Tuesday, June 25, 2013

the appropriation of "cultural appropriation"

Two panels at the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention thrashed around the subject of cultural appropriation. I wasn't on "Syncretism, Real and Fantastic", so I can't take the blame there. I dove into it on "Journey's End" because explorers, invaders, and traders bring home more than memories. They brought Mithraism to Rome, pasta and syphilis to Europe, and art that explicitly inspired Orientalists and Fauves and indirectly inspired everyone. No culture is an island—Japan tried it, and found it was a terrible mistake. Cultures take what they like and some things they don't, which is why anthropologists coined "cultural appropriation" to talk about the process.

The "Journey's End" discussion went sideways when I brought up Ed Galloway's Totem Pole Park, a beautiful folk art creation inspired by a man's love of American Indians. Its sensibilities owe more to Hollywood than any American Indian tradition. A social justice theorist would claim it's an example of appropriated art using their definition (more on that below), but there's nothing in it that denigrates the people Galloway loved.

Someone in the audience claimed it was appropriated because of a power imbalance—Galloway was a member of the conquering people. But by this argument, no one should be inspired by anyone. We all have conquerors and conquered people in our genealogies.

And more specifically, where is the power imbalance? Galloway was a retired art teacher. He had no power to make life better or worse for American Indians. All he could do was build his tribute to them.

"Cultural appropriation" didn't have moral implications until social justice theorists and cultural conservatives appropriated it to argue that people of one culture shouldn't adopt things from others—whether those things are philosophies, hair styles, clothing, or symbols. To them, appropriation is theft.

They say white people shouldn't adopt black music, ignoring the fact that all black music in the Americas is influenced by white music. African-American and European-American musicians have been holding a musical dialogue for centuries.

They say white people shouldn't wear dreadlocks, ignoring the fact that human hair gets matted. Finding a culture that hasn't had a form of dreadlocks at some time may be impossible—the most prominent European examples are the Spartans and the Celts.

They say white people shouldn't adopt elements of other culture's religions, ignoring the fact that every religion took symbols and concepts from earlier ones. (In Los Angeles, a woman in a coffeeshop criticized Emma for wearing a ring with a moon and a star under the impression the symbol was unique to Islam. But that symbol is at least as old as Sumer. It became an Islamic symbol via a political route: it was used on the flag of the Ottoman Empire, and came to be identified with that empire's dominant religion.)

Appropriation theorists rarely bother to learn the opinions of the subjects of their theories. They tend to use "Native American" instead of "American Indian" because they think the words are synonyms and "Native American" is more respectful. They don't know that "Native American" is a legal term used by the US government to describe American Indians, native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders in federal programs. (For folks who're confused about this: Some American Indians do prefer Native American, more prefer American Indian, and most think either term is both okay and unimportant, because they'd rather be known by the name of their tribe. If you want to research this, start at Native American name controversy.)

Appropriation theorists claim they're concerned with respect. What they argue may seem initially like common courtesy, but when I do the research, I usually find their concept of respect is being imposed. Most people in most cultures are flattered when people adopt their ways. They're not worried about sacred things being stolen: they keep private the things that matter to them.