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What cultural appropriation is, and why you should care: Shree Paradkar

Appropriation. It’s the word of the moment following a big blow-up from a little-read editorial in a little-known magazine that called for an “Appropriation Prize.”

A worker installs Canadian Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau's painting

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A worker installs Canadian Aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau's painting "Androgyny" in the ballroom at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2008.

The first time I came across appropriation was when I came face to face with Gwen Stefani. It was 1997, and the white pop star with the bindi was in Bangalore, taking questions from reporters before her concert.

The bindi didn’t bother me too much. I thought it just meant India had arrived in the West — and, to my own colonial mindset, this was a good thing. But her condescension toward the reporters left me uneasy. Could she respect a cultural symbol if she didn’t respect the people?

I didn’t know the term cultural appropriation back then. I also didn’t know that brown-skinned women had been stared at, jeered at and even attacked for wearing a bindi on U.S. streets.

Appropriation. It’s the word of the moment following a big blow-up over a little-read editorial in a little-known magazine that called for an “Appropriation Prize.”

Appropriation. The word you’d better get used to. Thanks to social media platforms, the voices of people affected by appropriation are finally being heard.

So what is appropriation?

Put simply, appropriation occurs when a dominant group uses the art, cultural or religious symbols, ideas and expressions from long-marginalized groups for its own benefit or enrichment.

Does it mean we can never wear each other’s clothes, tell each other’s stories, eat each other’s foods, celebrate each other’s festivals? Certainly not. Cultures are fluid and we constantly appreciate and take from one another.

“It’s about feeling entitled to something that you have invested relatively little labour into understanding,” writes Ryan Cho, a B.C. teacher who also does anti-racism work, in a thoughtful Facebook comment.

Appropriation isn’t always limited to whites: A Toronto masquerade band recently apologized for using sacred native headdresses as costumes in the city’s Caribbean festival. In that case, the appropriation manifested as a misuse of a sacred symbol.

Appropriation shows disregard for another culture. You borrow one aspect of a culture — say, wearing corn rows or bindis, or using recipes — all the while seeing the culture itself as backward and “the other.”

A white celebrity in corn rows builds social cachet. Black women who were shamed into taming their hair to conform to eurocentric ideals of beauty and created artistic expressions of their hairstyles are considered ghetto.

Appropriation is not about artistic licence or freedom of expression.

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Skimming ideas from another culture to boost your own currency, without taking the time to research with compassion, is not creativity. It’s intellectual bankruptcy — and appropriation.

The writer Robert Jago wisely said in a Twitter essay, “Do I care if you have a native character in your stupid book about wandering pants or whatever? No. Write away. It doesn’t affect me.

“But if you’re writing about Native politics, or if you’re writing about crime or drug use, or abuse — that stuff affects us.

“By writing us one way, and not understanding us properly, you are mis-representing us and reinforcing harmful stereotypes.”

The cancellation of Toronto artist Amanda PL’s planned exhibition in Leslieville caused a lot of handwringing among those who felt their right to trample upon others was being trampled upon. Never mind that there was a previous YouTube video (now taken down) featuring Amanda PL calling Asians “ch--ks” and making slanting eyes, something that she told the Star’s Azzura Lalani was for “entertainment” only.

Chief Lady Bird also told Lalani the style of art Amanda PL appropriated “was our language when we weren’t allowed to speak Anishnaabemowin … so for it to just be deemed a stylistic quality of an artwork doesn’t make sense to me.”

Kendall Jenner offers a Pepsi to a police officer in an ad that drew social media criticism over appropriation of imagery related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pepsi via YouTube

Kendall Jenner offers a Pepsi to a police officer in an ad that drew social media criticism over appropriation of imagery related to the Black Lives Matter movement.

As with the Pepsi ad’s appropriation of an iconic image of black resistance to police brutality, borrowing painting or music styles (think rap) and profiting off the ongoing suffering of people makes it a willful act of cruelty.

Appropriation is a medium of oppression.

Therefore, there was one obvious answer to this tweet by the journalist Jonathan Kay: “If we eliminated all the forms of music that were appropriated from black R&B, jazz etc, there would be almost nothing on the radio.”

Johnathan Kay.

Nick Kozak/For Torstar News Service

Johnathan Kay.

That answer came from Huffington Post’s Joshua Ostroff: “Or there would be way more black artists on the radio.”

Therein lies the nub of the matter: Whites, the dominant group and gate-keepers to social institutions, appropriated from other cultures even while they didn’t value people of those cultures and blocked them from representing themselves.

Rather than allow black actors on screen or stage, they used blackface – to represent blacks as murderers and rapists in film and drama, depictions that continue to have real and devastating consequences.

Rather than let indigenous people tell their own stories whether in words or art, white settlers quashed those voices and appropriated their symbols for costumes, for souvenirs, for child’s play and even for sports team mascots.

For indigenous people, appropriation is continuous and unrelenting.

As the CBC’s pop-culture critic Jesse Wente said in a debate on Saturday: “We have to acknowledge … that appropriation is institutionalized in Canada. Not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of land, of our lives, that this is the very foundation of what Canada is based on, including laws that were written specifically to enforce cultural appropriation.”

 

Shree Paradkar tackles issues of race and gender for The Toronto Star.  

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