Posts Tagged ‘cultural appropriation’

Cultural Appropriation

June 29, 2017

Lauren Orsini, the always-interesting Otaku Journalist, recently raised the issue of cultural appropriation, and pointed to an article by Jarune Uwujaren at Everyday Feminist. I’ve read both articles multiple times, and still have trouble wrapping my head around some applications of the definition, and not just because I’m a fat old Euro male. I think they are overlooking a fundamental difference between what goes on inside a country, and what goes on outside of it.

Uwujaren makes a strong case for cultural appropriation as part of an ongoing power imbalance within a country/society, specifically, the US. The dominant white culture (mine), demands conformance to its ideas of dress and behavior, on pain of not being thought serious, or worthy, of dealing with. This, by the way is true within the culture, as well as without. Bill Gates famously went out and bought a business suit so he could convince IBM he was a serious businessman when he met to sell them DOS. It rejects the elements of the other cultures (African-American, Native American, Hispanic, etc) as having no place in a white-dominated world.

Cultural Appropriation, as I understand their discussion, is when that dominant culture then turns around and adopts elements of the rejected subcultures in ways that are not respectful of their origins. The frat-boy type wearing the Native American head-dress in the Uwujaren article. Portrayals of traditional Hispanic dress (sombreros, decorated jackets) in commercials. The majority culture appropriates elements of a subculture for humor or commercial gain. This is all understandable when you are talking about the actions of the majority culture inside a country. It is a blatant flaunting of the unequal power relationship.

Between countries is a totally different thing.

My position is that there can be no Uwujaren-style appropriation between countries because there is no cultural coercion. The dominant culture in a country is dominant, and it doesn’t care what you think. If you go into a bank in the US wearing Arab robes, you will be stared at, if not strip searched. That goes double for an airport. If, on the other hand, you are in Riyadh, then everyone of importance wears robes, and you are the semi-despised foreigner, sweating in your business suit. Your cultural dominance in the US doesn’t matter. If you then change to robes, you are seen as a still-despised foreigner, aping your betters.

As a way of thinking about this, let’s turn our concerns about cultural appropriation 180 degrees, and look at other countries’ appropriation of American culture.

Consider Japan, which worries Orsini so. If you live in Japan, and have Japanese friends, and own a dark suit, then you might be called upon to officiate at a faux-Christian wedding ceremony in a building like the one below.

Not really a church

That’s not a church. It’s a commercial establishment that is rented out for couples who want to be “married” in a “church”. Is that cultural appropriation, or simple adoption? In America, there are several dominant religions that would be insulted. In Japan, with a Christian population of less than 3%, it’s looked on as kindof trendy.

Then there’s anime, the wellspring of all things otaku. Neon Genesis Evangelion is considered a seminal anime from twenty years ago, which totally rewrote the rules on how one portrays giant robots and parenting. The title can be translated from the Classical Greek as Gospel of a New Century.  In it, the robots battle Angels, using weapons like the Spear of Longinus (now suffering from additional exploitation), to prevent the destruction of New Tokyo, as foretold in the Prophecies of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is far more than appropriation — it borders on looting and pillaging.  Actually, it’s director Anno grabbing whatever sounded good to him and sticking it in.

Or consider the Spring 2017 anime season just ending. There’s an anime titled The Seven Mortal Sins, that trivializes Christian and Jewish concepts of sin by re-casting them in the bodies of buxom babes. Exploitation? Certainly. Cultural appropriation in the Uwujaren definition? I’m not so sure.

Yet another example is Christmas, that most sacred of Western holy days (even though the commercial aspects sometimes overshadow the sacred). The Japanese have appropriated it and turned it into a totally commercial holiday. Unlike New Year’s, probably Japan’s most culturally significant holiday, Christmas in Japan is more like Valentine’s day in the US. Decorations may go up early, but they come down the day after.

So, I think what’s going on here is the application of one phrase to describe two different things: cultural appropriation inside a country as opposed to appropriation across country borders. Part of this may be the confusion of the word exchange as a business deal, as opposed to exchange as an intellectual process. The labelling of a cultural exchange as a material transaction. A cultural exchange is an exchange of ideas, not of material things. “This is how we fry flour and eggs and cabbage, and we call it Okonomiyaki“.  Which might or might not be followed by “Oh, that’s interesting. This is how we fry flour and eggs, but no cabbage, and we call it “Hot cakes“. It’s an exchange of ideas, not a material transaction. As Thomas Jefferson said, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” There’s really no way to pay another culture for the use of their ideas, even if we didn’t explain to them about hot cakes. All we can do is expose them to our way of doing things, and let them pick and choose and adapt as they see fit. And if the way they see fit to adopt and adapt something of ours is totally outside of our vision, well, that’s not something we can control. That’s not something we can do anything about.

In fact, that’s not something that’s any of our business.

And since the reverse is true, you can go on practicing yoga, or eating Salisbury Steak on Baps with Red Sauce without feeling guilty.

 

Advertisements