One day I went on Facebook and somebody was angry about cultural appropriation. It was probably about headdresses at festivals or something like that. I wagged my online finger and got in on the disapproval.
Then it all got out of hand. Every little thing became about cultural appropriation. The word buzzed its way through the Internet until it lost all meaning. It was the Facebook friend who cried cultural appropriation. Over and over again until you asked for less of them.
Don’t get me wrong some of these instances were quite awful. There was a company that stole traditional inuit designs for a line of clothing. However, that was more of a copyright issue than a cultural appropriation issue. Stealing designs is a bad idea. Generally copyright law serves big powerful corporations instead of creators and traditional practices.
There were also lots of other instances where people were using indigenous ideas or elements of other culture in a respectful and creative way. They were attacked for cultural appropriation bringing up lots of ridiculous ideas of ownership of practices. Cultures interact and borrow from one another. Even the Louis Vuitton quatrefoil logo (that they tried to copyright) has a long history going back to the trade on the Silk Road and the middle east. This is not a symbol that a French designer pulled out of thin air and made up. It was the result of historical interactions between cultures. I find it more offensive that a corporation can copyright a symbol that has been in use for generations across several continents that they did not create than that someone might wear a headdress to a festival.
As long as ideas are used respectfully and in a way that acknowledges hardship and racism I think people should be free to do what they want. In fact, cultures that freely and respectfully blend cultures are vibrant and tolerant. Canada is a great example of this (outside our horrible treatment of indigenous culture). We have a very weak definition of what it means to be a part of this society. Instead we take what comes and mix and match. There are two family run food places in my general area of Calgary. One is a German restaurant the other is a Lebanese corner store. Both of them are a part of my neighbourhood and community. When I go abroad I miss Vietnamese food and good sushi. Beyond food lots of different cultures brought their ideas to this place and interacted with one another. Culture isn’t fixed and no one owns an idea or myth.
I was a religious studies minor in undergrad. There was a Buddhism prof at my uni who was a treasure. I took as many of his classes as I could. One of the things I find tremendously fascinating about Buddhism is that it is really good at adapting to local circumstances and integrating local beliefs into the religion. In Japan Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples can be indistinguishable. Where Christianity viewed pagan beliefs and threatening Buddhism adapted to and integrated them. I wish that we took more of an approach like this to indigenous cultures in Canada. While there is a long legacy of oppression there is also the problem that we have shut out an entire culture from being a part of our society. The history and myths of these groups is our history and myths. They were here for centuries before settlers arrived. We should learn about these groups and how they conceived of the land in our schools and it should be given a place in society. These are the myths about our land and how to respect it and we are worse off for its marginalized role in our society.
When JK Rowling was attacked for using indigenous stories in some of her stories I was annoyed. She is a defender of minority groups and human rights. Her stories borrow heavily from classics and other myths. Why would this particular set of myths be off limits? She is as tied to Greek stories and symbols as she is to these. The biggest determinate should be whether someone is using these ideas respectfully.
A recent post on Medium by Farah Shah highlights these issues perfectly:
I feel cultural appropriation issue markets itself as fighting social injustice that is racism — but it entirely detracts from the issue of racism.
It’s no longer about the racism you faced. It’s about someone wearing a thing/saying a thing/eating a thing/blissfully enjoying a thing. It’s about this whole fight about whose ancestors owned what. (By the way, still entirely failing here to see the connection between saying spirit animal and oppression that indigenous people face). Besides, nationalism is often at the core of all this — just search up on the movement to ban yoga, and you will have proof of that. And yoga, that is an interesting one.
I practice yoga and I look to other cultures and places for inspiration and to see what I can learn from them. That is fundamentally the point of travel. Instead of freaking out over the interaction and use of ideas and practices let’s freak out over racism and abuses of power. Let’s fight oppression and stand up for minority rights. Let’s go for macro issues that are responsible for issues instead of symptoms. Let’s reach out to other groups (especially oppressed minorities) and learn about them. Curiosity and learning are the key to solving these problems. Not easy anger on the Internet or false claims of ownership.