09 August 2013

Cultural appropriation

I want sharper tools for thinking about cultural appropriation. Here are some commentaries I find helpful.

Kids, Kimonos, and Cultural Appropriation

There is no right or wrong way to appropriate or appreciate a culture because a culture is never truly static. You cannot respect a culture, but you can respect people. But know that you will inevitably find yourself having to choose between two rightful heirs to a tradition, one who holds out a hand in invitation and another who holds up their hand to deny you, and you cannot respect one without disrespecting the other. You cannot but choose a side.

Is Culture Something We Have or Something We Do?

Theoretical and rhetorical tools from anthropology
Descriptive essentialist cultureDynamic constructivist culture
Culture is something one hasCulture is something one does
Culture is fixed and can be delimited Culture is created in open interaction
Common values for everyone in the group Different values for different members
People are governed by culturePeople negotiate culture
Culture (values, rules, norms, etc.) can explain why people act as they doOther factors (status, context, power, etc.) can explain why people act as they do
People’s actions can be predictedPeople’s actions cannot be predicted

From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation

Based on the range of literature addressing the topic, I identified four categories of cultural appropriation (adapted from Wallis & Malm, 1984; additional influences from Bakhtin, 1975/1981; Clifford, 1988; Goodwin & Gore, 1990; Ziff & Rao, 1997). Based on the assumptions identified above, these four categories can best be understood as naming the conditions (historical, social, political, cultural, and economic) under which acts of appropriation occur. After briefly defining each of the four types of appropriation, I discuss, illustrate, and evaluate each in depth.

  1. Cultural exchange: the reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power.
  2. Cultural dominance: the use of elements of a dominant culture by members of a subordinated culture in a context in which the dominant culture has been imposed onto the subordinated culture, including appropriations that enact resistance.
  3. Cultural exploitation: the appropriation of elements of a subordinated culture by a dominant culture without substantive reciprocity, permission, and/or compensation.
  4. Transculturation: cultural elements created from and/or by multiple cultures, such that identification of a single originating culture is problematic, for example, multiple cultural appropriations structured in the dynamics of globalization and transnational capitalism creating hybrid forms.

Cultural exchange operates in the literature as an implied baseline for clarifying the inequalities involved in the other conditions of appropriation and is generally assumed to be a nonexistent ideal. Cultural domination, in contrast, highlights the asymmetries under which acts of appropriation occur. Although many approaches to this set of conditions emphasize the power of the dominant to impose its culture on subordinated peoples, cultural dominance as a condition nevertheless requires attention to how the targets of cultural imposition negotiate their relationship to the dominant culture through a variety of appropriative tactics. Extending this implication, cultural resistance, a form of appropriation that occurs under the conditions of cultural dominance, highlights the agency and inventiveness of subordinated peoples by examining how they appropriate dominant cultural elements for resistive ends.

Resistance through appropriation, however, demonstrates the “impurity” of acts of resistance and of culture itself. Cultural exploitation focuses on the commodification and incorporation of elements of subordinated cultures. However, in defending the rights of subordinated peoples to protect the integrity of their culture and to control its use, most of the discourse of cultural exploitation operates from a model of culture as clearly bounded and distinct, as singular and organic. Such a model of culture is not only empirically questionable but also complicit in the subordination of “primitive” cultures. Transculturation further questions the validity of an essentialist model of distinct cultures that merely engage in appropriation, highlighting appropriation and hybridity as constitutive of culture, reconceptualized as an intersectional phenomenon. Although the literature on transculturation is grounded in the conditions of globalization and transnational capitalism, the implications of transculturation question the assumptions of the previous three categories in both contemporary and historical contexts.

Introduction to Everything But the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture

A long, provocative, idiosyncratic comment on the question. A delicious little taste:
hip-hop culture and the hip-hop marketplace, like a quantum paradox, provides space to all Black ideologies, from the most anti-white to the most pro-capitalist, without ever having to account for the contradiction

A brief meditation on white twerking

Imagine you own the only restaurant in a small mostly-segregated town where whites are generally richer than blacks. A black family opens a new restaurant in the black part of town, but it doesn’t affect your business much because white people don’t want to go there and blacks don’t have enough money to eat out much anyway.

But they do have one fabulous dish that’s like nothing on your menu. You go there and try it, and it’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. And you immediately have a bunch of motives to imitate it. First, just as a lover of food and a creative chef you can’t help thinking: “I could do this! It would be great!” Second, as a businessman you think: “My customers would love this!”

There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives. [⋯] But as it stands you’ll get those customers just by being white.

So what you’d be doing by imitating the dish is lowering the cost of racism. Without your imitation, your racist customers would have to do without something they want.

And while you might argue you’re providing your white customers a bridge to black culture, it would be a toll bridge, and you’d be collecting the tolls.

Academic folklorist Dr. Jeff Tolbert comments

Rescued from Twitter

The other day I read part of an intro to a popular collection of stories with the “folk” qualifier attached. I had to stop because the author made sweeping claims about folklore being part of “our” heritage, connected to a misty, mystical past.

Who is that “our” referring to? What monolithic group of people exists that experiences an unbroken continuity with “the past”? There isn’t one, is the thing. Tradition purports to be a connection to the past, but all traditions are invented.

Being “invented” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” But it does mean that people pick & choose elements to bring forward. Or, when there’s nothing there to bring forward, they create something new. We should never assume that old stories connect to “our” pasts in a deep, real way.

Because again, who is that “our” referencing? If “we” are labeling that “folk” material as “ours,” we’re setting up boundaries. We’re creating an implicit “them,” always the necessary corollary of “us.” This isn’t inherently bad, but it can quickly become so.

