Halloween has been and gone, and with it, the annual discussion over inappropriate costuming. Each year, the discussion gets a little louder, a little clearer. Each year the people going “this is not ok” grow in number, and the angry people who want to wear whatever they like get a little more angry and defensive.
I have to admit, when I first came across the “culture, not a costume” campaign, I rejected it. I was like “oh come on, it’s just a COSTUME. It’s just Halloween. It’s just a bit of fun”. I thought on it, and I started to realise that me saying “it’s just a bit of fun” about someone doing fancy dress of another person’s culture is uncomfortably close to a man telling me that street harassment is “just a compliment.” And “harmless” and “just how men are.”
I know what it’s like if I as a woman I talk to a man and tell him of sexism I experience, it’s deeply frustrating, upsetting and often offensive when he tells me that my experience of sexism is invalid or wrong. As a white British person, with all the privilege and baggage that brings, I need to apply the same understanding when someone of another culture goes “Mate, this is not ok. Actually I am uncomfortable about this. Please can you listen?”
I’ve been a bit wary of speaking out about Cultural Appropriation for two reasons. One: I’m white and I don’t want to talk over non-white voices. Two: there because there is no other topic more likely to cause Big Rows amongst friends and loved ones, and I find it hard work to be at odds with people with whom I am used to finding common cause. But I have not written for a long time, this as been buzzing around in my head for an even longer time, so perhaps it’s time for me to try to set down how I feel and what I try to do as a privileged white British person when it comes to cultural appropriation, and perhaps next time there’s a Big Row about it I can just copy and paste this instead of having the same Big Row forever.
So. Cultural Appropriation. What is it? Basically, no one can quite agree. If you google it you’ll get all sorts of different interpretations, and all sorts of questions over what it is. Is THIS cultural appropriation? Is THAT cultural appropriation? Is it still appropriation if I REALLY LIKE it? Is it still appropriation if everyone is doing it?
I think one of the reasons there is so much confusion is simply because cultural appropriation is not simple. It’s really complicated. The concept of “culture” is complicated. I think it’s especially problematic for us white British people because of our Colonialist/British Empire history we’re so used to seeing a culture we like and just taking it without reference to how the people of that culture may have felt. That’s why I think it’s really important that we consider our actions in the light of being privileged to be able to pick and choose what cultural aspects we like/desire.
A friend of mine is from Mexico. Every Halloween she endures people co-opting her cultural heritage for their costume. She’s been getting increasingly frustrated at the growing number of people each year using Dias de La Muertos imagery – Calavera in particular – in the Halloween costumes. She said she feels like she can’t even use imagery from her own culture because “everyone else is doing it”. At this point, I must confess to doing a “sugar skull” makeup on myself years ago. I am not going to try to defend it. It was for my friend’s band’s gig on the Day of the Dead itself. I have long admired the imagery of Dia. I’d done a little reading. I thought it would be fun and that I’d look pretty. This, people, is the very essence of appropriation. I was using the imagery of someone else’s culture, of a country I’d never been, because I thought it “looked pretty”. I could kid myself that it wasn’t cultural appreciation, because I “read about it” and “I really want to go to Mexico some day”; but no. Really. If you are literally just taking one aspect of someone’s culture, something of cultural, religious and historical significance, and you are taking it just because you think it’s pretty? That is cultural appropriation. Pure and simple. Sorry, but it is. I was using something that was not mine, purely to satisfy my own self-expression.
I do love Mexican culture; it fascinates me. I really would like to go there. I love Mexican art. The history of Mexico is fascinating. None of that gives me the right to use the imagery for my own personal satisfaction.
The internet and social media have been both a blessing and a curse for cultures subject to appropriation. There is so much greater access to information and resources that more people can access other cultures easier than ever before. And the more the (white) mainstream know about a culture, the more likely they are to want to use it and to see it as their right to use it. And yet, that same social media is what is enabling marginalised voices that have been unheard for years going “this is not ok” to be heard.
It’s an interesting paradox; as minority voices become louder and their culture becomes more visible, the mainstream moves from ignoring or suppressing minority culture to appropriating and homogenising it and calling it “appreciation”.
Where is that line between appreciation, personal artistic references and actual appropriation? I still haven’t worked it out. I reckon most of us haven’t worked that out – and that’s fine. Because it’s still such a new topic, such a new concept, that it’s ok, and reasonable, that none of us have the answers. What’s important is that we’re asking the question in the first place. That we’re going “is this cultural appropriation?” and listening when someone says “uh, I kind of think it might be”. The fact that the debate is even happening is important – as this wasn’t a conversation people were having in the mainstream ten years ago.
But once you start asking that question, you find yourself asking it all the time. For example you could argue that the whole history of tattooing is cultural appropriation. What about if you go on holiday to South Africa and you buy a shirt in a beautiful African tribal print, made by a woman of that tribe, selling it at a market in order to support herself and her family, Is THAT cultural appropriation? Personally, I would say no. Now, if you walked into, say, H&M or American Apparel and see some £40 leggings with a facsimile of an African tribal print? I would say that probably IS cultural appropriation. That’s a big corporation directly profiting from artefacts of a marginalised culture. But then that’s my answer, and I am a white British woman, is it my place to say what is appropriation of African culture and what isn’t?
I have a Day of the Dead skull box my friend gave me. It’s really cute, pink & purple & sparkly. She bought it for me because she knows I love pink and purple and sparkles and skulls and Mexican imagery. But it’s from Claire’s Accessories. Ten years ago I would have bought it for myself without a second thought. Nowadays, when I look at it, as cute as it is, I can’t help but feel that it’s not right for Claire’s Accessories to be profiting off an item which is ripping of another culture’s sacred event.
My perhaps rather simplistic take on it is that if you really enjoy a particular culture and their artwork, then you make sure you purchase art/items/fashion from someone of that culture, rather than buying similar tat from, say, Claire’s Accessories who have just ripped off cultural designs for profit (and actually have a rather suspect history of ripping off other designers work, too…)
So if you care at all about the concept, and if you believe that cultural appropriation is actually A Thing and one you would like to try to avoid it, how can you go about it, when what cultural appropriation even is is so hard to define and capture?
Questions that one needs to ask oneself, before one engages in a practice or uses images or elements which originate from culture, are:
- Why am I doing this?
- Do I understand the cultural significance of this ritual or practice and does my engaging in this practice for my own personal desire infringe on elements of that significance?
- Is this profiting someone of the culture, or is someone not of the culture profiting by use of their cultural elements?
- Does this actively contribute towards increasing harmful stereotypes or oppression of this culture or its people?
- If someone of this culture asks me about it at a later point, what is my answer?
I’m not “scared” of buying things or of taking inspiration from other cultures. At the same time I want to respect other cultures by not consuming goods or products which have been ripped off of other cultures, or using something which has significance to an oppressed minority just because I think it’s cute. I am certainly not down with personally benefitting from something while simultaneously participating in an activity which oppresses others.
I can’t defend my Dias makeup, or my tribal tattoos (which are in the process of being covered up by something much more personal.) I didn’t know any better. Now I do know better, and know that as a product of a white dominant former empire I have a responsibility to consider carefully before I consume or borrow from another culture, to not allow companies or organisations to profit from oppression or cultural appropriation, and to be considerate and thoughtful rather than getting angry and defensive when someone says “Mate. This is not ok.”
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