The problem with cultural appropriation

People throw around the term ‘cultural appropriation’ a lot, and discourse about it has reared its bindi-wearing head in Oxford again recently. Lincoln publicised its ‘New Orleans’ themed ball last week, after earlier this year LMH themed a bop ‘Arabian Nights’. Pembroke put on an ‘Indian Summers’ ball last Trinity and Queens have announced their ‘A Night on the Orient Express’ ball theme. There has been criticism, much of which has been quite sympathetically heard by planning committees (even if little real action was taken in consequence), and a vast amount of confusion and angry debate over exactly what the problem is.

Let me make it clear: cultural appropriation, at its most basic level, is the use of elements created by one culture by members of another. The problem is that in some cases – especially when there’s an imbalance of power or strength between those cultures – there can be negative consequences, and it’s this that the term generally refers to nowadays.

The point I’m getting to is simple. Interaction and exchange between cultures is a beautiful, exciting, important thing. There are reliefs of the Buddha being guarded by Hercules from ancient Afghanistan; the remembrance poppy hijab is a thing and a great one, or how about ‘Bride and Prejudice’, the London-made Bollywood take on Jane Austen?

Breaking down perceived barriers between cultures is clearly a wonderful thing. More importantly, though, it could not be more necessary in today’s political climate: division is a weapon of war in the hands of only the most deluded and hate-loving groups, and benefits no one except them. Cultural division and closed-mindedness is also, unsurprisingly, one of the greatest generators of the pitiable individuals who join these blinded groups.

The problem is that interactions between cultures are not always positive and healthy; when there is an imbalance of power between societies, and when it’s assumed that one culture is somehow superior to another, they can easily cause great harm. Not all interactions between cultures generate understanding, and cultural appropriation is the opposite of friendly, respectful, curious cultural exchange. However, as the exceptionally respectful, open-minded and humble white guy who started yelling at me on the Race Matters Facebook page a few weeks ago made all too clear, coverage of this issue can have a lack of focus on exactly how cultural appropriation is destructive, how it actually causes harm.

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You can break it down into two parts: repeated personal hurt, and the perpetuation or reinforcement of often invisible, awful ways of seeing the world and other humans.

The question of personal harm is easier to explain. People of colour in Europe are forced to abandon elements of their culture or cultural heritage, to assimilate, simply to survive – they can’t risk the employability bias against them being made even worse, for example, or may even be afraid of direct physical violence: ‘Go back where you came from’ attacks have not disappeared. In a climate of increasing Islamophobic attacks against Middle Eastern and South Asian people of all religions, the situation is darkening for many. Immigrant communities shame those who haven’t assimilated enough yet: the worst insult I could offer my Dad when he buys a new pair of shoes is that they make him look like a ‘freshie’ (fresh off the boat, that is).

When white people – meaning no harm – wear bindis, saris, decorate themselves with Hindu symbols, the message we hear is clear: ‘We can wear these things and enjoy them, be praised for them.’ How is that supposed to feel, when we have been forced by prejudice to abandon these things? To feel ashamed of them, and hate ourselves by proxy? Yet you can toss them on and toss them aside whenever you wish, free only because of your skin colour.

People of colour suffer a barrage of trauma, from physical violence to micro-aggressions like these. Cultural appropriation, however well-intended, however un-thought-through, can be yet another blow on vulnerable minds. I understand that no harm is meant, but this is hurting us. We are not just ‘offended’.

Cultural appropriation as a source of micro-aggressions is not all, however. It is ugly to think and difficult to accept, but it’s true: contemporary Western culture normalises whiteness and assumes European superiority. I desperately wish that wasn’t true, but the proof is everywhere. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are wildly overrepresented in British prisons, low-income groups and practically every other marginalised group. They are equally under-represented in university and school syllabuses, high-status jobs and the media that saturates our culture.

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One of the patterns of thought that sustains this is strongly linked to cultural appropriation. Non-white, non-European cultures are seen through an orientalising lens: we see them partly as a compressed, reduced stereotype of what they really are, and part of our perception of them is that they are Other, different, not normal. By homogenising and reducing the thousand cultures of a region with a population greater than Europe, comparable cultural heritage and arguably more cultural diversity to a party theme or costume, for example, we are reinforcing these outdated narratives.

What’s the problem with that, then? The charming young man from Facebook phrased it rather more strongly, but it’s an important question. Keeping stereotypes alive, continuing to see foreign cultures as exotic and mostly sources of exciting aesthetics, strengthens two things. First is the dehumanisation of people of colour – stereotypes encourage us to see people as caricatures, as essences, not as actual individuals or humans. When and if a group is already marginalised, that is toxic.

Second is the subtle perception – underlying too much Western thought even today – that non-European cultures are not as culturally rich, diverse, important as European cultures; in short, that non-white cultures – and inseparably from that, non-white people – are somehow inferior. If you cannot see how dangerous, oppressive and violent this idea is, then you have completely lost the plot, and I am afraid.