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Stop Labelling Everything as Cultural Appropriation

In 1983, a man named Daryl Davis was performing a country-western song in a Maryland bar. Back then, mostly, white patrons dominated this bar. Hence they did not have much in the way of black musicians doing live performances. A white man had come up to the musician. He commented positively on his performance, citing that he “never heard a black man play as well as Jerry Lee Lewis.” The man was curious about how Davis could play very well. But when the black musician cited his friendship with Jerry Lee Lewis as one of his influences, the white man refused to believe his explanations. However, the man, who turns out to be a Klu Klux Klan member (much to our musician's surprise), agreed to talk it over through a drink.

Long story short, the two form an uncanny friendship where the man keeps coming to shows that Davis played, and he always brought new faces. Some of the new guests appreciated his music, but some were still standoff-ish. They regarded Davis with skeptical glances and distance.

The situation in the bar was not unique. Davis, a man who has talked with countless KKK members to help them combat racism and ignorance, found that much of the racism he encountered was not an innate, natural belief. But rather a self-fulfilling ignorance by a lack of communication. How could someone hate what they do not know?

A Modern Example

Qipao, a popular dress originated from Manchu, an ethnic minority in China

In 2018, a girl from Utah had posted photos of herself on Twitter wearing a Chinese dress, which created a huge debate. The main gripe was a non-Chinese girl wearing it. However, the dress, called Qipao, is simply a formal attire, an equivalent to a canonical suit and tie. Prom is a formal occasion, so wearing Qipao fits for its intended purpose. Many Chinese netizens on Weibo were confused by the American outrage at something that they thought was a nice thing to see; a foreigner appreciating Chinese dress in the way it is supposed to be. The contrast between Weibo and Twitter is unbelievable. Many found it a perfect illustration of outrage culture since most of the Twitter comments did not come from the Chinese.

Wearing a traditional, non-ritualistic dress to prom is not the same as erasing significant ideas and traditions of a culture. If a person learned the cultural background behind what they wear, do, and say, and respect the cultural things they admire and wish to emulate, where is the issue?

My Perspective as a Person of Color

After reading some examples of what deems as cultural appropriation online, more often than not, it gives the impression that culture can only be enjoyed by those who are part of it.

As a person of color, I think it makes no sense when we are far past cultural segregation, especially when so many countries are no longer homogenous. Personally, I love to share the culture that has been passed on to me for generations with my friends and will be proud if they wear a garment that I gifted them or have them try some of the cuisines I grew up eating. With more introductions of other cultures, it is no surprise that it attracts curiosity.

Jollof rice, traditional food of Nigeria and West African Countries

I have seen netizens calling people wearing non-formal, non-ritualistic garments from other cultures, appropriating the heritage. The problem with this approach is that Canada and the United States are melting pots where many cultures meet. With the advancement of technology, people are quick to call out someone who does not dress as part of their race as appropriating a culture, and the words spread fast as a wildfire. Now, this seems to be the main root of misunderstanding about the true meaning of cultural appropriation. And to be honest, it is rather discriminative.

I suggest using social media to educate, not to demean. If you spot someone wearing your cultural garment inappropriately, create a dialogue through a private message and educate them why it is inappropriate, like Daryl Davis. If you do not feel like personally educating them, send a short message and send them an educational link on the topic.

The Danger of Over-labeling Things as Culture Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the fruit of people who genuinely call for action to respect a ritualistic cultural significance. But somewhere along the way, the meaning got mixed up with the increasingly globalized world in the middle of an individualistic haven - where dialogue is discouraged because people refuse to explain why something is inappropriate. I find the easily thrown usage of the word far more harmful in its current state. We cannot expect to combat ignorance with hatred and insults.

The Dire Need of Conversation

I agree that culture and beliefs are deeply personal. But labeling conversations as taboo when their purpose is to educate and conducted politely is taking it too far. As a result, we remained segregated, and I feel like this is why we still have a residual or unconscious bias toward certain cultures. One example, I see some people misunderstood a society or religion to the point they wish to eliminate an entire ethnic/religious group.

Aside from our ignorance, the thought process of keeping our lanes creates the image of what other groups suppose to be. Giving other people subtle hints of "maybe we should talk about something else," coupled with an awkward glance around the room when talking about different cultural significance, play a harmful role in creating a divisive environment and fueling our unconscious bias.

As we watch our world become more and more intertwined, this method of avoiding the conversation will soon falter. We need to learn how to be okay to talk about different cultures in a supportive environment. It is the only way we can combat cultural stigma, understand when and how to use cultural-associated ideas, and learn how to appreciate the beauty of another culture.

Context and Respect Matter

Known as Kitenge shirt in East Africa, Dashiki is popular in West Africa

Context is the key to understanding, and proper communication is a much-neglected tool for fighting ignorance. Of course, Davis's method of dispelling racist thought processes takes immeasurable patience and humility. Many admire Davis, but many also find it ludicrous to lend an understanding to a group like the KKK. Of course, defending your humanity should not be warranted, and neither should it be expected to educate those who make ignorant choices. But whether we like it or not, we have to admit that communication and culture exchange is indispensable to bridge the knowledge culture gap and ignorance. If culture is not allowed to be shared, then where is the line drawn? Should I ask permission before eating gelato? Or wear informal embroidered Dashiki to an outing?

I still think we use the word cultural appropriation too liberally. What I am highly against, however, is the concept of taking traditionally respected cultural values and garments to make them trendy because other cultures fetishize them and stripping them of their meaning.

For instance: Native American headdresses at festivals are not okay. They are an elevated, purposeful garment that holds significant meaning for the wearer and those around them. It is not fashion. In short, never wear ritualistic accessories for occasions like Halloween, treating it as a costume, or any ridiculous, for giggles events. The same rule applies to any cultural aspects beyond garment. If it is not the time and place for you to use them, do not try to test the boundaries. Bottom line, do your research, ask a friend whose culture you intend to promote.

As a proud person of color, I say go ahead and wear your batik in Canada or visit Kyoto in a traditional kimono even if you are not Japanese. Just do not look sloppy. Wear it with pride and with care, know how to honor it well. If anything, it would make the rest of us proud that a foreigner is wearing something from our roots - allowing the young ones to think that our traditional clothes are as cool and popular as other fashionable clothing articles!

Giving the Platform for Representation

Let us pick an example of Indonesia since it is a diverse country with over 200 ethnic groups. Say they need a Papuan to promote PON 2021, an Indonesian sporting event held in Papua later this year. Yet, the organizers seemed to think there are rarely female Papuan public figures.

If they try, they could have opened an audition to find the model to represent the event hold in their region, wear their cultural garment, and pose for a few promotional pictures. But instead, they opt to work with a non-Papuan, high profile woman to wear a traditional Papuan dress and take some pictures to promote the event to be an attractant to the event. The woman, of course, accepted. After all, it is a paid job, plus as an entertainer, it will give her more exposure.

A little background, there are around 2 million Papuans in Indonesia. So you can see how unfair to rob this opportunity from at least a million Papuan females across Indonesia. Now, this is a prime example of cultural appropriation - because one does not know when to step down and give a platform to those whose culture lacks highlighting to allow themselves to represent their culture.

Final Thoughts

The borders between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation become ill-defined and poorly accepted. Remember respect and context. Learn the context for cultural material, the context for the occasion, and a contextual understanding of intent. We need to start thinking if a culture should only be enjoyed solely by those who are part of it. If it is, perhaps you might want to stop eating spaghetti, samosa, and chicken adobo.

But is this the direction we wish to go in our increasingly globalized world?

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