n the third grade, my teacher focused an entire quarter of our year on the topic of Japan. She was chosen to go to a program later on in the year held in Tokyo and decided to prepare by inserting Japanese culture into my small, suburban classroom in Ohio. We weren’t taught how to speak or read Japanese (my teacher was white and not fluent in Japanese at the time), but we did take our shoes off before entering the class every morning for a good two months.
Coming from Japanese heritage, I was excited by the entire idea of the endeavor. Finally, the kids who would lash schoolground taunts accompanied by eyes stretched taut would come to appreciate my heritage, maybe even becoming jealous of it along the way. And that’s how the project went for the most part. The third graders of the school were nothing short of respectful, even verging towards excitement concerning their immersion into another culture, light albeit, yet still thrilling for an eight-year-old.
That seemed to be the way things worked as a kid — despite a learned behavior to react adversely to difference, upon learning methods of appreciation rather than disparagement, kids seemed able to be respectful to a degree much greater than most adults exhibited themselves to be capable of. How then did we get to a point where Kim Kardashian seems to be constantly at odds with detractors claiming her many instances of dipping into non-white cultures are appropriative? (That is, lacking the understanding, meaning, or respect of original cultural artifacts in an often exploitative fashion.)
Attempting to "solve" the problem of cultural appropriation is not a simple nor agreeable task. There’s no denying that cultural appropriation exists. It does. Critics of the phenomenon tend towards the long-crutched-upon adage, “Well, where do we draw the line?” To that, I simply respond with the fact that while I do not know exactly where it should be, I do know a line should be drawn. Speaking about cultural appropriation recalls the infamous obscenity case with the notorious language of, “I know it when I see it.” Maybe the best way to get to a better understanding of cultural appropriation — a topic postcolonial scholars have been laying the groundwork for for decades now — is to examine concrete examples of the misdeed in a larger background of how culture and whiteness are deciphered alongside one another.
You Assimilate and We Will Appropriate
It’s not productive to talk about appropriation without recognizing the practice of pushing labeled “others” to assimilate into a dominant culture in order to receive basic human decency.
Understanding the outrage that often accompanies cultural appropriation can be better done with a helpful grounding on the concept of assimilation. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, to assimilate, according to Merriam-Webster, is, “to absorb into the cultural tradition of a population or group.” Assimilation in the United States is no new phenomenon, being pushed upon any group outside of the dominant beginning with the Native population. The concept rests upon an idea that cultures cannot coexist, leaving room for only one dominant culture. A pretty convenient train of logic for someone assumptively residing in that dominant cultural space.
Françoise Lionnet further expands on how assimilation creates a system of dominance in her essay concerning cultural appropriation within postcolonial representations, claiming:
“It has of course been ideologically and politically convenient for the dominant cultures to entertain the fiction of ‘assimilation’ as a means of incorporating — ‘civilizing’ — those cultures viewed as too different and ‘inferior’ to be comfortably accepted and integrated into their norm.”
This narrative of only one culture — usually coinciding with a normalized state of whiteness — being “civilized” and essential to a nation proves dangerous for the mixing and recognition of cultures outside of the dominant. Cultures outside of those considered the norm then become resistive, pushing back against a commanding crowd crying against its right to be acknowledged. And it’s not a harmless act of resistance to practice one’s culture, especially those deemed especially dangerous. Look back at any time in history and you will find countless cases of people transformed into victims because of an intolerant bunch that felt threatened by a culture they deem foreign.
The irony that the dominant culture can then go and choose elements of a culture to use as their own justifiably creates anger. Outrage. Call-outs. It’s entirely unfair that the hairstyles deemed inappropriate on one body are praised as trendy and “exotic” on another. Behaviors seen as witless in some found rebellious in others. The fury has grounds, but is to condemn one representation of culture, however misguided it is, the answer to making sure all cultural customs are respected?
What Is Deemed Culturally Appropriative and What Isn’t?
A simple question leads to a complex path of what happens when different cultures mingle and interact with one another.
One of the first times I remember learning about how to conceptualize cultural appropriation with suitable vocabulary coincided with the rise of Iggy Azalea. The white Australian rapper rose to international prominence with her number one single “Fancy” and simultaneously ignited a national conversation regarding Black performativity by a white artist. Look, I could write an entire article about Ms. Azalea’s questionable optics, borderline offensive performances, and unbelievably bad freestyles, but positioning her as a starting point to understanding what cultural appropriation is a useful one.
