Clash of Comments: Are we becoming too sensitive about cultural appropriation?

discuss whether the ‘cultural appropriation’ phenomenon has gone too far

Cultural Appropriation

Image: Infrogmation



YES – Luke Rix-Standing

Let’s face it, other cultures are pretty awesome. Dreadlocks are cool, every woman I know owns either a sari or a kimono, and I hugely enjoy the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. I even got my star sign henna-ed onto my shoulder one drunken night in Goa. My regret the following morning had nothing to do with cultural insensitivity, and everything to do with the contempt arrowing towards me over the top of my morning chai.

I know, I know, it’s not as simple as that. Everyone knows that cultural appropriation can be a bad thing. Every Halloween some idiot decides it would be suitably ‘edgy’ to black up as part of their costume (*cough* DERWENT *cough*), and every year the backlash is predictably uniform. Blackface has centuries of baggage; It has frequently been used as a tool to degrade and caricature the black population, so though fancy-dress costumes may not be intended as racist, their undertones are hard to avoid.

However, we already have a word for this sort of thing: racism.

We’re now starting to condemn things as ‘cultural appropriation’ even if they have no racist overtones whatsoever. Take the recent sombrero ban at the University of East Anglia, which prohibited local restaurant Pedro’s from handing out the hats to non-Mexicans.

Rather than thoughtful reflection, the result was a spike in sombrero interest, as locals and students alike posted sombrero-laden selfies all over the internet to combat the tyranny of ‘sombrerogate’. Online reaction has been suitably hilarious, one gentleman pointing out that some Mexicans actually wear rather narrow-brimmed hats (#NotAllMexicans). I’m not sure they’d be as apt to hand out; their brims clearly not wide enough to bear the weight of all that prejudice.

Let’s be frank, sombreros are not neo-colonial symbols of imperialist dogma. If you go back a bit they’re not even Mexican: based on a design originating in Mongolia, they made the journey West sometime in the 1500s before taking their current form in European Spain. The banning was even criticised by Richard Maudsley, head of the British Mexican society; perhaps a better spokesman for Mexican communities than UEA’s all-white SU.

‘Cultural appropriation’, perhaps ironically, is merrily spreading across national boundaries. The University of Ottawa recently banned a series of free campus yoga classes, amid fears that they could offend local Hindus.

After her attempts to rebrand her class were rebuffed, instructor Jen Scharf gave a commendably mild-mannered interview to CBC, outlining the Catch-22 that she found herself in. If she removed the yoga affiliations from her class she would be whitewashing her cultural influences, but if she went in the other direction and embraced the spirituality of yoga then she would be accused of misappropriating them. The only safe option was to abandon any form of communal stretching altogether. Hindus at the local temple couldn’t understand the fuss.

To round out this triumvirate of triviality we have a stellar offering from the University of Oxford, who recently faced a storm of criticism for promising ‘smooth jazz’ and ‘spectacular Mardi Gras’ at a New Orleans-themed May ball. They were accused of ‘glorifying an era of racism’. Given that any era pre about 1950 could be classed as ‘an era of racism’ that leaves you banning an awful lot of things.

The unprecedented level of multiculturalism that we have in this country is one of its key distinguishing features. By extending the reach of ‘cultural appropriation’ to an absurd degree we risk losing the cultural exchange that should be one of Britain’s greatest assets. Furthermore, by thickening the lines between communities you create division and isolation, and make it particularly difficult to sensitively address specific problems more prevalent in minority communities (FGM, extremism etc). In tandem with these more serious points there is also the simpler risk of just taking ourselves too seriously. The fact that these bans often speak over the sensible disinterest of the relevant minority, simply exacerbates this point.

If something is racist we can call it racist, if it isn’t then there shouldn’t be a problem. The lines between cultures are often vague and subjective, and as a liberal part of a global world, you have to be pretty careful telling people what to wear, what to play, and how to stretch.

So, let the curry-eating, kilt-wearing and didgeridoo-playing commence.

Racism is bad. Sombreros are not. Let’s call a spade a spade.


NO – Maria Munir

Cultural appropriation is not taken seriously enough, and it’s misunderstood. There is a tendency to deny people’s experiences of cultural appropriation and boil it down to politically-correct feminist activism – or something like that.

Simply put, cultural appropriation is a concept which refers to the borrowing of another culture, not harmless activities like enjoying your local curry night, or going on holiday to Thailand. Whilst the term itself is largely debated, and there are better terms which can be used in its place, the most common understanding of cultural appropriation illustrates how someone can benefit from culture without having to suffer the discrimination involved. Another way a culture can be appropriated is when elements of culture are taken out of the context of their significance, and sometimes interpreted in a racist way.

With this understanding in mind, one might believe it is difficult to judge what is appropriated or not, wonder whether it’s racism, or think it’s a farce. It’s complex. Racism is discrimination using unfounded prejudice. When I wear traditional clothes from my region in Pakistan, a person telling me to get out of this country is likely to be racist. The retail industry takes random patterns, fashions them into something “exotic” but calls them “tribal”; the industry can be accused of appropriating African culture. It’s crass that the assumption is tribes are always African. Africa is a continent. Tribes vary from country to city to town. By pandering to a stereotype, or reducing culture to an accessory for financial gain, people can exploit and misinterpret a culture without understanding the consequences for that culture. The industry and consumers are appropriating, maybe even unknowingly.

It’s all about intentions and knowledge. If someone had been invited to participate in the culture, felt connected to the culture and part of the culture as a result, then they cannot be accused of cultural appropriation. Maybe they make mistakes, everyone does, but it’s the element of respect which makes the difference. Culture should be shared and respected. Culture is not about the colour of your skin, but your interlinked experiences. However, understanding the intricacies of culture would help lessen stereotypes harming people who participate in the culture.

Fancy dress events are a microcosm of what society does when it thinks it has free reign to be “creative”. Think Native American headdresses, bindis and cow outfits, and cornrows. Playing dress up perpetuates stereotypes, and even if you understand that, it doesn’t give you a free pass to be ignorant. Whilst readers already sceptical of the so-called PC Brigade might object and say it’s just a way to have fun or to share in people’s culture, we must recognise that there is an uncomfortable conversation to be had over people’s entitlement to take from others without having to face the repercussions.

The reason why cultural appropriation has gone too far is that we live in a world where people from a cultural background are silenced by people from other backgrounds and told that they cannot be unhappy with the way their culture is being portrayed or exploited. Perhaps this conversation is uncomfortable. Some feel targeted and feel they are second to the feelings of black and ethnic minority people, and no one likes feeling guilty or unequal. Let me repeat: you don’t have to be a person of colour to have experienced cultural appropriation; we should not conflate the two as it leads to more assumptions and aggressions. It’s not just about calling out what you see based on your own assumptions of an individual, it’s about challenging societal stereotypes culture.

Culture is a melting pot in that it will never be homogenous to one exact group. You can’t look at someone and instantly tell who they are. Maybe one day, we won’t have to talk about cultural appropriation because we’ll have less discrimination, more cultural education and willingness to respect each other. But until we can accept that it’s okay to challenge the misrepresentation of culture and its significance, we must not stop talking about cultural appropriation.

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