I’ve been hearing a lot this year about this thing called cultural appropriation. Things that I have heard fall under this label include Westerners practicing yoga poses, anybody north of the border celebrating Dia de los Muertos without authentic hispanic lineage, people who work with gods or religions that don’t match their racial heritage, people wearing clothing or fashions that don’t match their racial heritage.
I see a theme here: people doing things that don’t match their racial heritage.
You may say, “Oh, but I don’t mean race! I mean culture!” As far as I can tell, it’s the same thing. And it’s really starting to annoy me.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say. There are beautiful things in every culture, every religion, every part of the world. Adopting a style of dress, a style of hair, even beautiful writing, when this is done out of a love of and fascination with the item, it is a good thing. So what if that character or kanji is just some word in another language? The writing is beautiful, and the tattoo brings enjoyment to its wearer. So what if that headscarf comes from a religious culture that many see as oppressive to women? It can serve a functional purpose and it can be beautiful as well.
There is a distinct difference between imitation or enjoyment and ridicule. There is a difference between adopting a practice you admire and making fun of somebody for doing things differently. I think most people doing yoga poses and routines see strength and flexibility as qualities they admire, and yoga as a means of improving those qualities. The fact that they are not practicing the spiritual aspects that originally went along with the physical ones doesn’t detract from those goals, nor does it take anything away from those who do practice the spiritual side. Most people wearing moccasins see a comfortable and functional pair of shoes that they want to wear. They do not need to have Native American heritage to wear these articles of clothing and derive enjoyment and satisfaction from them, nor does that casual wearing take anything away from those who see moccasins as part of their cultural costume.
There is also a difference between cosplay and ridicule. One of the things that bothered me this fall was the constant barrage of messages saying don’t dress up like this, that costume is racist, this costume is racist, etc. The definition of racism is, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” There is a difference between wanting to dress up like a Disney princess and thinking that Native Americans are an inferior race. There is a difference between using costumes to portray a sad or scary event, like the murder of Treyvon Martin, and approving of that event. (Because seriously, do you think all the little vampires also running around town really approve of drinking blood and killing and wish it would happen more often?) Most people who dress up as Marvel-Thor have no interest in mocking heathens; they just see a fictional character they admire. If darkening my skin to create the Sea Folk costume I used years ago is racist, so is wearing fake freckles to be Pippi Longstocking, or wigs, or any other change in physical appearance to assume a character…hmmm, kind of negates the whole point of dressing up to me!
Also along the theme of costumes, there is Halloween itself. Every year, I hear witches and pagans somewhere complaining about all the wicked or ugly or whatever stereotype witch costumes, or even everything surrounding Halloween, calling them inappropriate because “real witches” don’t match the fictional stereotype that’s been used for the last hundred years in movies and theater and books (where are the people protesting the Oz franchises?), and because Samhain is a sacred holiday. Whatever. Little kids going around and trick-or-treating doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of Samhain as a day for the dead and thinning the veil. Those kids don’t have to have any knowledge of history, comparative religion, or anything else to enjoy their holiday and their candy and their cosplay and their fun with friends and neighbors. That green-faced witch isn’t real, she’s a character from a book.
If nobody ever used anything that belonged originally to somebody else, things would never change. And things always change. Change comes, evolution happens not just physically over eons, but culturally over decades, or even faster. My whole religion was derived from cultural appropriation, things taken from this tradition and that religion and this tribal custom and that family legend, all of it pulled together into something completely new. Does that invalidate all of modern Wicca? To me, it is a beautiful thing, that all these elements were able to come together and create a new whole that provides meaning and satisfaction for hundreds of thousands of people around the world today.
There is no such thing as a pure culture, one that has never borrowed anything from anybody else. Every religion, every culture around the world has elements that originally belonged to another tribe, another set of practices. Every time two tribes come together, commerce occurs not just in goods, but in people, ideas, fashion, gods, every aspect of life. That blending and mixing eventually creates something new, when then will blend and mix with the next thing it encounters. All of this is wonderful, and I never want to see it stop.