Today a friend of mine posted a link to the following article from Everyday Feminism by Jarune Uwujaren called Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation: http://tinyurl.com/ksb5fh6 Today is also the 124th Anniversary of the Wounded Knee Massacre, so I thought this might be an excellent subject to discuss from the Indigenous perspective.
Go ahead. Take some time to read it. It is thoughtful and well-written. It brings up several valid points that many of us could benefit from understanding better.
That said, I take some issue with some of the apologetic wording in this article. I understand why Ms. Uwujaren chose her approach. She is coming from the perspective that one needs to be gentle with the faint-hearted sensibilities of the various members of the oppressive culture. She does not want to come off as being unfair or uneven with white people (or more specifically, the people who demand that their idea of the ‘Cultural Exchange’ is truth and law and that uppity minorities should just shut the fuck up already about all this appropriation whining.) I am even making that distinction knowing that, just as it has happened time and time again, someone will read this and feel like they are being unjustly included in a group of people just because of the colour of their skin (or their culture.)
But trying to not hurt the feelings of the people who are part of this oppressive social class and dressing things up in ribbons and bows for them causes more problems in the same field. There are a few places in the article where the author does this, but here is my primary example:
“The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation”
There is no reason for the frosting here. We need to be straightforward about this kind of thing. Western culture always demands assimilation. Western culture was born in a time of forced assimilation and has never let go of that mantle. The colonization of the Americas occurred at the nadir of conquest culture that started with the Crusades in the 11th-13th centuries. The dominant European cultures conquered and pushed assimilation on Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Bohemia, Basque Country and Catalonia. In the exact same year that Columbus sailed to the Americas, the Moors and Sephardic Jews were conquered and deported for their differences by the Aragon/Castilian monarchy.
While the European colonizers were heirs to bountiful, beautiful and rich cultures, they abandoned those during the passage to the Americas and in their first encounters with the indigenous people thereof. The great “Western culture” which our society has since adopted has very little to do with that of ancient Spain, France, Holland or England. Instead it is a culture of conquest, violence, expropriation, destruction and humiliation—and it always demands assimilation.
On my wedding day, I dressed more or less as our Western culture demands one does for such ceremony. I wore a tuxedo. I did choose to retain some of my cultural identity in this. I kept my hair long and even braided it. I wore turquoise in my hair and had turquoise cuff-links that my mother had given to me. I was asked often and persistently why I was braiding my hair and why I was wearing jewelry in my hair and why were my cuff-links turquoise. My new grandfather-in-law made a joke about how I should have cut my hair. No one asked me why I had chosen to wear a tuxedo and a tie. The (very minimal) differences from Western cultures expectations were in question, because I had not completely assimilated.
Months after this, someone approached me and told me that I had been very rude to my grandfather-in-law when he made his joke about cutting my hair. I think I may have shared this story before, but my grandfather was toasting my wife and I and joked that when he saw how long my hair was that he should have bought hair clippers as a wedding gift and sent them to us. I recognized, when it happened, that many of my close friends, family and even myself had reason to be offended by the statement. I also knew that he said it in ignorance, not maliciousness, and I was not about to interrupt the tradition of toasting the newlyweds to try to explain why I wore my hair long and why I did not find it humourous to joke about cutting it. I mean, I was just married. I was enjoying my wedding. This was far from what I wanted to concern myself with at the time. I never brought it up to him later. In fact, I never brought it up at all with anyone but my wife until a friend brought it up to me months later.
Yet, when I was approached and told that I had been rude to my grandfather-in-law I was perplexed and a little annoyed. But I realized that what had happened was that, although I had said nothing about the joke, the person who approached me knew that in any other circumstance I would have explained my position on the matter. They knew how I felt about it—and even though I had kept my silence, they assumed my response. They made it up in their head and automatically qualified me as being rude to my new family. I realized that this happened because of the demands of assimilation from Western culture. I had done nothing, but my very existence and my very beliefs had questioned Western culture and were a problem for it.
This is why I think it is important that we not sugarcoat Western culture. The more it is sugarcoated for the comfort of those who support and uphold it, the harder it will be for them to ever recognize the problems that come with it.
That said, by and large I agree with most of what the author is saying in this article. I think she touched on a point that I repeatedly try to make when discussing appropriation and its closely related cousin, racism.
“To be honest, I don’t know that there is a thin, straight line between them.
But even if the line between exchange and appropriation bends, twists, and loop-de-loops in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.”
It is not as hard to understand what is and is not appropriation when you boil it down to that simple word: Respect. Appropriation comes down to respect and not what you think respect is, but what the culture (and members of the culture) in question believes respect is.
That’s where we come to the biggest hurdle we have to deal with when trying to teach people to understand what appropriation is. Not because people are disrespectful per se, but rather because the people who need to understand appropriation are the people who are part of Western culture. They are part of a culture that does not value respect for anything but itself. As I have already mentioned above, Western culture was born through violence and humiliation and continues to hold the values of such. If you’re still not sold on that idea, read the torture report (http://tinyurl.com/nwgmhg8) and try having a few discussions about it with patriots of Western culture.
Respect is so alien to Western culture that it is essentially anathema. So trying to teach someone who believes in the values of Western culture without question that they need to approach other cultures with respect is often a fruitless, frustrating and painful process—one which I have engaged in numerous times to my chagrin. I am able to speak from personal experience on this matter.
Added to this essential, core problem is the fact that there is no small amount of white supremacy (read: racism. I’m not pulling the curtains over this) deeply ingrained in Western culture. The colonizers believed that they were a race chosen and pre-destined by God for greatness, and that opposing cultures (or cultures that were merely “in the way” of God’s destiny for them) were descended from apes, or the servants of Lucifer, or simply lesser, “mud people”. I am sure that most anyone reading this blog has encountered some of the nastier aspects of white supremacy, including the argument that when cultures inevitably clash, that the result is that the good parts of the cultures are kept and the bad discarded. But this is not at all based in reality and completely based in the myth of Western genesis.
The great Constitution of the United States of America, revered like the Bible by American patriots, is a document that is primarily based on Indigenous governance and invention but remythologized as the product of our white settler-colonizer-conqueror-destroyer “Founding Fathers” while the people who invented it were ravaged, tortured, raped, and murdered by said Founding Fathers. Further, Western culture does not actually believe in the tenets espoused in the document and we disregard the vast majority such as equality and freedom and freedom of speech (that would require being respectful).
There are no small number of Western culture patriots who believe that the discussion of appropriation comes down to a bunch of easily offended ninnies screaming about unfairness on Tumblr and that to bend an inch toward the minimal levels of respect that might spark the potential to shed their chosen ignorance (admittedly, ignorance which nets them power) would be to give in to the weak and desperate and pathetic. There are also those who believe that if we do not allow the dominant Western (have you realized that this is a not so thinly-veiled codeword for White yet?) culture to stamp out and destroy what they don’t like about the rest of the world, and gobble down the pretty parts like it was a McDonald’s Happy Meal—with about as much thoughtfulness to the contents of their meal—that we are limiting “natural evolution of culture.” Do not ever misunderstand what these people are saying. They are less thinly veiled than my Western/White suggestion. They are saying this: Fuck you, I don’t care.
Western cultural values. I don’t need to “exchange” anything for that.