Some thoughts on causing offence: 1 Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation” seems to be something increasingly causing debate, especially in the USA, and reading about all the new terminology and topics of debate, I feel like I’m playing catch up. There are certainly some pretty extreme emotions being raised by some of the incidents (eg a student screaming at an academic whose wife sent an email expressing that the restrictions around halloween costumes recommended by the intercultural affairs committee might be excessive). It seems to have hooked into the fraught racial tensions in the USA, and a broader debate about whether to protect people from offence versus being able to speak freely and discuss any topic.

Cultural appropriation is the term used when people dress up/make up to look as if they are from a different culture or ethnic group. It is particularly controversial when white people impersonate or borrow from minority ethnic cultures. It seems to be an increasingly widely used term. The perception of it being inappropriate to stereotype racial groups by borrowing from their culture has spread much more widely from it being taboo to use ‘black face’ makeup into examples that have until recently been considered to be more acceptable, like a pop star wearing an outfit referencing a particular country or culture. Some people find this highly offensive, and feel it is appropriate to publicly shame anyone involved in doing this. The gist of this viewpoint is that people who have not experienced the oppression of being in the less powerful group should not be able to cherry pick and borrow the superficial bits they like of exotic cultures, especially when these same cultural traits have been disparaged within western cultures by the dominant white narrative.

As a fairly privileged white British woman who hasn’t experienced this first hand (despite being a second generation immigrant and having high levels of prejudice and persecution associated with my cultural heritage), it is sometimes hard to see why the reactions are so extreme. However, I understand from what I have read that for people who have been shamed for their culture and forced to conform with white norms, the adoption of non-white symbols or traits as a mark of difference or rebellion by white people is a reminder of that oppression. It is notable that it has a different meaning to those observers than the positive interpretation that is typically intended by the person involved, or that which is construed by other white people (who may not hold the same negative associations). Sometimes people can be absolutely blind to stereotyped imagery that they do not have personal associations with (see this example regarding racial imagery in a video game).

However, there is now a backlash saying that these complaints are part of a whiny politically correct subculture that enjoys being offended, and takes offence on behalf of others as part of a progressive agenda. More regressive voices like to scathingly label this as a desire for social justice, as if this would be a bad thing. See the comments on any article on this topic published online for plenty of examples.

So let me start by saying that I absolutely see the core legitimate grievance within the wider label of cultural appropriation. I can completely see that having white people ‘black up’ or ‘red face‘ is racist and would be offensive to people of colour, and that using cultural or religious artifacts when stripped of their meaning or commercialised (eg feathered head dresses, or the Hindu bindi) is controversial and could be considered to be in pretty poor taste. I also acknowledge that these appearances often go hand in hand with other elements to the role that make it more racist (such as using stereotyped accents or behaviours). I think it is right that overtly racist caricatures like ‘golliwog’ logos and toys, or racist scenes in early cartoons are relegated to the history books. Similarly, the use of logos and names that stereotype native Americans by sports teams in the USA has persisted for far too long. However, I can’t help but feel that the issue of cultural appropriation isn’t as clear cut as some people make out. It seems to me that the rules being made to restrict the risk of offence over culture (eg in American universities) are becoming as much of a problem as the issues they seek to address, and obscuring the very genuine issues of race inequality that lie underneath.

So are Halloween costumes on campus really oppressing people from minority groups? Is it really of concern if someone morphs her own white face to represent endangered African tribes? Or if white models get braided corn-rows? Are musicians like Madonna, Selina Gomez, Iggy Azalea and Beyonce really being “disrespectful” when dressing with elements of Indian costumes, such as wearing a bindi, sari or facial jewellery, or when Katie Perry wears a Geisha-like outfit, or Lady Gaga references a burqa? Is Miley Cyrus twerking disrespectful to working class black women?

If these examples are offensive, how far do we take this? What of actors who play people with different nationalities, religions or accents within a particular skin-tone? What about able bodied or neurotypical actors taking on roles of characters with physical, developmental or learning disabilities? What about actors who have not experienced mental health problems playing characters experiencing them in films/TV? Can musicians/artists only draw on influences within their own country/ethnicity/experience? Can writers only create characters of their own ethnic background? Can art or media not be provocative or controversial any more? Can I not cook curry or sushi or chow mein? The slippery slope could continue ad absurdum.

Surely, several issues are being confounded here. Firstly that there are many areas in which there is very little diversity of representation. For example, we clearly need more ethnic and gender diversity in business leaders and politicians in this country, as most of them remain white men. We also need more varied faces, accents and perspectives in the media, and as role models across the board. We need more diversity in the people who win awards (all white oscar nominations two years running is ridiculous, for example) and we need more diversity in those making decisions. Secondly, we can’t compensate for this lack of diversity by putting yet more of the same group into costume to represent others, and doing so would disrespect the lived experience of those being represented. There is a real need for representation and not just for increased mindfulness from those in power.