See, the thing with Azalea is not necessarily her existence as a white rapper but rather how her whiteness provides her something that her Black peers — many of whom, let’s face it, have been in the game for a lot longer with often incomparable success — will never be offered. She has the ability to utilize Black American culture, something that is not native to her, as a fixture to position herself toward a successful music career.
At the time, I recall a common counter to Azalea’s detractors retorting, “Well, what’s wrong with that? Should she just be immediately disqualified to participate in a culture that she is not a member of?” The thing is, that logic is steeped in an idea of us residing in some sort of post-racial reality that disregards the clear racial tenets pulsing underneath every facet of this country. When Black folks in America have been dismissed and disparaged since its inception, Azalea opted into Blackness as a method of making money and a name for herself without recognizing the extremely lenient position she is in when compared to her Black female counterparts.
In an essay about Azalea and her performance of Blackness in the context of the Black experience of many women, Brittney Cooper articulates:
“Iggy profits from the cultural performativity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected, without having to encounter and deal with the social problem that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness and lewdness. If she existed in hip hop at a moment when Black women could still get play, where it would take more than one hand to count all the mainstream Black women rap artists, I would have no problem.”
There is something deeply unsettling about a white or non-Black person being lauded for cultural performances that would be dismissed or criticized if done by the actual folks within the heritage of the culture. In 2020, it may seem — to certain circles on the internet — that the tendency to call out appropriative behaviors is more prevalent than the praise of co-optation. Whether or not this is actually true, focusing upon “call-out culture” misses the point being that dominant populations using cultural tactics and behaviors of marginalized communities as a pick-and-choose bag to enhance their identities is a slap in the face to every single person who has been belittled for participating within their own culture just because.
When marginalized communities are criticized for exhibiting their cultural difference and then see an aspect of their culture become trendy due to the dominant acceptance and co-optation of an artifact, the irony is not unnoticed. How can the country that places whiteness on a pedestal, pushing those outside of the dominant to assimilate in order to survive, then go on to capitalize upon the cultures they themselves pooh-poohed and slammed for exhibiting any bit of resistance to the hegemonic ideal?
But does the irony of these cultural meshings mean we must forfeit culture to become a zone that is solely for only those within it left to participate in? I don’t think so. Looking back at my experience in elementary school, there was something deeply cathartic about sharing aspects of culture I was rooted in with my peers. Things that used to bring bouts of shame became sources of pride when everyone around me learned to appreciate the roots of my difference.
I don’t believe the answer to cultural appropriation can possibly be to police culture to a point of purism. But the respect for difference, the want to participate in difference must go beyond the tendency to co-opt as a means of creating trendiness or capital. It would not be a surprise to me if a majority on both sides of the battle surrounding cultural appropriation believed that culture should be something shared with others. Sharing culture, however, is not the same thing as stealing culture, taking long-established practices as your own and creating success from it. Stepping on the backs of those who’ve been oppressed for attempting to maintain their own culture against dominant voices telling them that their culture is weird, un-American, lesser. And understanding that is not right sometimes might result in knowing that is okay that one thing may not be “for you.” This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy or respect other cultural activities or customs, but active participation may be off-limits, at least until you can do so respectfully and without contributing to an active repression of another for yourself.
An easy way to reject cultural appropriation has to do with basic respect for others and the differences that separate you. A more complex option is to examine how a co-optation of cultures that are not one’s own and the resulting backlash often fail to fully disrupt a conception of cultures (and difference) being separate to a point of essentialism. The productivity of using another culture as a mere costume or persona can be similar to the resulting cries declaring what people can and cannot do, leading us back to a culture to be either assimilated into (not good) or left untouched (also not great). The context of harm created by specific instances of cultural appropriation is often lost, and people are left with a sense that they cannot even consider dipping their toes into a culture other than their own, that culture is essentially your own and not something that has been weaponized, denigrated, and heralded. So, maybe that enduring line that must be drawn is drawn situationally, and the specificity within each situation will lead us to a better point of understanding, with an all-encompassing, digitally constructed narrative of guilty perpetrators ultimately failing to get us anywhere.