Cultural Appropriation Is Not a Thing

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I have long been fascinated with other cultures, open to other traditions, and drawn to the beauty of other cultures’ art and expression. It seems to me that learning about other cultures is our best hope for creating a society that is open, tolerant, and inclusive.

Then I began hearing about “cultural appropriation.” Apparently adopting or adapting from cultures other than the culture one is born into is a huge bad thing because it demeans and commercializes the other cultures in question.

Whoa. All this time, I have been tolerating green beer, drunkenness, cries of “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” green plastic leprechaun hats, and corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day, and I wasn’t even mildly offended. (You can travel the length and breadth of Ireland and never see corned beef and cabbage on any menu. Or on anyone’s home table, either. It’s actually something the Irish immigrants culturally appropriated from the Jewish immigrants in America. For the record, the Jews have not complained about this.)

But there’s more. How many movies, books, comics, etc. have you seen with fairies, pookah, banshees, elves, will ‘o the wisps and other culturally Irish (or Celtic) themes? A whole bunch, I bet. Do you hear Irish-American people complaining about it?

No, you do not. That’s because it doesn’t damage Irish culture for people to paint their faces green and get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day. We may laugh at the gaucherie, but that’s all.

The argument that one culture can “steal” culture from another and thereby damage it is absurd. It’s equivalent to straight conservative people claiming that gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage. Yeah—every one of Newt Gingrich’s three marriages was sanctified.

I recently made sugar skulls with my seven-year-old granddaughter, Lilah. Lilah is Hispanic through her father, and I thought making sugar skulls would be a wonderful way to help her celebrate her heritage. In addition to making the skulls, I told her about the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, why they make the skulls, and the lovely tradition of picnicking in the graveyard to visit with the beloved dead and share with them the events of the past year. We posted pictures of our beautiful sugar skulls on Facebook to share our handiwork.

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I was immediately accused of cultural appropriation, with a link to an article on how us gringos/gabachos are ruining the sugar skull tradition.

Well, first of all, I don’t like being called a gringa or gabacha. It was just rude, and not a very persuasive way to get white people to read the article. While I thought the article was well written and made some good points about bad behavior on the part of some white people, I still think cultural appropriation isn’t possible, like dry water.

Second, I believe that the more people know and appreciate about each other’s cultures, the better off we will all be. Discouraging friendly interest and participation on the part of “others” is just driving the wedge deeper between us all.

And above all there is art. Artists have been influenced by other cultures for thousands of years, and the synergy between cultural traditions has resulted in work of genius and beauty. What if Picasso had not been allowed to use the rhythmically angular and abstract themes of African art in his painting? Jazz and rock and roll synergize African and European ideas of music into fantastically creative new forms. And what if no one but the English were allowed to use the cadences and flowing language of Shakespeare, who has influenced every body of literature in the world? The Art Deco movement would not have existed without the early 20th century fascination with the stylized art of ancient Egypt. This is cultural synergy, not cultural appropriation, and we would all be the poorer if it didn’t go on every day of every year. Fortunately, you can’t stifle artists for very long.

I am not, of course, condoning disrespectful and boorish behavior like dressing up in a Native American headdress, making whooping noises, calling everyone “Chief,” and saying “How.” That’s ignorance and bad manners. But it is not cultural appropriation, because Native American culture has never been harmed by this. The person who is harmed is the jackass doing it.

The bushman in Africa is your brother. The Ainu woman in northern Japan is your sister. Each of us is genetically almost identical to every other human being on earth. We have everything to gain by sharing our traditions and cultures. We have everything to lose by erecting still more barriers between people.

By the way, on St Patrick’s Day, please help yourself to the green beer and shamrock cookies. I’m good with it.

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