I’ve recently read several articles that had the same underlying theme: cultural appropriation. Since I feel I don’t really understand the meaning of this expression, I took the time to look it up in the dictionary.
(Cambridge University Dictionary)
Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. Because of the presence of power imbalances that are a byproduct of colonialism and oppression, cultural appropriation is distinct from equal cultural exchange. Particularly in the 21st century, cultural appropriation is often considered harmful, and to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, notably indigenous cultures and those living under colonial rule. Often unavoidable when multiple cultures come together, cultural appropriation can include using other cultures’ cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language, and songs.
What first comes to my mind is who uses this term. Usually it’s someone who advocates for an oppressed minority and often doesn’t belong to said minority. However, it has become more of a witch hunt in many cases than a way of truly provoking thought and fostering respect for cultures. It is certainly surprising that people who say they want respect and understanding actually respect and understand little of the motivations behind many people’s attraction to other cultures.
A doubt that strikes me as reasonable is where is the limit? How do we judge when something is truly disrespectful or a celebration of a culture?
The trend has arrived in Hollywood. I’ve read discussions as to who should interpret certain characters in certain films. Can a white actor interpret a non-white character? Can a straight woman adequately represent a lesbian?
With regards to this, I have two issues. First, an actor is supposed to ( as I understand it) be capable of interpreting many different characters which may or may not be similar to them in age, style, nationality, sexual preferences, weight or personality. Are we going to box people in little spaces and limit their capacity to create a character because they are the wrong shade of skin? By the way, this seems to work only in one sense. It limits white people.
Even JK Rowling apparently said that her character from Harry Potter, Hermione, could be played by a black girl because the colour of her skin was not defining to the character. Anyone who has read the series of Harry Potter books knows the description of Hermione as a white girl with bushy brown hair. This affirmation went down without a raised eyebrow. What if I suggested that the character of Cho Chang, also from the Harry Potter series, who is described as Chinese, should be played by a blonde white girl? Would that be alright or would it be cultural appropriation? Or perhaps white supremacism?
Am I culturally appropriating Indian culture when I make a curry? If I buy a silk kimono and wear it to a party, am I culturally appropriating Japanese culture? The Japanese love Flamenco. Are Japanese Flamenco dancers culturally appropriating Mediterranean Spanish culture or does it just work one way? Is Japanese culture inferior or subordinated to Spanish culture in any way?
Today was the final straw for me. There was an article about how writers should just stick to writing about their own ethnic group and sexual orientation and sex, referring to white writers who wrote about Asia, black people, LGBT or anyone different from them.
My incredulity knows no bounds! So I should not write anything about men, people of any other colour than lily white or LGBT because I am none of those things. Perhaps I may be allowed to write about the USA as I grew up there…
My first published book, ‘Diary of a Green Dog ‘, of which I am proud, is set mostly in Pakistan and is multicultural. I like to think I managed to portray my characters with respect and researched into rites, rituals, food and places.
So am I to be flagellated on the altar of political correctness for having overstepped my boundaries and dared to write about a culture that was not my own? I certainly will not apologise for having written it.
I hope all this is not going to continue expanding at such a fast pace or we will see the end of art as we know it, the expression of human imagination without barriers.
It seems contradictory that in their quest for protecting culture, these social justice warriors will achieve the opposite: its weakening by imposing frontiers where there should be none.
Literature or cinema or any art form are not merely a faithful reflection of life nor should it be expected of it. It transcends place, time, gender or anything else that might seemingly separate us. That’s why Shakespeare, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ , classical opera or Degas’ ballerinas appeal to so many people of so many generations. They tell us that we can, if we wish, connect to each other because we are all, indeed, human.
Nowadays, I fear that with the excuse of setting high standards of justice and equality we will end up suffocating what most makes us human: our creativity.