Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Cultural Copyright


The debate about cultural appropriation keep flaring up, much like the recently active Popacatapetl, and it does seem to be generating more heat than light. I’m surprised and disappointed that any of this still needs saying, but from what I hear and read on a regular basis, it seems it does.

Is cultural appropriation a useful or even correct term?

Ethnicities are not monocultures. Cultures are not monocultures. Typifying Indian culture (for example) by Southern Indian Hindu cuisine and then saying that cooking this food at home is cultural appropriation is in itself a kind of ignorant colonialism – they’re all the same over there. That’s like saying that all white people are Goths. If you’re going to talk about a particular culture, you need to define exactly what it is you’re talking about.

No culture is historically ‘pure’ even if some people like to think theirs is. It’s impossible to eradicate all elements of the Other. There is always cross-pollination. All cultures are an amalgamation of historical influxes and absorption. Even isolated jungle tribes have contact with each other and adopt elements of each others’ culture that suit them, while maintaining a sense of their own. The zero was adopted in the West because it made maths and trade easier. Better kinds of agriculture, metal working and medicine were acquired without asking permission. Not all of what could be called cultural appropriation is bad.

Historically, some markers of cultural identity were visible – clothes, food, music, for example. Others were less so – stories, private rituals, language. A shibboleth is defined as ‘a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people’. It comes from the Hebrew word shibbólet and its pronunciation was used to distinguish Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked a /ʃ/ phoneme (as in shoe), from the people of Gilead whose dialect did have it. In Mediaeval France, people separated themselves into Langue D’Oc and Langue D’Oil. It was a geographical separation that became a marker of custom, community and allegiance based on different ways of pronouncing the word for Yes.

Markers like this are rarely appropriated, mainly because they have no commercial or aesthetic value.

Nations and individuals have no problem selling aspects of their culture to outsiders. This can be to tourists in their own country or it can be by moving abroad and selling it to the natives – for example, by running a restaurant, selling carpets or holding classes in yoga or martial arts. That’s the foundation of export, after all. The people selling the culture decide which aspects of it to sell and may modify it for foreign tastes. They are in control of the dissemination and profitability of their own culture.

Claiming appropriation in this context denies individuals and cultures any agency of their own. They’re not capable of deciding what to do with their culture and can’t protect it so white, middle class Westerners have to do it for them. Then they can feel all virtuous by getting outraged on someone else’s behalf without actually stopping to ask that someone else if they’re offended.

Is it only appropriation if your culture has a history of exploiting or abusing the culture you’re accessorising? Is it appropriation if, for example, a Jamaican wears a bindi? Or is it not because it’s much harder for white Westerners to decide which group to side with?

There’s also an element of cultural protection. We don’t like to surrender aspects of our culture that make us different from Others. No one likes to see markers of their In group go mainstream. A degree of this is inevitable in an increasingly global culture but it’s not a new thing. In the distant past when groups were more isolated, each developed its own identity like speciation in isolated locations. As people began to mix more, often through trade or war, it became more important to be able to distinguish Us and Them, especially if one group was exploited or threatened. We’re an Us and Them kind of species, no different from many others. When resources are limited, it’s important to know who to share them with and who you’re competing with.

Refugees or immigrants often try to maintain their cultural identity as a distinct entity. It’s not a refusal to ‘assimilate’, it’s a survival instinct. It can bind them together in a difficult time and may give them a sense of comfort, strength and value. It gives them history, context and identity even though they benefit from and contribute to the culture they find themselves in. Don’t forget who you are, where you came from or what you have suffered.

What this all boils down to is power. Who is in control of the cultural copyright and who is benefiting from it? Are value, history and meaning lost or is it a fair exchange?

But any time a dominant culture discriminates against or exploits a minority or tries to impose their culture as the only valid one, establishing a cultural hierarchy while cherry-picking and commercialising the bits that are ‘acceptable’, that’s not cultural appropriation. Racism is the problem, not shopping. And that’s much harder to admit to or tackle than pointing the finger at a white woman in a cheongsam.


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