Is it insulting to wear a Native American headdress at a music festival? Is it culturally insensitive for a non Latino girl to wear hoop earrings? In other terms, is the reduction of a culture to a few stereotypical markers morally problematic? In his latest article, William McComish explores the moral stakes of cultural appropriation, a hotly debated topic often argued about with inconsistent arguments, he finds. From respecting the sacred to ignoring the oppressed, this article offers a clearer perspective on the debate on cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is a perplexing topic. The expression could be understood as meaning the same thing as cultural assimilation: a transfer of culture from one group of people to another, however the word “appropriation” points to this transfer as being problematic. If something is appropriated there is neither sharing nor exchange, rather, the transfer of the cultural item to one group implies a loss for another group. Cultural appropriation thus seems to imply something problematic: the notion that culture1 belongs exclusively to the group that produced it. Understanding the issue of cultural appropriation requires an analysis of the relation that groups (ethnic and racial) have with their cultures and the conditions of cultural exchanges within the greater social context of race relations and inequality2.
In March 2017, at Pitzer College, a liberal arts college in Claremont, California, a heated debate took place on social media regarding the use of hoop earrings3. It started with the following slogan being sprayed on a wall: “White Girl, Take off your hoops!!! “ The Latin Student Union (Latinx) clarified the meaning of the slogan in an email to all the students of the college, explaining that they were tired of white women appropriating a style that belongs to Latinos and arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed to take part in an oppressed culture.
Latinx’ argument, is that since Latino people are oppressed and because hoop earrings are characteristic of Latin culture, then white people should not have the right to wear them. This is unconvincing, indeed the claim that Latinos are subject to oppression in the US seems very strong4 and it is unclear whether hoop earrings are a uniquely Latin type of jewelry5. However, Latinx’ argument is interesting because it displays the reasoning that is typical of claims of cultural appropriation: it is wrong for people in a privileged group to use the culture of a disadvantaged group. Evaluating claims of cultural appropriation thus requires evaluating whether it is morally wrong to partake in the culture of a disadvantaged group.
« We’re a culture not a costume »
There are cases where a cultural item can be used in a manner that is clearly offensive to the culture of origin. A poster campaign produced by Ohio University’s Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS) that first appeared in 2011, addressed the use of ethnic costumes for Halloween. All the posters have the same format: a student holds up a picture of a person dressed up in a very cliché ethnic costume and the text says: “This is not who I am and it is not OK”, the slogan for the campaign being “We’re a culture not a costume”. An ethnic costume, even if it is not consciously worn with the purpose to convey prejudice must rely on cultural symbols that are typical of that ethnicity if it is to be recognizable. There is a reduction of an entire culture to a few cultural markers. The slogan “we’re a culture not a costume” denounces this reduction as offensive.
Even if cultural symbols are not worn in order to caricature a whole culture they can be used in a manner that is deemed offensive. In “How to avoid cultural appropriation at Coachella”, Jessica Andrews addresses the fact that items that are culturally relevant to minorities are frequently used as simple fashion items at the Coachella festival6. She discusses three examples: bindis7, Native American headdresses (also called war bonnets)8 and African American hairstyles. For Andrews, it is this detachment from the original cultural context that is morally problematic: “Stripping a cultural object of its significance and donning it like a costume is the very height of disrespect. It’s not just ignorant; it’s dehumanizing and incredibly painful”. Thus cultural appropriation is characterized by the use of important symbolic items in an inappropriate context. Bindis and Native American headdresses are spiritual and religious symbols in their cultures of origin, hence using them as fashion items is viewed as a lack of respect for Hindus and Native Americans. Even if this is not done with the purpose of hurting anyone, the lack of awareness implies a disregard for those groups.
The case of African American hairstyles is a little different: they are not religious symbols, so they are not sacred, but nonetheless they are more than just hairstyles. They are typically African American in a way that hoop earrings are not typically Latino, and still today, they are sometimes banned in schools as well as in the workplace9. Thus hairstyles such as braids, cornrows or dreadlocks are important symbols of African American identity.
The actress Amandla Sternberg10 posted a video on Youtube explaining why the appropriation of these hairstyles is problematic. Her definition of cultural appropriation is the following: « Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originates, but is deemed as high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in. »
Sternberg accused Kylie Jenner of cultural appropriation for posting a photo of herself on Instagram with her hair styled in cornrows. According to Sternberg’s definition, Jenner did two things wrong. The first is benefiting from a double standard: the fact that a hairstyle is part of the racist stereotype of black women when they wear it but becomes fashionable when a white person wears it. It is debatable whether cornrows only became acceptable when white people started to wear them or whether they were never acceptable when only black people wore them, but in a country where black girls can get expelled from school for wearing their hair in braids, or a woman may not be hired because of her dreadlocks, one cannot dismiss the claim that hairstyles can be the objet of discrimination.
