers are treated like slaves, how can we begin to pretend that borrowing elements of south Asian or African culture is “recognition” when we haven’t even begun to recognize them as human beings ».

 

“I can’t define an elephant, but I know one when I see one”: Cultural appropriation is much like said elephant. We might have never been on the receiving end of things, or even on the other side of the line, and defining the phenomenon might prove to be quite a tedious task. Nevertheless, the ability to differentiate appropriation from appreciation could almost be perceived as “innate” to those who have been taught respect and open mindedness from a very young age.

When researching the topic, I stumbled across one specific article titled “‘Cultural appropriation is really cultural appreciation” and that did it for me. It violently ripped me out of my cosy cocoon of ignorance. Distinguishing either phenomenon was obviously not as crystal clear for some as it was for others. My personal favourite was a quote taken from author Lionel Shriver’s speech at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival: “I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is just a passing fad”.

At first, I figured she must have obviously been joking. How could one shamelessly express such a wish?

It might be a stretch to perceive it that way, but her request could very well be reworded as follows: “I hope the concept of respecting one another is just a passing fad”. How could this movement, fighting offensive trends, be considered disruptive? Reading the rest of her speech only confirms my concern: “The last thing we, fiction writers, need is restrictions on what belongs to us.[2]” At the risk of sounding like a 10th grade teacher encouraging her students to dissect every word written by an author, it’s necessary here not to neglect and undermine Shriver’s words. Claiming something “belongs” to you is one of the most privileged things one could say. Furthermore, making those claims with the objective of making money is an even more appropriative move.

Tumblr user “josdidit” had written a “glossary of terms explained with your mum doing the washing” and the one on cultural appropriation reflects the harsh truth expressed by Lionel Shriver’s speech: “while your mum does the washing, you steal her dirty clothes and mimic her in public. Public gives you money”[3], and that could be used to better define the outer edges of the notion of appropriation.

Privilege makes you blind to other people’s struggles, especially minorities, and some tend to forget that. We cannot speak over them. When they scream that their culture is being appropriated, or that they feel offended, who are we to say whether that’s true or not.

Not only should that concept be clear for us as humans, but more so as Arabs who are an oppressed minority abroad, and oppressors in our own countries. While white people don’t have the chance to experience – and thus understand – what it’s like to be oppressed, specifically by means of cultural appropriation, we are “fortunate” enough, in a weird way, of having been on both sides of the fence separating the oppressed from the oppressors. We, as Lebanese, should know better than to recreate the toxic pattern created by ethnic majorities. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you[4]« .

 

                                                                        Roya Pary Bouery

                                                                        Second year of Law

 

 

[1] Definition of “appreciation” in the Oxford dictionary

[2] Lionel Shriver’s full speech: ‘I hope the concept of cultural appropriation is a passing fad’, The Guardian, 13 September 2016

[3] Tumblr blog Josdidit, 14 October 2015, page 4

[4] Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31

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