From the Archives
As Halloween approaches along with all the stomach-turning caricatures of minorities and foreigners, I find myself repeating the same question over and over: When is it okay to wear or adopt something from a culture you don’t belong to?
Obviously, the most offensive appropriations rely on inane stereotypes most people I know would never go near. But this doesn’t mean that globe-trotting, multicultural enthusiasts—like myself—can do no wrong. Since the 1960s, upper/middle class whites dabbling in other cultures has been celebrated under the banner of “Diversity!” But from the point of view of certain cultures, Nigerian writer Jarune Uwujaren argues, it’s often just another chapter in the long tradition of Westerners “pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.” American Indians do not appreciate headdresses used as fashion statements. Hindus do not applaud non-Hindus flaunting bindis. And Mexicans don’t enjoy seeing Day of the Dead re-appropriated as just another Halloween costume.
Yet the Mexican Día de los Muertos is the result of Catholics adopting what was originally a pre-Columbian tradition. Modern German children meanwhile have taken to celebrating Halloween, much to their parents’ chagrin. There isn’t a holiday on earth that hasn’t been adapted from something else, leading atheist comedian Mitch Benn to observe, “If only practicing Christians can celebrate Christmas, then only Vikings can say, ‘Thursday.’ ”
Indeed, intercultural contact always leads to intercultural mixing. Nowadays brides in China often wear two wedding dresses on their big day: a traditional Chinese red dress and a traditional Western white gown. When a friend from Chengdu married her German husband in Berlin, she turned this trend on its head, wearing a Western designer dress that was red and then a cheongsam that was white. Borders move and cultures blend constantly throughout history, often blurring the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.
For this reason, it is important to remember that absorbing the fashions and customs of another culture is not always offensive. But it is just as important to remember that it is not always open-minded, either. After all, colonial history is rife with Westerners who filled their homes with foreign gear and lectured others about the noble savage. Among the most ardent fans of Tibetan Buddhism, American Indian animism, and Norse mythology were the Nazis.
We all love to show off what we’ve learned and delving into another culture can be enriching. But minorities tend not to like it when an outsider appoints herself an expert and lectures more than she listens. Or thinks that listening to minorities is a heroic act, rather than common courtesy. Visiting another country feels special when we’re the first of our friends and family to go, but there is no guarantee we’ll truly be acquainted with the culture. Thanks to language barriers and the insular nature of expat bubbles and tourist tracks, it is fairly easy to study or even live in another culture for several years without getting to know a single person from that culture. (Waiters and receptionists don’t count.)
Whether venturing to the other side of the world or the other side of the tracks, it is always much easier to buy something, taste something, or get a bit of history from a book than to talk to someone from another culture. Because books and merchandise can’t talk back. They won’t call us out if we make false assumptions. If we do actually strike up a conversation with someone from another ethnic group, whether Liverpudlian or Laotian, the temptation to flaunt the experience like a feat of greatness can be overwhelming. Jarune Uwujaren wrote about this pervasive temptation last month:
I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.
Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.
If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.
But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.
Appreciating the beauty in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia. Enjoying a trip abroad that happened to involve minimal interaction with the locals is perfectly fine. But drawing attention to oneself for reveling in the mysteriousness of a culture is to revel in its supposed Otherness. Whenever an entire culture is reduced to its exoticism, it becomes nothing more than an accessory or a toy – not a sign of cultural understanding.
And while adopting a sacred custom “just because it looks cool” can be inconsiderate, imbuing our reasons for adopting a trinket with too much meaning can also make a native roll their eyes. It’s one thing to buy a handbag on a trip to Tokyo simply because it’s beautiful. A Japanese woman is buying it simply because it’s beautiful, after all. But it’s another thing to flaunt it like a badge of enlightenment.
The blog Hanzi Smatter documents and explains the snafus and utter nonsense that so often result when Westerners get tattoos of Chinese characters copied off the Internet. Such incidents demonstrate that vanity is often mistaken for art. We’re all a little vain, yet the difference between art and vanity is crucial because vanity is an indulgence, not a challenge or an attempt to communicate. When Dita von Teese donned yellowface for a London performance titled “Opium Den,” fellow burlesque artist Shanghai Pearl wrote:
I am not saying artists should not tackle controversial or challenging subjects. However, if we choose to take on challenging material, we should be prepared to have challenging conversations. I absolutely believe that art will not suffer from sensitivity. Sensitivity should make us work harder, research more, and think more. Art can only benefit from that.
Indeed, nothing suffers from genuine sensitivity. The lesson from colonialism is not to stop exploring the world and reading about it, but to always bear in mind that there can be no cultural understanding without dialogue. When deciding whether to adopt a tradition or style from another culture, we should consider what several people from that culture have to say about it. Because there are no cultures without people.
Originally posted November 3, 2013