I’ve sat on a committee in which we have tried to ‘hold in mind issues of race, age, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, disability and other aspects of diversity’ but I don’t think it was possible when very few of those characteristics varied much within the group, and those which did vary were not much spoken about. The focus tends to be on what the group have in common, and each individual might feel unworthy of their status (particularly if they feel they don’t fit in as well, or are there because of a particular minority status), and that makes it much harder to highlight times when a devalued characteristic of an individual might be relevant. For example, in a mostly male boardroom, women tend to take on more traditionally masculine forms of discourse, and to feel less able to express emotions or feminine characteristics or needs. So, it seems likely that it is even harder to speak up about other aspects of diversity. It felt brave yet somehow risky for Crispin Blunt MP to talk about his use of poppers and how banning this would be criminalising a substance used widely by gay men. However, this is more the exception than the rule. Diverse voices tend to be marginalised and to find it hard to reach a platform, and this is something that needs to change. And that change needs to start right from the top. Having a minister for equality who voted against gay marriage is patently ridiculous, for example, yet we have had two in a row, neither of whom have any more experience of inequality than their privileged example of being female.

To go back to cultural appropriation more specifically, I’m not sure it is the action or costume in isolation that is the problem. I suspect that the context has a lot to do with the derived meaning. If actors and public figures were more varied and included people with physical disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health problems, a variety of religions and cultures, diverse ethnicities, all sexualities, genders, ages and body shapes, then everybody would feel represented and emotions would not be so heightened. If musicians, celebrities and scholars gaining funding and media coverage were more diverse, then the cliched references to other cultures would have much less power. Similarly, if the fashion industry routinely used models with a variety of skin tones for all campaigns, and treated their sources of inspiration more respectfully, then the hairstyles of models used to showcase collections with international influences would be much less problematic. If people from different perspectives had similar levels of power, then speaking up to criticise someone from a majority group would not be so difficult do or as easy for critics to attribute to sour grapes. But attitudes and power structures take a long time to change, and can be very resistant to progress, particularly where this threatens the status quo. The difficulty is therefore twofold – how we move towards the bigger goal, and what we do to manage the problems that will continue to appear until we get there.

Broadly I think we should allow people to express themselves, but also encourage thoughtfulness and conversations that challenge people’s preconceived ideas. Dressing up is usually playful, and done for fun rather than to make a statement. Sometimes, being a little ‘edgy’ is part of that fun. I would hope that a certain degree of role play allows us both flights of imagination and greater empathy. It would be a great shame if children couldn’t dress up as anyone outside of their own cultural group in play, for example, or if fancy dress costumes were similarly restricted. However, we should also be open to learning from other’s experience. So if a costume is culturally insensitive or causes offence, people need to speak up to say so.

However, there are two very important provisos to this. Firstly, it isn’t the responsibility of disempowered minorities to challenge the actions of the majority group, it is everybody’s responsibility. And second, highlighting a different perspective should, as far as possible, be done without publicly shaming the person involved, unless they continue to repeat the same actions which are causing offense. We can all have times when we accidentally do or say something thoughtless, and that shouldn’t be an irreparable error. It is what we do when that is drawn to our attention that is the measure of the person. Publicly shaming a person who makes a mistake or poor judgement is the kind of black and white thinking (if you excuse the pun) that polarises opinion and drives a wedge between different population groups.

I would also note that there are times that it is perfectly appropriate to join in with traditions and wear costumes as an outsider, and would be disrespectful not to. For example, for female western tourists to cover up exposed skin and perhaps their hair when visiting various religious sites, such as mosques and temples, or for guests to festivals and weddings to be dressed and decorated in the local style as part of the ritual preparations. Similarly it is sometimes helpful for somebody independent of a particular culture to study and document aspects of it that those within the culture might take for granted. It doesn’t replace the voices from within that culture (which we need to facilitate and amplify), but can be a helpful supplement. Similarly, I can’t see that use of influences from other culture as inspiration for art can’t be done respectfully or that having different perspectives isn’t generally a way to drive progress in any area of study. We wouldn’t have mathematics, a calendar, politics, written language or many sports if we relied solely on our indigenous and anglo saxon heritage.

Overall, I think nowadays we are in a melting pot whether we want to be or not. Our culture isn’t static, it is fluid and constantly evolving. There is increasing globalisation, and our history has gained from many different cultural roots. We travel internationally more than ever and we all have heritage in our DNA that we can track across continents. Our fashions, arts and sciences are enriched with knowledge and influences from all over the world. I’d see that as a positive thing, and an opportunity for ongoing dialogue and learning. To me, the key to drawing on other cultures is the context and respect with which we do so. There are some good examples of cultural appropriation. If we want to be sensible about culture, then giving credit to our sources, being open to feedback, and doing it with respect and admiration seems like a good place to start.

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