By: Christina Lee
The next time I sit down on a chair, I should think about “cultural appropriation.”
That’s the message writer Bari Weiss relays in her 2017 op-ed for The New York Times titled, “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation.”
Weiss misses the point in some spots, failing to examine the impact of colonialism, i.e. the inherent power play that does exist within the broad concept of “cultural appropriation,” and claiming that cultural appropriation is what “makes America great” in an eerie echo of hackneyed Trump-isms. Nonetheless, the takeaway that “cultural appropriation” is everywhere, even in the chair I’m sitting on, may seem far-fetched, but it’s essentially an idea that has shaken my worldview ever since, making myself doubt my own stance toward this hot, new term “cultural appropriation” and what it really means for someone bicultural like me to grapple with the ways people are abusing this new phrase.
In her article, Weiss writes that cultural appropriation “is overwhelmingly being used as an objection to syncretism—the mixing of different thoughts, religions, cultures and ethnicities that often ends up creating entirely new ones”. To discuss the term as it’s commonly abused especially by young, outspoken social media users today, I would have to say that Weiss has a point: American singer Jessye Norman specializes in the Italian opera and performs pieces written by German composer Richard Wagner; one of the most popular Greek yogurt companies is run by a Kurd born in Turkey who now lives in America; and as for me, Koreans rarely used chairs until they were most likely introduced to them via foreign nomadic tribes who had already made use of stools. This exchange and adoption of various cultures into our own lives is inevitable.
With the prevalence of social media and online communication today, we’ve created an environment in which we learn to empathize with, gain awareness of, and implement new ideas faster than ever, and it’s only appropriate that we have learned to do so considering the abundance of resources at our disposal. However, the consequence emerges where these “advocates” begin to misuse their newfound power, wielding their social media accounts as a weapon to present their indignantly self-righteous cries for restoring justice in niche spaces, only to validate their self-created sense of virtue.
These are the people who blur the lines between assimilation, cross-cultural exchange, Weiss’s so-called “syncretism,” and true cultural appropriation that suggests actually harmful notions of racism, colonialism, and discrimination in the given context (e.g. naming an American sports team “Redskins,” a white individual donning Afrocentric hairstyles without facing the same consequences in the workplace). In that same sense, before examining the dangers of misusing the term “cultural appropriation,” it’s crucial to establish that nuances to this discussion indeed exist. Specifically, this issue extends to the implications of white privilege and the hypocrisy of a dominant culture misrepresenting and exploiting the cultures of ethnic groups that have been systematically discriminated against throughout history. Essentially, context matters. In the United States, where issues surrounding race have continuously marred the country, it’s important to note that “cultural appropriation” can quickly escalate into a denial of an entire ethnic group’s past struggles, the establishment of imperialist sentiments, and blatant racism.
But in examining the pros and cons of being aware of “cultural appropriation” as it’s thrown around these days, it seems that the negatives outweigh the positives.
Following the “logic” of some of these advocates of cultural appropriation’s dangers, I should have been considered guilty of appropriating culture—I’ve been copying and using the cultural items valuable to these nomadic tribes without knowing about their origins because I literally Googled the history of a chair just to write this article.
In this same manner, the commonly misunderstood version of cultural appropriation results in a slippery-slope argument that could leave me posing endless examples: white people shouldn’t listen to R&B, jazz, or even rock music—if they don’t know the comprehensive history behind these music genres, starting from where and when they originated, their characteristics, and key figures, they should probably just stick to Bach or Mozart.
I exaggerate, but that’s essentially the dangerously flawed message that these advocates portray. These same advocates choose not to speak out so vocally about the exploitation of slaves who worked in unimaginable conditions in salt ponds during the 1800s whenever they pick up a container of salt to season their food, and these same people indulge in music genres that, surprise, have been appropriating the sounds that originates within cultures of people of color.
Perhaps we’re just picking and choosing our own battles for our own convenience and self-conceited sense of righteousness and entitlement without acknowledging the hypocrisy of our flawed logic.
A lurking sense of discomfort emerges whenever someone points out an instance of “cultural appropriation” and calls for the restoration of that particular cultural practice or item to its original place in a context that doesn’t hint at racist and imperialist sentiment. Realistically, the idea of “exoticism” and “otherness” is perpetuated instead, where we enforce the concept that whatever seems foreign and unfamiliar should remain foreign and unfamiliar. In adopting this mentality, we stray further from learning about other cultures and growing closer to them in a healthy way that encourages the unification of people rather than division. Let’s be honest: deeming other cultures “exotic” is frankly outdated. But with these mindless performances of gatekeeping, the discouraging sentiment surrounding the integration and possibility of approaching various cultures evokes the imagery of the past, of segregation, of exoticism, and of discrimination.
Would I be offended if I saw any person who wasn’t Korean wearing hanbok? Probably not. But then again, I’m in no position to speak on the behalf of an entire culture and its people when I myself am a combination of countless cultures integrating and influencing one another.