About a year ago, the author Lionel Shriver gave a speech on cultural appropriation that clearly went out of its way to wind everyone up. This is all well and good if you’re playing Cards Against Humanity but it’s an immature approach to a serious issue.
In her keynote address at the Brisbane writers’ festival, Shriver argued that so-called cultural appropriation in fiction was just trying on other people’s hats. This, she argued, is the role of the author: to see the world from different perspectives.
In another example that is so silly that I’m deliberately burying it a few paragraphs down, Little Mix singer Jesy Nelson stirred controversy with a February 19 Instagram post showing off her new dreadlocks. Some called her out for perceived cultural appropriation while many fans defended her, saying that anyone should wear their hair how they like.
‘Cultural appropriation’ is a term that’s thrown around a lot on social media nowadays. What exactly does it mean? Is it oversensitivity or a valid claim?
Cultural appropriation is the use of elements of one culture by people from another culture. Most commonly, it’s considered objectionable when white people, as the privileged group, take elements of another culture. The well-known example of this is dressing up as a gipsy, geisha, or Pocahontas for Hallowe’en.
Let’s take Shriver’s point first. The problem is that if Shriver writes a book about a black woman’s struggle with being a black woman, she would likely be praised for it even if it wasn’t particularly insightful. On the other hand, if a black woman wrote a novel about a black woman, she would be more likely to be criticised for being shrill and demanding. This isn’t to say that white people shouldn’t write black characters; it just means they probably shouldn’t write books all about racism.
While this isn’t quite equivalent, similar enough examples can be seen in movies about LGBT+ people, such as the straight Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as a gay man in The Imitation Game, or the cisgender Eddie Redmayne’s role as a trans woman in The Danish Girl, the white Benedict Cumberbatch’s role as a Buddhist magician or something in Doctor Strange, and the able-bodied Eddie Redmayne’s role as Stephen Hawking (RIP) in The Theory of Everything. You may be noticing some repeat offenders who enjoy trying on other people’s hats.
Worse yet, in the film industry, this means that people of colour have a much harder time finding work. The material impact of this issue doesn’t stop there; people of colour in the United States are often expected by their workplaces to change their entirely natural hairstyles to look more like white hairstyles so that they’re less distracting. People have been fired for wearing braids.
This is where things start falling apart. When a white celebrity like Nelson copies black women by doing her hair up in dreadlocks, she is perceived (outside of the social media rage cycle) as fashionable and stylish. But, if a black woman wears her hair in its natural dreadlock form rather than try to wrestle it into a ponytail, she could lose her job. This enforced Eurocentric standard is called assimilation. It’s also, by the way, why black people wearing blue jeans isn’t reverse-racist.
One common counterargument to all this is that there are more important things to worry about. Am I just looking for reasons to be offended? Well, no. First off, I’m white, so it’s not that I have a personal stake in this that has muddled my objective judgement; I’m just empathetic to this issue.
More importantly, it’s not as if we can care about only one issue at a time. By that reasoning, there would only be one issue in the world, the One Worst Issue, and that would be the only thing we’re allowed to care about. But that’s not how that works because then we’d care about global warming.
Another counterargument is that the things we call cultural appropriation are just showing appreciation for another culture. Where does the line fall between appreciation and appropriation? Does it matter?
Franchesca Ramsey of MTV’s Debunked said that to truly appreciate another culture, you need to have respect and understanding. Take the example of tribal tattoos, where we can see a different kind of cultural appropriation at work. The Maori of New Zealand have facial tattoos which they have assigned cultural significance to for generations. Fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier used the tattoos in advertisements to sell sunglasses.
“Now, that’s a perfect example of cultural appropriation,” said Ramsey. What we’re seeing here is a wealthy white person taking another culture’s serious symbol, stripping it of any significance or meaning, and using it to sell a product instead.
This debate is brought up in the media now and then, whether it’s by a highbrow author or a pop star. In all cases, its roots are in the systemic, material exploitation of people of colour by white people. Just because it’s not deliberate or conscious exploitation doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The only thing required for this exploitation to continue is for white people to refuse to listen when someone explains what they’re doing wrong.
Huge acts of racism, such as Trump’s policies, only come to exist because of smaller acts of racism propping them up. This continues in a pyramid structure all the way down to small mosquito bites of ignorance. So please do not wear a headdress next Hallowe’en.