Whenever the issue of Cultural Appropriation comes up, it’s often met with eye rolls, sighs and mutterings of political correctness gone overboard. As a term, it’s something that is not widely understood, and often people think that if they’re accused of appropriating someone else’s culture, that they’re a racist. When I’ve discussed Cultural Appropriation in the Cultural Competence seminars that I’ve run, I talk about what I like to call the “3 D’s” – the three most damaging ways that white people respond to discussions of race, racism, appropriation and privilege; Dismissiveness, Defensiveness and Derision. I’ll come back to the other two, but what I want to address here and now is why dismissing these ideas is damaging: The inherent problem with dismissing Cultural Appropriation as a concept is that it comes from a place of privilege. It means that because of the benefits afforded to white people through White Privilege, white people can ignore the effects of Cultural Appropriation because it doesn’t effect them.
For more information about White Privilege, I particularly like this article: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/white-privilege-explained/
Also check out my 2 part blog post: https://adingonamedgerald.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/power-privilege-and-the-myth-that-is-reverse-racism-part-one/
So what is Cultural Appropriation? I’m glad you asked!
In it’s most basic definition; Cultural Appropriation is “when someone adopts aspects of a culture that is not their own” (Johnson, 2015)
However, a far more deeper understanding on how and when this becomes problematic is more to do with power imbalance; when aspects of a culture that has been systematically oppressed, are adopted by members of the dominant culture that has oppressed them. (Johnson, 2015).
Scafidi (2015), defines Cultural Appropriation as; “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive.” (Scafidi, 2015)
Usually at this point, someone throws around vague notions of “honoring” a culture, or ideas about “cultural exchange”. Why IS Cultural Appropriation a problem? It’s a multi-faceted issue that has many different contexts, as it effects every Indigenous group differently. So I’ll try and keep it as relevant to the Australian context as possible, bearing in mind that some of the most blatant examples come from other First Nations groups. Cultural Appropriation is a problem because:
It takes sacred cultural symbols and relegates them to trite fashion accessories. A common example is the Native American War Bonnet – a gendered and sacred object, reduced to a funky fashion accessory or photo-prop for ignorant hipsters.
It perpetuates systematic oppression that affects an already marginalised group of Indigenous people
Some cultural groups feel that the dominant cultural group has stolen much from them through invasion and colonisation, and that Cultural Appropriation is an example of ongoing theft of sacred cultural symbols.
It perpetuates racist stereotypes – there’s more to Aboriginal culture than just boomerangs and dot-paintings!
It trivialises violent historical oppression and genocide.
It prioritises the feelings of people of privilege and ignores that of marginalised people, further perpetuating systemic oppression.
In many instances, It fails to remunerate Indigenous artists for their designs, ideas and intellectual property
On that last point; “Aboriginal Art” is widely available in souvenir shops. Much of this is mass-produced rubbish from overseas. I live 115km from Uluru in a remote community so on occasion we drive up to the rock to do some shopping at the supermarket. Nearby is a newsagent and souvenir shop, and outside, handwritten signs proclaim that “miniature painted didgeridoo – 2 for $13”. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that if you’re buying mini-digeridoo made from bamboo shoots in plastic wrapped, mass produced packaging and they’re $6.50 each; you probably don’t hold in your hands an example of authentic, genuine, hand crafted,painted by Australian Aboriginal Artists artefact. Just saying.
When I look around shops like this, I see drink bottles, bags, headbands and countless other products made using “Aboriginal Inspired” fabrics and designs. Some of the companies that make these products are ethically sound and commission and remunerate and credit Aboriginal Artists for their work; that’s absolutely fantastic and I support this. Here, the artist is giving their permission to share the artwork with the consumer. They’ve been paid for their work. Ngarpartji Ngapartji! (You get something; I get something!) that’s not to say that all companies share the same ethos – but having sold my designs to several companies, from my perspective as an Aboriginal Artist; I am sharing my art – my dreaming and stories with you, and I give my permission for you to have, hold, use and wear my art. This is NOT Cultural Appropriation. If however, the product you’ve purchased was mass-produced overseas, using sacred cultural symbols and iconography to make money that won’t go back to Indigenous artists – then my culture is being appropriated, and my art and stories; which are enmeshed in my very personhood, reduced to cheap, tacky trinkets.
In the Natural Parenting community – of which I consider myself a part; we must be mindful of not appropriating others, as many practices that facilitate the Biological Norm have their roots in Indigenous Cultures. Baby-Wearing, co-sleeping, extended breastfeeding, natural birth; all practices that are responsive to a baby’s needs and has it’s roots in one or more Indigenous Culture.
