By Kitty Testa
Until recent years, I had never heard the term cultural appropriation in a political context. The term, as I was familiar with it, was used by anthropologists to explain cultural development. Seemingly overnight it was elevated to a grave, moral, and politically incorrect sin. Suddenly victim groups claimed that usage or adoption of their cultural “symbols” was an aggression against their group as a whole.
Nearly a year ago, a video surfaced of a black student at San Francisco State University berating a fellow student who is white for wearing his hair in dreadlocks. The black female student threatened her white male counterpart with a haircut, “because it’s my culture.”
Most recently, Latina students at Pitzer College in southern California painted permissible graffiti on a free speech wall warning, “White Girl, Take OFF Your hoops!!!!” As reported by The Claremont Independent, a publication of Claremont Colleges, of which Pitzer is one, quoted one of the students involved in creating the graffiti:
“[T]he art was created by myself and a few other WOC [women of color] after being tired and annoyed with the reoccuring [sic] theme of white women appropriating styles … that belong to the black and brown folks who created the culture. The culture actually comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion. The black and brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings, (and other accessories like winged eyeliner, gold name plate necklaces, etc) are typically viewed as ghetto, and are not taken seriously by others in their daily lives. Because of this, I see our winged eyeliner, lined lips, and big hoop earrings serving as symbols [and] as an everyday act of resistance, especially here at the Claremont Colleges. Meanwhile we wonder, why should white girls be able to take part in this culture (wearing hoop earrings just being one case of it) and be seen as cute/aesthetic/ethnic. White people have actually exploited the culture and made it into fashion.”
I was pretty surprised to learn that black women think they invented the gold nameplate necklace, which I recall being a suburban white girl thing in the 1970s, along with hoop earrings. But even if a group did, indeed, invent a fashion, if other people like it, they’re going to use it. It’s simply what people do, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Do you eat with a fork? Listen to music? Wear clothing and jewelry? Then you are a beneficiary of cultural appropriation, defined succinctly as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.”
All material culture is a product of cultural appropriation. When cultures meet and mix, better ideas are spread like viral memes. Sometime long ago someone who ate with his hands came across someone who ate with a fork and thought, “Great idea!” and unleashed the whole eat-with-a-fork concept on his own culture.
Cultural appropriation is a beautiful thing! Here are five reasons why.
EDITOR’s NOTE: The views expressed are those of the author, they are not representative of The Libertarian Republic or its sponsors.
1. We’d All Be Living in Caves if not for Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation is well illustrated in the 1981 movie Quest for Fire. A small band of cave dwellers has been jealously guarding a small flame that is essential to their well being—it was much like the pilot light on your furnace, as it is essentially in creating larger blazes for heat and light. The tribe’s flame is accidentally extinguished, and this group has no means of bringing it back to life. An elder sends three men out into the world on a quest for fire (thus the title). After a bit of adventure and lots of grunting they come upon something magical—another human being who has the ability to make fire.
Human progress began with cultural appropriation and our current progress is likewise dependent upon it. It’s how we went from living in caves to living in three bedroom ranches in the suburbs. It’s how we went from gathering to hunting to agriculture to fast food and five star restaurants. It’s how we went from grunting to speaking to writing to programming computers.
But these Latinas are just complaining about fashion, right? Well, it looks as if these Latinas are guilty of a little cultural appropriation themselves—from the 1960s.
2. Fusion is Better than Friction
Multiculturalism implies that culturally diverse groups are living among one another peacefully. If we’re all friendlies, things are bound to get a little mixed up and blended. That’s why there’s such a thing as taco pizza.
But this isn’t simply a matter of cuisine. Twentieth century music is a perfect example of how cultural appropriation developed varying and often blended styles of popular music such as jazz, blues, rock and roll, folk, heavy metal, disco, reggae and pop, all of which rely on musical ideas inherent in western classical music. Worldbeat music is a genre in itself that seeks out exotic indigenous and ethnic musical styles and often infuses them into more familiar styles.
But the social justice warriors don’t like it that way. Some even say there’s a line that must be drawn to prevent others from appropriating a group’s musical styles. Taken to its logical conclusion, we might all have to look in the mirror to figure out what kind of music we’re allowed to make or enjoy. If that were the case, Eminem couldn’t be a rapper, Leontyne Price should not have had a career in opera, and I would be relegated to listening to old Doris Day records, because almost all popular music after 1958 is strongly influenced by blues.
Oh, and it would be the end of cross-over Latina pop stars too.
3. Cultural Appropriation Builds Bridges Instead of Walls
Have you ever had your eyebrows threaded? It’s an amazing technique practiced by Middle Eastern women that is far quicker and better than eyebrow waxing or manual plucking. I’ve been going to the same woman for years to have my eyebrows threaded. She’s from India, and when I see her we chat about this and that, kids, family, the obnoxiousness of local government, that sort of thing.
I suppose I have culturally appropriated threaded eyebrows, but we are also interacting as human beings who might not otherwise know each other.
Victim groups seem to feel that their cultures are oppressed and misunderstood by the dominant culture. What then is the value of resenting the dominant culture becoming more like your own? Doesn’t that make your group less marginalized? Unless the goal is to maintain marginalization, cultural appropriation of your styles, your music, your food and your ideas should be encouraged.
I’m not one for winged eye liner, but I see it on a lot of young women. Congratulations, Latinas. You’re culturally influential.
4. Cultural Appropriation Increases Economic Success
As in the example of my eyebrow threading lady, cultural appropriation is an economic opportunity for minority groups. The number one food in America is pizza. The entire country has culturally appropriated Italians by adopting the dish, and it is now a $37 billion industry. Hip hop music is an industry generating more than $10 billion in revenue. Acupuncture used to be an exotic Chinese method of treatment, and today there are over 18,000 licensed acupuncturists in the U.S.
If a minority group can sell its cuisine, arts, methods, fashions and styles to the dominant culture, there’s a lot of money to be made. Financial success can empower individuals and invigorate neighborhoods. If one is not invested in victimhood, encouraging mainstream culture to adopt your material culture is a great investment in your financial future.
5. Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
If someone wants to look like you, that’s a compliment. It doesn’t mean they are going all Rachel Dolezal on you.
It’s not an insult, and it doesn’t marginalize you or exclude you. On the contrary, it rather specifically includes you. Adopting your look is admiration expressed.
So, Latina ladies of Pitzer college, when someone gives you a compliment, it’s always best to just say, “Gracias!”