Why cultural appropriation is an empty concept

One of the greatest oddities of the manifesto of cultural appropriation is how there is an assumed allowance for PoCs to appropriate other PoC cultures with relative impunity

Anna Slatz Montreal QC

As a Canadian living abroad, I have the incredible opportunity to witness the world through lenses stained with the mis-educations of the west. Experiencing first-hand the lack of reach social justice academia has in this part of the world is both liberating and bizarre. I can’t help but quickly process much of my day to day happenings through the “if this were the west…” filter, running alternate reality simulations like a computer.

For example, today I saw a young woman wearing an Áo Dài and exaggerated conical rice paddy hat in stereotypical Vietnamese fashion. She was a waitress standing outside a “Saigonese” restaurant and was beckoning customers in by calling out the specials of the day. I couldn’t help but wonder what outrage might be provoked had this happened in the west—say, a young white woman donning a problematic representation of a Vietnamese person for the purposes of advertising lunch specials. I’m sure we all recall the Cheongsam prom dress fiasco.

But then I ran a rare additional simulation. I dismissed the ethnic swap. I left the waitress as she was, a Thai. Would the outrage persist, or would there be any at all? The answer begs years of consideration—not!

One of the greatest oddities of the manifesto of cultural appropriation is how there is an assumed allowance for PoCs to appropriate other PoC cultures with relative impunity. Back in 2016, after Coldplay released their hit single “Hymn for the Weekend,” the music video caused some controversy for its appropriative elements. Taking place in India, the band traverses highly theatrical Indian scenery featuring the usual suspects: mystical swamis, heavily pierced women in saris, and coloured-dust filled streets of cheering Indian people.

A significantly lesser element of the controversy was the brief appearances by Beyoncé donned in full Bollywood attire—henna, bangles, face chain, and an elaborate silk headscarf and sari.

While people were quick to dismiss Coldplay’s behavior as stone-cold cultural appropriation and fetishization, there was a debate over Beyoncé’s participation. Time Magazine eventually published a full defense of Beyoncé, written by University of Texas’ own Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley.

The principal excuse utilized boggled my mind: Beyoncé is black. And there are some black people in India and Sri Lanka. So, close enough.

Tinsley goes further to state that Indians have mucked up beauty standards anyhow, their favoring paler skin and slim facial features, so Beyoncé was doing them some sort of a favor by injecting a darker skinned body into their cultural dress.

The close enough argument seems to be at the crux of much of the selectivity of cultural appropriation outrage. More accurately, that a group who somewhat resembles the color, features, and/or general region of origin of the group whose culture is being appropriated can’t be held to fault. This logic ascribes a certain assumption that the experiences of groups similar in presentation are similar in nature.

Which is insane. Demonstrably so.

Returning to my observation of the young Thai waitress—Thailand actively participated in the French colonization of Vietnam and parts of Laos to secure its own power in the region. Further, anti-Vietnamese sentiment was rife during the red scare days of Thai’s staunchly anti-Communist Parliament, and individuals suspected of being Vietnamese Communists were imprisoned, deported, or brutally tortured.

So, now what? Does the Thai girl still have a right? Or is the outrage quelled merely because most of the otherwise-outraged intelligentsia wouldn’t be able to readily tell the difference between a Thai and Vietnamese individual? I recall a dinner I had with a very left-wing University friend at a trendy sushi restaurant back in Canada. The waitresses were wearing elegant spring yukatas as uniforms, and my friend, dejected, said

“They’re so beautiful! I wish I could wear one of those without it being offensive or looking ridiculous.”

“Why is it offensive?” I asked, knowing the answer but playing dumb, “Why couldn’t you wear one?”

“I am not Japanese. It is not my place.” She said sincerely.

The waitresses were Korean.

However, close enough wasn’t the only argument made against the existence of PoC-on-PoC social justice criminality in Tinsley’s article. Her argument led to an echo of hivemind replications across social media and racial commentary sites. AfroPunkand Konbini agreed, chalking a PoC’s inability to be guilty of cultural appropriation to “power imbalances.” Again, this argument is rife with potential areas for contention.

Who determines which group has more or less power?

What or how is power defined as, specifically? Is it economic? Social?

Economically, many PoC groups outearn whites by high margins (Indians, Japanese, Chinese, and West Indies blacks especially). Socially, there would seem to be a certain amount of social power present in the ability to define what power does and does not constitute. Not even historical power is safe from contestation, seeing as all groups, at one point or another in history or the present, have had power over another group. History has no examples of a perpetual, persisting victim.

And, most curiously, why is culture necessarilyprovided a racial quality in issues of culture appropriation quarrels? The liberal left has long argued against the existence of a specific racial character to elements of culture, hasn’t it? After all, that is the assertion made by white nationalist types who insist on the preservation of certain cultures being intrinsically tied to the existence of certain racial groups.

Even in Tinsley’s article, she decries the unbearable light-skinnedness of some famous Indian Bollywood stars—Sunny Leone, Amy Jackson, etc. These people are ethnically Indian! And yet it is not enough for them to represent their own cultures because they could be mistaken for belonging to another, whiter one. This is incredibly ironic, considering the parallel cry of “fetishization!” that tends to accompany claims of cultural appropriation. Fetishization, of course, being nothing other than the wholesale generalization of an entire people into a single, two-dimensional identity for quick consumption.

But perhaps that’s the problem with social justice endeavours as a whole. They often mimic far too much of what they purport to want to replace—compartmentalized groups battling for importance and supremacy. Does it really matter that the stated intentions are different, if everything in practice results in the same outcome?

While I ponder this question, I’ll enjoy my last few months in a part of the world that’s still so foreign to the concepts western academia has sworn by. Right now, I’m sitting across from a Krispy Kreme, staring at the sign advertising their Lunar New Year special—a donut with a slit-eyed caricature of a Chinese man wearing a mandarin hat frosted on the top.

I might get one. But if this were the west…


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