One example that has been hotly debated of late; it has become common place for women to hold a “Blessingway” for expectant mothers. This is a wonderful way to honor a pregnant woman – but the term “Blessingway” has specific connotations for Najavo Native Americans, with specific ceremony and rites. It is sacred and it is important and it’s an amazing thing to do, but for non-Indigenous women, it becomes a poorly executed imatation that is really just a hipster-baby-shower with a side of Cultural Appropriation.
Does this mean that we can’t honor the pregnant women in our lives with a special afternoon that focuses on the beauty of womanhood, with massage or prayer? Of course we can! We just meet to be mindful of our terminology. One term I’ve heard and I like is to have a “Mother Blessing”. It’s far more appropriate because the only people who have true Blessingway is the Najavo.
Baby Wearing is another practice that has it’s roots in countless Indigenous Cultures. Keeping small babies safe from harm in their native habitat; their care-givers chest, is something that was and still is practiced widely, and the western world seems to be slowly discovering the benefits of this ancient practice. Context however, is critical. References to African mothers wrapping their babies and “doing it the African way” is not appropriate – we have absolutely zero idea if women in developing countries are working in the fields, walking for tens of kilometers, escaping war and persecution. And needing to wear their babies in order to survive. Therefore it would be innapropriate to compare ourselves as “Baby Wearers”, to women in Africa. And whilst that isn’t strictly appropriative in the same way that we’ve discussed above,I think it’s still worth saying.
Indigenous designs on woven baby wraps and whether or not they constitute Cultural Appropriation has been a hot topic of late, following Scottish woven wrap company, Oscha’s release of a Maori design that was not designed by a Maori artist but rather it was a copy of a Maori design, drawn by a non-Maori woman. This coincided with my own collaboration with Oscha – one that was an excellent example of what honoring Indigenous art looks like when it’s done right. A true collaboration where the artist has creative control and is remunerated for their intellectual property and for sharing their art. Needless to say that Oscha were highly receptive to my feedback and have, I believe, learnt. People however, then questioned whether or not Oschas other designs such as their Japanese and Celtiic inspired wraps, constituted Cultural Appropriation. The answer is murky – whilst on face value one could say yes, however one also needs to consider whether or not the culture at the source of the design is currently marginalised or oppressed. If the answer is no – then it’s far less likely that they’ll be concerned about the theft of their sacred cultural iconography. Context is the key. As with everything though, there will be differing opinions.
With regard to Natural Parenting and Cultural Appropriation, Sian Hannagan (2015) sums it up perfectly: “When it comes to the physiological nurturing of infants, no one ‘owns’ that relationship you build with your baby. However having an awareness of how we integrate elements of other cultural approaches into our day to day nurturing is important. It may seem harmless to have a blessingway, use a rebozo during birth and bury your placenta with karakia. But this is not always the case. Many people feel they are honouring a certain culture when they take these traditions into their own cultural narrative. But this is not always based on a true and honest exchangee”.
For more information on Cultural Appropriation in the context of Baby Wearing, I really liked this article: http://the-toast.net/2014/11/17/cultural-appropriation-birthing-community/
Lastly, as I lay breastfeeding my baby in the dead of night, arguing with the internet to pass the time, trying in vain to politely and succinctly get people to try and understand what I’m saying without them thinking I’ve called them a racist and hair-flipping out of the thread like a petulant teen; I’ve been told I need “a glass of wine” and “to chill out and can’t we all just share?!” And there’s probably nothing worse you can say to an irate Aboriginal woman at 3am than “calm down”. So I’ll conclude by reiterating this: if you’re here, reading this now, and you’re still thinking that it’s a load of PC wank and I’m an uptight black feminist; then I have this to say:
Dismissing this means that you’re in a position of privilege, you have benefits afforded to you because of your race and you’re in a position to be able to dismiss it because it doesn’t effect you. Why then, does that give you the right to dismiss my feelings on the subject? Why are your feelings more important than mine? I can tell you: your flippant disregard for the damage Cultural Appropriation inflicts, is symptomatic of something far greater than you or I. Dismissing me now, is symptomatic of, and perpetuates, 200 plus years of systematic oppression and racism. Further marginalising me as part of an already marginalised group.
The voices of Aboriginal people the world over are constantly drowned out by white noise.
Help us turn up the volume.