Cultural appropriation: why people need to get a grip

Earlier this week, the Internet went into meltdown because pop icon Adele had her hair braided into Bantu knots, a traditional African hairstyle. Accusing her of ‘cultural appropriation’, hordes of the rabid Outraged took to Twitter to vent their spleen, while others leapt to her defence.

Who was right? What the hell is ‘cultural appropriation’ anyway? And why should we care?

Cultural appropriation has become such a politically charged term, and so subjective in its interpretation, that even debating the validity of its meaning risks drawing down the ire of the mob. Nevertheless, I find myself unable to stand on the sidelines – I want to address this issue – and I fully accept that this is my own take on the matter. I have a personal stake in the outcome. In the publishing world, a debate currently rages that speaks to the very heart of what it means to be an author, a debate that seeks to set boundaries on our imaginations within the context of cultural identity.

When we talk about cultural appropriation, what we really mean is cultural misappropriation: the adoption of elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity in a way that is deemed to cause offence. It particularly becomes an issue when the culture engaging in the alleged misappropriation has historically disadvantaged the culture from which it is appropriating. The trouble is that the lines are not only blurred but continually being redrawn as to what might be perceived as offensive.

Some examples.

The Washington Redskins football team has, after years of petitioning, finally agreed to change its name and logo – that of a Native American in feathered headdress. The logo was deemed racist by many in the Native American population, understandably so, given their fraught history with white colonisers.

Blackface is another relatively clear-cut example of cultural misappropriation.

In general, dressing up as ethnic stereotypes, especially in an attempt to ridicule or parody, is a no-no.

Recently, several actors have been criticised for taking on roles outside of their culture. I’m certain Scarlett Johansson intended no offence when portraying an iconic Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, yet offence was taken. In this instance, historical context is important, given that her casting followed a long line of such perceived slights by Hollywood. In the 1930s, white Swedish-American actor Warner Oland played a Chinese detective named Charlie Chan in no less than sixteen films. In the fifties, John Wayne was given a truly awful makeover to play Genghis Khan. To our modern eyes these images are clearly insensitive, but the truth is that they were disquieting even then, symptomatic of both a cultural and power inequality in Hollywood – and the world at large.

Having said all this, I remain firmly behind the idea that authors – and creative artists, in general – should be allowed to express themselves beyond the bounds of the culture into which they were born. To not have that right would mean that could never pen a novel populated by white protagonists. I could never set a story in exotic climes, or at least those cultural settings deemed outside of my subcontinental heritage.

But who is drawing the lines here? Who is in charge of what is and isn’t permissible – culturally speaking – for a particular individual or situation? Can sporting a particular hairstyle really cause such terrible offence? Has the worldwide adoption of hip-hop music been detrimental or helpful to the black inner city communities within which it originated? When non-black artists perform such music are they insulting or celebrating black culture?

Everything is about context.

There is, some argue, a fine line between cultural misappropriation and cultural appreciation. After all, in an increasingly interconnected, globalised world, cultures are continually mixing – it’s inevitable that we will see a sharing of cultural ideas, traditions, fashions, symbols, and even language. For me (and many others), this is a good thing, a way for cultures to understand and empathise with each other, and to normalise what at first might seem different or strange. Did you think you were insulting generations of subcontinental cooks the last time you made a curry at home? Of course not!

chicken

Debate on the issue has itself become all but impossible, so eager are some to draw battlelines. Cancel culture has stilled the protests of many who might bring a sense of perspective.

I confess, I am fed up with the knee-jerk, hysterical, faux-outrage that continually swamps the Internet. Whilst there are clearly cases of cultural misappropriation that should be called out, other instances are beyond trivial – or deliberately misinterpreted.

Personally, I think that the matter comes down to common sense. We will not all agree on every situation, but by taking a deep breath before reacting, we might better serve the cause of global fraternity.

As far as authors are concerned, I will continue to defend our right to explore any realm of the imagination that we should so choose. If we do our research, if we set out to highlight rather than to denigrate, to depict a particular culture with truth and empathy – warts and all – then we will have fulfilled the tenets of our creed, and should not feel remotely guilty in so doing.

In 2019 Booker-prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo dismissed the concept of cultural appropriation, suggesting that it is ridiculous to demand of writers that they not “write beyond your own culture.”

I could not agree with her more.

The second in a series of three articles on this topic is called Cultural Appropriation: when authors crash and burn and the third is called Cultural Appropriation: when authors get it right.

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10 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation: why people need to get a grip

  1. Could not agree with you more! There is no right for individualism anymore. Social justice warriors seem to be winning and as such are changing the thoughts and behaviours of people. People, who whether they like to agree with or not, have the same rights as they do. It seems to be a dangerous future we are heading towards- where being politically correct will be a way of life. The dystopian future of George Orwell’s- 1984 comes to mind.

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  2. I agree with you 100% It is becoming very scary to try and have a debate these days with various troll types using their mouths like guns to destroy someone. That’s called abuse. Thank you for writing such a well considered piece about this issue. Liza MIles

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  3. Hi Vaseem….it was very enlightening to read such an even handed and common sense view of a sticky subject. I have tried to articulate this view to many friends but have struggled. Mine was along the lines that I should stop listening to Reggae Music and eating Jerk chicken as
    I am Welsh and White. I think I got the message across but not as well as you.

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  4. Vaseem!

    Wow, this is a beautifully written piece. I am a 1st-gen Vietnamese-American and considered to be very lucky that I have the influences of both cultures. I am also very lucky to remember comic geniuses like Richard Pryor and satirical movies such as Blazing Saddles. If people keep on canceling and slapping “cultural appropriation” at any given chance, we’ll be reduced to just a micron of human artistry. Some of the food I love comes from so many different cultures: soul food, chicharrones, heo quay, bangers n’ mash, hotdogs and burgers, pastichio, etc. More of the reason why I enjoy the melting pot because they’re so rich and delicious. Let’s enjoy, learn, and appreciate our cultural differences.

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    • I couldn’t agree with you more, Thao. Food is a particularly important area where cultures can learn to appreciate each other. At the bottom of my road is a Vietnamese restaurant which my wife and I go to regularly. Inspired by their food, she sometimes cooks Vietnamese dishes – we never once felt we were ‘misappropriating’ Vietnamese culture by making those dishes at home!

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  5. Thanks for your very thoughtful piece on this increasingly confusing topic.
    Of all the points you make, this resonated most with me;
    “by taking a deep breath before reacting, we might better serve the cause of global fraternity.”
    In world full of historic and ongoing injustice it is all to easy to assume evil intent in any action. Taking that breath may give us the space to debate, agree what is genuinely hurtful and what is simply the result of different cultures learning to live together.
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

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