Alright, before I get started, I want to frame this for you correctly. First of all, if you’re not aware, I’m a white/straight/cis/male, and so I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this, and what I’m bringing up here, is hopefully to start a conversation in which I may learn more about the subject. Second, if something in this offends you, please know that it is not my intention, and just let me know.
Wikipedia defines Cultural Appropriation as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.”
Right now there is a lot of talk about cultural appropriation in a negative way. Given the historical context, it makes sense that there is controversy around cultural appropriation. For all of modern history, specifically the age of mass media, in the United States, there has been a history of white people taking different cultural elements, and repurposing them, making it appear as if they were the originators. Music is probably the most clear example of this, jazz, blues, and rock music all originated with black musicians, but were quickly adopted and in large part taken over by white people. Rap/Hip-Hop has to some extent been the exception (other than the Beastie Boys, and Eminem, there hasn’t been enough longevity by white artist in the genre to say it’s white dominated).
It is obviously bad when cultural identity, and history are taken from a culture, but I wonder where the line between this occurring, and genuine love/adaptation of culture is drawn. Last month Demi Lovato received negative internet feedback when it came to her hair being dreadlocked. I didn’t fully understand why this was controversial, as far as I can tell, it didn’t appear as if it was some kind of mockery of dreadlocks, and certainly no one is going to be confused and think that white people started them because she had them—or regardless of how many white people have them at this point. Now there are a whole bunch of pieces that I could be missing, if she had said been critical of black culture in the past, or thought this granted her license to say racial slurs, then I would understand. I’ve read a few articles that pointed at tweets telling her what she did wrong, and I must say that in 140 characters I didn’t get it, perhaps a longer form response is appropriate when it comes to a delicate issue like this.
On the other hand, this past week, I saw an article about two women forced to close their burrito restaurant due to cultural appropriation—together with the Demi Lovato story, I thought to write about this. With the burrito women, all of the headlines made the argument against them sound ridiculous, but upon further investigation, I found out a major part of the issue, was that these two women went and found a place where they really liked the burritos, got the cook to give them the recipe and went home and began using it. This seems a little more like a flagrant example, and while I’d be hard pressed to call it straight out theft, it does appear to be douche-y.
What I’ve been wondering with all this talk about cultural appropriation is, where is the line? If we stick with the food example for a minute, I personally love food of many different cultures (I used to joke that fat people have a harder time being bigoted). Personally, I don’t want to eat Italian food every night, or any other food every night, I want variety, and cultures cook different, and use different ingredients, and have created a large rainbow. As I’ve grown up, my tastes have expanded, and I’ve learned about fusion foods (I’ve had tacos, and pizzas that have been heavily influenced by an array of different cultural identities). Food isn’t the only way this works, music too, and I’m sure more subtle cultural practices can really make our lives fuller, and begin to blend together.
Obviously, there is a line between mockery or theft and appreciation. Black face is the most obvious example. It should be clear to us all that black face—for the purposes of humiliation/separation/dehumanization—is not acceptable. But what about if someone where’s black make up in an attempt to emulate—in a manner of adoration— a black person. Take for example Juliana Hough, who, a couple of years ago, dressed up as the character of Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black. It appeared that it was done to play a character she liked, not to mock, and yet the reaction was essentially the same. Now, I think that her dressing up with black make up was a bad idea, and clearly she didn’t understand the effect it would have on people’s feelings, but I don’t think she intended to do any harm. To some extent shouldn’t intention come into play? It doesn’t mean we don’t as a society say “woah! Stop doing that,” but there should be some level of difference in backlash depending on malice or not.
I do understand that identity is a very important concept, and that we all need to have an identity, and more importantly I get that we have a history of people stealing cultural identity markers from others, but there must be a way that we can embrace each other’s cultural differences and grow and expand together, while retaining some form of identity. So, the two examples, that of Demi Lovato, and the other with the two burrito women seem to be on opposite ends of the same line, and I’m not entirely sure the people complaining know where the line is, nor where it should be.
Please, if you have insight into any of this let me know. I want to understand better, and obviously I’m missing something.