On the heels of viewing and participating in a discussion about dreadlocks, I am pondering the differences between cultural appropriation and cultural assimilation … there is a difference. According to Wikipedia, the terms refer to the same kind of activity but appropriation tends to have a negative connotation while assimilation tends to be a more neutral term. Which is a little ironic … because The Borg.
So anyway, this post started out as a Facebook status update … and then it kind of ballooned out of control. In fact, after I finished typing the *bleuraak* of words that were in my head, I cut and paste the wall of text into my blog post editor and noted that the word count was up to 450 words. Whoa … right? I know. I didn’t even think I could still write blog posts like this, it’s been so long … but I digress.
So my pondering is because of my reaction to the aforementioned discussion about deadlocks. I would do it a disservice by trying to summarise the discussion, and I can’t really link to it here since it was in a private group, and I certainly can’t copy and paste the words either because that would just be unethical. Suffice to say that the discussion started on the basis of opinions and stereotyping associated with dreadlocks; but then it descended into a judgement rant about people because of how their locks looked. I thought it was ironic the the initial discussion topic was posed based on the judgement the original poster thought people with dreadlocks endure but that there was judgement about different people and their locks too. Basically, it sounded to me like “the world should never judge us dreadlocked persons, but some dreadlocked persons are just in it for the looks and that’s just bad”.
Now, the history of deadlocks has its roots in Africa. As a cultural expression, it “belongs” to Africans and those of African descent. Popularised by the late Bob Marley, it is now more closely associated with the Rastafarian faith. I should note here that the original poster found it useful to say something to the tune of “most Africans are doing it wrong”. If anyone is doing it “right”, I’d say it’s them. His whole rant was … startling. Now, I am not disparaging this young man at all. He was speaking most vehemently based on the information he had. There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet and I can’t fault him for falling prey to some of it. In fact, I remain strangely unemotional about the whole exchange. But it did set me to thinking…
Should I be angry that someone from a culture other than my own is telling me about my culture in authoritative ways? I am not. I am … simply pondering a world in which this happens so regularly that we can’t even recognise it.
At what point is it ok to take on the practices, ideas, traditions of another culture and discuss it in terms that imply you claim it as your own?
We study Tai Chi in several different styles (Yang style, Chen stye, Dong style, etc.). I found the Dong style groups here on the West Coast recently and learned their style is fashioned off of Yang style Tai Chi. It’s not cultural appropriation for Master Dong to form his own school, but is it appropriation for us in the West to form our own schools under his tutelage and claim the schools as our own?
I don’t know where the line is. It never bothered me before – mostly because I see the world differently and I don’t much care that white people are locking their hair. I can lay claim to the dreadlocks culture because I was born and raised in the culture that fostered Rastafarianism. But it doesn’t make me angry that people who don’t look like me are taking it on as their own expression. I don’t know that I can explain why either … other than to say I have never felt oppressed by anyone and so I don’t feel the need to be seen and respected as part of a culture or people or society. Thus I cannot relate to the anger that appropriation causes. I don’t discount it… and in fact, it is that very anger that I am pondering today. At what point _do_ we get angry?
I mean … maybe it should be ok to borrow something from someone else when it works for you. But is it ok to tell someone they’ve been doing it wrong for centuries and now that you are doing it, you can explain the right way to do it? Maybe that’s ok too – because the heavens know how much humanity has gotten stuff wrong over the centuries.
Maybe this “owning” of a culture is restrictive, selfish, short-sighted … archaic. Maybe in this new global world that we live, it is time to let go of that idea that “our culture” is ideally better when that includes everyone. A conglomeration. And speak of sub-cultures or pocket cultures instead. I can get behind that – sure!
But what of those cultures that have been marginalised as sub-standard and inferior for centuries? Do we tell them “Look – we effed up when we said you’re a sub-species. We know it now and we want to make amends. But let’s all share your bounty in the meantime. I mean … I said sorry, didn’t I?”
Here’s the tricky thing about granting equality and recognition after centuries of side-lining and marginalisation: when the oppressor recognises their wrong-doing, acknowledges it, and apologises for it, they don’t get to dictate the point at which time can move again. It’s like when you apologise to your husband or wife for betraying them over and over and over and over again … and they demand some time to think … and heal. Healing takes time and the one who was wounded has every right to say, “Ok. Thanks. Now step back and let me heal … and leave me alone while I do it – thanks.”
To get back to my original point, here’s how I think about appropriation: Sure go ahead and express yourself with whatever you choose, even if it is a form of expression that belongs to some other culture. Be my guest. Chances are, the reason why that thing is so well liked is because it’s pretty magnificent to begin with and its why it is still a part of whatever culture to this day.
Dreadlocks, for instance. We think it’s pretty fabulous and if you think so too, fantastic – we have something in common. But please be careful how you then take it upon yourself to tell us that we’re doing it wrong. We’ve (us and our ancestors) been doing it for centuries and I think that by now we’d have ironed out the kinks. Unless, of course, you’re trying to say that we aren’t capable of working out the kinks ourselves?
Heh … I guess I wasn’t as unemotional as I thought I was, eh?
The point is – borrow, borrow all you want. Just be sure to be respectful while you do it – m’k? And remember that just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Think about it.