Being a self-confessed woolly liberal (the Guardian quiz confirmed it) I have a lot to feel bad about. If there’s one thing us liberals are good at, it’s feeling guilty. We feel bad for our class, racial, national or educational privilege (often, all of the above). We purposely choose houses near good schools and then feel bad that we’re not ‘supporting’ the sink school in a completely different area by sending our children there instead. We hate McDonald’s from an environmental perspective, but don’t want to criticize others for seeing it as a cheap treat for the kids. We eat quinoa because it’s supposed to be healthy, and then worry about its impact on Bolivian agriculture. We check labels for supply chain transparency and worry about being an inverse snob for refusing to buy fast fashion. (Never shop with us, it takes hours). And over the last few months, my pincushion-like conscience has been prickled once again by something I hadn’t considered in depth before – cultural appropriation, and specifically, the contents of my jewelry box.
There have been a lot of articles on cultural appropriation (the Wikipedia definition is here; I found Derek Clifton’s article helpful). Others have summed it up better than I can – perhaps, as a white person, I ought to be cautious about even trying to define cultural appropriation. Leaving that aside for a second, a quick definition of cultural appropriation might be ‘the adoption of an element of someone else’s culture by privileged (usually white) people, and trivialising that culture by doing so’. A fairly straightforward example would be the use of a Native American ‘war bonnet’ on the catwalk – turning something that has a specific meaning in Native American cultures into a dumbed-down oh-so-alternative (and expensive) accessory for the very rich. Imagine Vogue writing that Buddhist robes are ‘all the rage at New York Fashion Week’ and that Summer 2016 will be ‘all about that sexy saffron vibe’ and you might get an idea of why cultural appropriation makes people cross. Similarly, pop music is often cited – Elvis was celebrated as the ‘King of Rock-And-Roll’ for doing what many African-American musicians had been doing for years, and Miley Cyrus managed to offend everyone on pretty much every level with her infamous twerk. So far there have been no statements about Victoria Aitken’s rapping being culturally appropriative – perhaps because everyone is too busy cringing – but it opens up some interesting questions. So far, so clear cut – cultural appropriation is a Bad Thing for the woolly liberal.
However, having read a lot of articles on cultural appropriation – and the inevitable below-the-line comments that accompanied them – I found myself following my usual trajectory from ‘how terrible’ to ‘oh God, have I done that without realizing it? Does that make me a bad person? Help!’ Sure, I hadn’t done anything as daft as dress up as a ‘Pocahottie’ for Hallowe’en (as well as anything else, the ‘hottie’ ship has well and truly sailed) or had the Mahabharata tattooed across my backside because the writing looked pretty, but there are a lot of grey areas to think about. A lot of the music I love is made by people who have different social, national or ethnic backgrounds and experience to my own – is there a problem with my listening to K’naan when I am not myself a Somali-Canadian? I hope not. Is there a problem with my learning flamenco if I don’t have Spanish Gitano blood? I hope not, just as I hope there wouldn’t be a problem with anyone of Spanish Gitano descent learning Irish dancing if they fancied it. However, there are even greyer bits of grey areas. I saw a slew of comments on a cultural appropriation article debating the usage of the word ‘ghetto’, a term which has become associated in the last 20 or 30 years with American – usually Afro-American or Latin American – urban culture. A quick Google of the word ‘ghetto’ reveals some deeply misogynist lyrics I won’t reproduce here, a discussion about the origins of gangsta rap, and photos of people (of all colours) in baggy shorts wearing a lot of jewelry. In the more mainstream sense it is used to describe a poor urban area, specifically in the USA, populated by an Afro-American and/or Latin American minority. However, the word ‘ghetto’ originates in 12th Century Venice and refers to an area in which Jewish people – also an oppressed minority – were forced to live. Discussions flew back and forth on whether it was really appropriate for non-Americans (my italics) to use the ‘ghetto’ term. Could a Venetian be accused of cultural appropriation by referring to an area of their city as ‘the former ghetto’? It was all too confusing.
And then there was my jewelry box. Being frankly too old and too skint for bling, my jewelry box wasn’t likely to be a cesspit of cultural appropriation. Then I remembered a ‘saints’ bracelet’ I’d bought from TopShop ages ago. Originally, the bracelets came from the Catholic tradition – my own – as an aid to prayer, but I’m pretty sure that TopShop (or the magnificently named ‘bling, inc’) weren’t really expecting their customer base to see it on their shelves and think “that’ll come in handy during Mass!”. Did this mean I was guilty of culturally appropriating my own culture? Did it trivialise my own culture if I, as a now- not-really-a-minority-and-at-least-middlingly-privileged sort, wore a saints’ bracelet? Would it be disrespectful to Catholics who were still oppressed, even if I wasn’t?
Ready to implode with liberal angst, I remembered a wise statement from an Indian friend who had passed a rather lovely salwar kameez on to a white British colleague. “She originally asked for it to wear on holiday in India,” she explained, “which made sense – she was wearing it in context. Then she started wearing it when she got back, which was OK if a bit impractical. But it does grate a bit when she wears it down the pub to get pissed and tell everyone who will listen how authentic she is.”
So, perhaps the shorthand for it all should be “wear stuff that you like, have some respect for the context, and don’t be a prat.” I think that’s easy enough for most of us.