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When Culture Is Appropriated

It’s 2010, and I’m looking through an old friend’s gap year photos on Facebook.

I stop at a photo of him and three friends, all of them wearing conical bamboo hats on a busy street in South East Asia, grinning jokingly at the camera, their faces shiny from the humidity. It makes me feel uneasy.

The many times I see a version of this same image over the next few years, whether it’s at the airport or a fancy dress party, I am still bothered. But I don’t know what to call it, what it means, what it is — until now.

Last week, two accusations of cultural appropriation were brought to the media. The first was a black student arguing with a white student who had dreadlocks. The second was Justin Bieber, sporting cornrows and saying he looked like a douchebag.

Celebrities, particularly musicians, getting interrogated over their choice of props, outfits, music videos etc, is nothing new. Gwen Stefani raised eyebrows in the ‘90s when she wore a bindi, but nobody knew how to have a discussion back then. Fast forward a few years, when Miley Cyrus caused controversy at the MTV awards, twerking aggressively on black dancers, and we were finally ready to talk about it. But it’s tough to know what it all means, and what ‘counts’.

One definition of the term is this:

‘Cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.’

I’ve also read that cultural appropriation can be seen as ‘stripping the minority group of its group identity and intellectual rights’.

Were the boys in that photo appropriating Asian culture?

Conical bamboo hats are associated with various countries throughout Asia, from Bangladesh to China, and have been around in some places for almost 3,000 years. They are typically used as protection against the sun and rain, usually by farmers (also branded ‘commoners’).

Here’s what I imagine happened: the boys saw the hats, thought they were ‘cool’ or ‘funny’, bought them, giving it no more thought, and posed for a picture in them, perhaps even wore them during their travels. They might not have had any pejorative thoughts, but to me, it still feels like exploitation — and I’m not ‘just being sensitive’ (a phrase I find myself saying far too often when I feel like I’m out on a limb, ready to be jumped on).

Sure, you could argue about the product’s existence in the first place. After all, these countries are selling them. Are they exploiting their own culture? I don’t know. But I am certain that appreciating a culture, and appropriating it are two different things. You can appreciate a conical hat in a museum or someone’s house or on the Internet. You can think it looks cool or weird or interesting, or any other adjective. You can look, and touch, and ask questions,and discuss, and research. Appropriating a culture is to take from it and rely on what little knowledge, perhaps misinformed or stereotyped, you have (or perhaps no knowledge at all) to justify your choice as being morally sound.

It’s likely that my feelings towards this incident are such because I have a Chinese heritage. I have roots, bias. But I think it is usually those who have connections to what’s happening that call it out, draw other people’s attention to it. In a video on sexism I saw recently, actress and activist Caitlin Stasey said, ‘I don’t think you can tell anyone who is marginalised how to respond to their marginalisation’.

After all — if we’re talking about this country — the white British majority aren’t being culturally appropriated, so how could those four boys say that what they did wasn’t harmful? Does it matter to them if Justin Bieber has cornrows? Do they think it’s just a part of pop culture, that it’s ‘the norm’?

Over the past ten years, what is PC and what isn’t has become a topic of importance, something we should discuss. It’s good we have this new agenda, that we can finally tell people, ‘no, it isn’t ok when you say this’. But it’s not without a fight. Many people are riled up, the kind of people who say ‘everything is racism these days’, who defend the notion of ‘blacking up’ as ‘just good, clean fun’. The new agenda has also got people confused about what they can and can’t say.

Surely, the solution is straightforward. Respect each other and other cultures. Respect that a majority can’t just ‘have’ anything they want, no matter the cost. Respect that there is a cost. Respect that we no longer live in a time when letting this imbalance occur is ok.

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