“Cultural appropriation” is a phrase social justice folks like to throw around a lot. It’s easy to identify, and easy to explain to those who are unfamiliar with the concept. It also allows for its very own brand of White Guilt™ that makes both white people and people of color satisfied when making sure the offending party is adequately shamed. The problem is most people miss the point of cultural appropriation, and it’s easy to get lost in it. Some are hardlined about it. Just ask them about Asian fusion cuisine and get ready to feel the deliciousness upchuck its way into your mouth. Seriously, there are people furious about the “bastardization of pho” using pictures of fake pho that make me hungry.
Oftentimes people who are concerned with cultural appropriation completely miss the point. The concept of cultural appropriation exists to point out a level of harm toward a group of people, and this is the angle from which it should be examined. Conversations around cultural appropriation are meant to address harm. The harm includes things like corporations capitalizing on Native American culture in their faux “Navajo” fashion line, when Native American work in the same industry goes largely unacknowledged, and Native American communities in this country often live in abject poverty while Urban Outfitters makes millions. This is a great injustice and unequal power dynamic, and a prime example of what we must keep in mind when we think about what it means to “eat the other.”
On the other hand, many people examine this in terms of “Is this cultural appropriation? If yes, attack.” They use the phrase to get up in arms and shame others, and you will come across examples that will lead you to wonder if they are worth your time. More from the wreckage: I’m not the hugest fan of John Green, but there was some uproar a few years ago about “Hanko de Mayo,” the name used for his brother Hank’s birthday due to the fact that it fell on May 5th.
I’m going to ignore the fact that Cinco de Mayo is now basically an American holiday primarily celebrated by drunk college bros in racist hats. (Also going to ignore the lingering question of how to pronounce “Meagan.”) I think you can make a good argument that Hanko de Mayo is technically cultural appropriation. However, the Twitter and Tumblr interactions around this issue serve as evidence that people are more interested in spreading the Cinco de Mayonnaise of White Guilt across the Internet than they are about actually addressing harm. Is there anyone suffering from this simple play on words?
Then there is the culmination of guilt into fear of upsetting a person of color. “Is this tattoo with Chinese characters cultural appropriation?” a white person with a new tattoo might wonder too little too late. “Will my Chinese friend be upset by it?” No one is going to make claims that a tattoo like that can’t be vaguely racist, but the most you may endure is someone else laughing at your tattoo, or the feeling of someone lowering their opinion of you for deciding on something so tacky. That is to say, yes, this is technically cultural appropriation, and yes, maybe your Chinese friend will get upset. In the grand scheme of things you made a lame decision, but at the very least you can comfort yourself with the idea that it’s simply “not okay.”
NPR’s Code Switch focused on the messy and complex issues around cultural appropriation and the outrage around the Harlem Shake.
As critics stateside were telling people not to do the “Harlem Shake,” kids in Egypt and Tunisia were Harlem Shaking to protest governments they felt were violating their freedom of expression. Four Egyptian students were arrested for performing the dance. They were using the “Harlem Shake” the way hip-hop has been employed almost since the beginning: as a tool for yelling back at adults and the powerful. If any piece of culture was being appropriated, it was by Arab kids in North Africa, white kids in Australia, and — yes — black kids in Brooklyn Park. The old narratives just don’t fit anymore.
Using another culture’s symbols as an exercise in self-expression can definitely be an exercise in privilege, but liberals should keep their eye on the ball. Should white people trim their dreads? Should they simply Shavasana and take it? Failing to consider appropriation by its relationship to harm risks us getting stuck in the “I’m sorry you’re offended” conversation, a conversation that is hard to dig yourself out of because now you’re defending your right to be offended rather than focusing on problems that affect others beyond your own feelings.