It’s especially problematic when “we” are imagined in connection to a particular place or region. The extreme of that way of thinking is fascism. There’s a reason the Third Reich invoked the idea of “blood and soil” in promulgating their false narratives of Aryan identity.

On the other hand, if “we” are all people, then we’re eliding cultural difference. We’re doing violence to the vastly different histories of different groups at different times / places. Creating universalizing narratives is another way of imposing hegemonic ideas on others.

Popular writers: Please stop doing these things. Please stop imagining “folklore” to be fixed, unchanging, mystical links to the past. Please stop tying it in a rigid way to “our heritage.”

If you find traditional narratives that you like, by all means, engage with them. Think about them. Write with them. Do cool new things with them. But do not frame them as tying us to a misty, magical past. Uncouple them from ideas about “heritage.”

For instance, medieval Irish literary tales about Cú Chulainn are great & stirring & deserve to be read & told & retold. But to imagine that they have a meaningful connection to the lives of all the people who happen to live in Ireland today is to make a big mistake.

I found this out firsthand during graduate fieldwork in Ireland. I was in Dingle trying to understand what “Celtic” culture meant to Irish people, & met a young Irish woman interested in my work. I ended up telling her the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which she’d never heard.

The point here is that folklore is ordinary, everyday culture. That’s it. Full stop. You are “doing” it in your own life every day. The old stories that seem “mystical” seem that way because they originated in different cultural contexts and at very different historical moments.

Don’t assume that things like contemporary national identity imply unbroken continuity with those past cultures/moments. If you like something, celebrate it. Enjoy it. But don’t make it into a magical token of cultural identity, or a Jungian symbol that ignores difference.

Folkloresque engagements with the idea of folklore are cool. I write about the folkloresque in part because I like a lot of this stuff. I like retellings of things. I like mishmashes of monsters and gods and demons from different times / places.

I don’t like it when writers claim that folklore is old stuff that, although irrelevant today, is still “ours” & somehow helps to define our present-day identities. Opening a dusty book of stories you’ve never read / heard before is not a window onto “your” past, or your present.

If those old stories form a part of your ordinary cultural experience, then they’re part of your life. But you can’t claim that for everyone. That young lady in Dingle who’d never heard of Deirdre didn’t have any inherent claims on the Ulster Cycle just because she was Irish.

So please, writers & other creative types, keep using folkloric stuff to do new stuff. Tradition always changes, always gets adapted to new forms and new media. That’s all good. But stop making old stories that most of “us” have never heard of into magical symbols of “us.”

From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation

Academic paper which rhymes with the things I am trying to get at in my own taxonomy below
Cultural appropriation is often mentioned but undertheorized in critical rhetorical and media studies. Defined as the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture, cultural appropriation can be placed into 4 categories: exchange, dominance, exploitation, and transculturation. Although each of these types can be understood as relevant to particular contexts or eras, transculturation questions the bounded and proprietary view of culture embedded in other types of appropriation. Transculturation posits culture as a relational phenomenon constituted by acts of appropriation, not an entity that merely participates in appropriation. Tensions exist between the need to challenge essentialism and the use of essentialist notions such as ownership and degradation to criticize the exploitation of colonized cultures.

A model from me

Excerpted from a long essay of mine about cultural appropriation in esoteric practices

I have my own way of thinking about the base principles behind the movement to combat cultural appropriation.

One can understand it as emerging from an ambivalence about both the modern understanding and postmodern understandings of Authenticity and Identity. Postmodern sensibilities see these through a lens of multiplicity & fragmentation. There is no universal subject with an objective understanding of all culture to retreat to. Social justice advocates rightly reject modernist universalism with its colonialist / Western chauvinist / etc implications. But at the same time, oppressed people compelled to inhabit an identity which subjects them to injustices yearn to ground that identity in some kind of authenticity, pushing back a vulgar postmodernism which rejects any stability there. “Culture, Authenticity, and Identity are not slippery mush!” they say, and so turn to the response, “This thing is real and belongs to these people who can be clearly identified!”

But as [described earlier in the essay], countering colonialist modernist universalism with claims like “the chakras belong to South Asian people” still accepts modernist conceptions of property rights and crisply distinct “peoples”. That can act as a convenient shorthand, but does not hold water on close examination.

This frustration with some of the sloppy thinking behind common manifestations of the movement against cultural appropriation does not mean that I reject the entire framework and its project of resistance. There are at least three distinct modes of cultural appropriation which I think can be clearly identified and combatted.

  • Colonialism when people in a privileged position employ their power to deny oppressed people who have a cultural and historical link to a thing access to it, while they exercise or exploit that same thing from their base of privilege. So for example, when white people in a posh neighborhood open an “authentic” taqueria where Mexican immigrants could not.
  • Minstrelsy when people in a position of power engage in misrepresentation of an oppressed people and their culture, for the benefit of the privileged, sometimes even claiming credibity for their twisted version by pointing to its supposedly authentic roots. As the name indicates, the minstrel show is the classic example, but there are plenty of esoteric examples of inventing of bogus ancient foreign lineages and cribbing poorly understood elements of “exotic” traditions, as in the case of qabalah.
  • Deracination when the privileged exercise some cultural elements of the oppressed, stripping them of their context and full meaning. For example, white people with arbitrary bindi marks because they look cool.

Because the objection to cultural appropriation emerges from and serves a social justice politics, we need to apply an awareness of privilege & oppression to understand the stakes. Avoiding at least these three forms of cultural appropriation is righteous in the name of the basic politeness which the privileged owe the oppressed in recognition of the power relationship in which they operate ... that politeness is only one face of a necessary bigger project of correcting injustices.

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