The second thing Jenner is doing wrong is ignoring the significance of the culture she is partaking in. This claim is problematic in the sense that Kylie Jenner is just styling her hair and not writing an essay on the significance of African American hairstyles. But her ignorance of the matter doesn’t mean that this significance doesn’t exist. Lack of awareness in this case implies a lack of regard. Thus, according to Sternberg, when people adopt items from a different culture than their own, they should inquire into the significance of what they are borrowing.
An artistic license?
Kylie Jenner might not have been consciously seeking to profit from a double standard or willfully ignoring Black culture, but this lack of awareness is precisely what she is being called out for. Even if Amandla Sternberg or Jessica Andrews display a desire to educate people on the issue, they do not believe that ignorance is morally neutral: awareness is thus at the heart of the matter of cultural appropriation.
Not everyone sees claims of cultural appropriation as a being legitimate. The Facebook comments that Jessica Andrews received for her article indicate a lot of pushback against the topic. Accusations of cultural appropriation are seen as divisive and even intolerant. Fortunately, there are more articulate expressions of criticism than angry Facebook posts: In September 2016, at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, the author Lionel Shriver gave a speech in which she denounced the concept of cultural appropriation as an excess of political correctness. She argued that there is something wrong in calling out authors who borrow from other cultures, including minorities: “any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch.”
According to Shriver, there could be no fiction if it weren’t for authors writing about experiences that vary from their own: “This (fiction writing) is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best.” For her, the origin of an author’s material is morally irrelevant and the creative act of writing takes precedence.
The day following Shriver’s speech, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an Australian author of Sudanese origin, published a scathing reply. Abdel-Magied described how a feeling of moral indignation forced her to get up and walk out as Shriver was still speaking: “As the chuckles of the audience swelled around me, reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern, I breathed in deeply, trying to make sense of what I was hearing. The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my ‘place’ in the world.”
An indignant bias
Abdel-Magied agrees with the basic statement that the job of an author entails creating characters who have different experiences to herself: “Her question was — or could have been — an interesting question: What are fiction writers “allowed” to write, given they will never truly know another person’s experience?” But things that are important or sacred are off-limits even to the artist. Thus there are conditions that make this borrowing from other people’s experiences unacceptable: “It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.”
For Abdel-Magied, as for Jessica Andrews, a disregard for what is sacred and important to the culture of origin implies a disregard for this culture as whole. Shriver’s attitude: “drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: ‘I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human…’” This disregard is what is at the heart of cultural appropriation as a moral issue. If a thing is sacred or very important to someone, it seems a reasonable expectation that others will have a cautious attitude to that thing. The notion of cultural appropriation raises this caution from an individual level to the level of entire groups and their cultures.
Accusing Shriver of being a racial supremacist is far-fetched because her speech doesn’t affirm a superiority of white people in order to justify cultural appropriation. It is nonetheless worth questioning whether racial or ethnic identity affects one’s views on cultural appropriation. It is difficult not to see the link between the identities of the two authors and their respective positions. It is a matter of fact that Abdel-Magied is more sensitive to cultural appropriation because she is a African Muslim immigrant to Australia. This should prevent us from dismissing the fact that Shriver’s ironic impatience with the issue is informed by being a white American. If it is unfair to accuse Shriver of being a white supremacist it is nonetheless reasonable to assume that her point of view displays an ignorance of a disadvantage that, to quote Abdel-Magied: “she need never experience”. To a large extent, racial identity informs one’s sensitivity to racial issues, including cultural appropriation.
There are few things that are more annoying than being blamed for doing something wrong when we don’t believe that what we are doing is wrong. Not least when the person denouncing you claims, like Abdel-Magied, that your attitude “drips of racial supremacy”. And it is cringe inducing to have to listen to students in a Californian university explain that: “If you didn’t create the culture as a coping mechanism for marginalization, take off those hoops, if your feminism isn’t intersectional take off those hoops, if you try to wear mi cultura when the creators can no longer afford it, take off those hoops”. But focusing the entire debate on poorly formulated arguments runs the risk of hiding the fact that very real race relations form the larger context within which claims of cultural appropriation are made. An understanding of these race relations, of what is important and sacred to others, and a critical attitude to our own point of view, are essential to a fair assessment of these claims.
1 Culture in a general sense: art, artifacts, styles, symbols.
2 This article focuses on the matter of cultural appropriation in the USA
3 Yes, earrings shaped like hoops
4 Even if discrimination against Latinos in the US occurs, this doesn’t mean that they are oppressed.
5 One would think that it is a fairly obvious shape for an earring.
6 The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival takes place every spring in Southern California. It has become a cultural and fashion event due to the sophisticated styles worn by festival goers, such as long flowing dresses and flower crowns.
7 The mark worn on the forehead by Hindu women for spiritual and religious reasons.
8 The feathered headsets that are worn by certain Native American tribes, mostly for ceremonial purposes.
10 Amandla Sternberg plays Rue in The Hunger Games, and is partly African American