A Lot of Cultural Appropriation Outrage is Needless
The lines separating celebration, stealing, and mockery need to be better defined
Opinions / June 9, 2018
Some years ago, I saw a Facebook post in which someone argued that learning to speak a different language is a form of appropriation.
This is a dumb argument, as the very nature of learning another language is contrary to harbouring discriminatory ideals. It takes time and effort, and if you want to get conversational and natural, you’ll be getting to know native speakers and becoming friends with them.
I have a hard time separating sincere arguments from satire because the concept of cultural appropriation, despite being used often by liberals, is confusingly conservative. The only real way to clamp down on cultural appropriation is to keep cultures separate, as South Africa did.
While it’s not fair to straw man entire swaths of social justice activists, it’s far too easy to find the loud and unreasonable people with extreme and often poorly-thought out beliefs.
Granted, the better-read of these activists will make a distinction for cases when the exchange is shared and consensual. Your best friend inviting you to her Sikh wedding and encouraging you wear a sari would be within this realm.
A more recent example would be another Facebook thread I saw in which someone asked whether it was appropriating Black American culture to say “y’all” to a group of people. While the people having the conversation were simply trying to figure out the best way to be respectful of other people and cultures, their conversation was getting absurd. At no point did a Black person come into the thread. Interactions like this amount to a bunch of white people trying to virtue signal.
Yes, you shouldn’t dress as a member of another culture for Halloween, as costumes tends to reduce things to looking silly, sexy, or scary. None of these brushes should be used to paint a culture. Regardless, there are occasions where wearing others’ cultural garb is encouraged.
Nothing illustrates the bizarre extents that this argument can go to better than a controversy that took place a few years ago in Boston. The local Museum of Fine Arts was attempting to engage patrons in a “Kimono Wednesday” event, where they could try on the traditional Japanese garment.
However, when social justice activists crashed the event crying “cultural appropriation,” a group of Japanese women counter-protesting weren’t having it. According to an article in the Boston Globe, the counter protesters showed up to the museum brandishing signs in support of the exhibit, such as one that read: “I am not offended by people wearing kimono in front of French paintings.”
In our hyper-globalized world, cultures will commingle whether we like it or not, and it’s not like this is a new concept. It’s just accelerating. Three hundred years ago, your average westerner didn’t know any slang terms in Asian languages, but the Japanese did start deep frying their food once the Portuguese came over.
There certainly are moments where cross-cultural faux pas takes place. Wearing a Plains Native American headdress is certainly one of them, and can be likened to wearing a decorated army dress uniform if you’ve never served. White people should be allowed to rhyme stylishly with music, but they shouldn’t be inauthentic by pretending that they identify with growing up in Black communities through their lyrics or image.
Ultimately, I wonder what the unifying goal is, generally, in calling out others for generally benign slights. I want to reduce conflict, and obviously I hold Canada’s acceptance of immigration and diversity in high regard. It would be nice if calling out “cultural appropriation” didn’t look like virtue signalling, or trying to score points, but it often does.