By Sarah Bates
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Misappropriating culture

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Issue 397

There is a campaign being run at the moment by Native Americans to force the Redskins, an American football team, to change their name and mascot, which they argue perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

The owner of the team is unsurprisingly in favour of keeping the name, claiming it invokes positive characteristics, such as strength and courage.

The controversy is an example of increasingly popular debates around “cultural appropriation”. This notion, common in academic feminism and activist circles, generally refers to specific elements of one culture — a minority or oppressed culture — being co-opted and commercialised by “Western” culture.

The Native American campaigners have a good case. The word “redskin” is a racial slur and has specific connotations with the wiping out of almost an entire people.

Another example is the backlash against fashion companies selling versions of Native American war bonnets, which have been popular among festival-goers in recent years. These elaborate headdresses carry particular cultural and spiritual significance.

Culture theorists claim that when non-Native American people wear headdresses, the culturally specific importance of the item becomes diluted. They consider it a careless expression of white privilege. Sales of such headdresses were banned at the Glastonbury festival this year, following an online petition.

Commentators agree there is a distinction between cultural appreciation and appropriation; they disagree on where that line falls. Some say that you should avoid items that have particular cultural significance, while others advocate never touching items from another culture.

Of course, practices or items that are deemed to have specific cultural or spiritual heritage should not be used to mock or demonise ethnic minorities. However, there remains a difference between encouraging racist attitudes and the merging of different cultural practices.

“Appropriating” items from other cultures can be used in positive ways too. The case of Billings, Montana, in 1993 is an instructive example.

A Jewish family that displayed a menorah (the seven-stemmed candlestick) had a brick thrown through their window by local fascists.

The people of this predominantly Christian town responded with an act of solidarity by displaying menorahs in their own windows. Few of these people would have understood the exact cultural significance of the menorah, but used the culturally specific nature of it to protect their Jewish neighbours.

Cultural appropriation is built on the bedrock of identity politics prevalent in women’s liberation, gender and black studies. The theory hinges on that of power relations, where “Western culture” is inherently destructive of other, more authentic, cultures.

But culture cannot be understood in isolation from how the world functions. Because people have always moved around the globe, culture is not static or homogenous; it is constantly in flux and subject to different influences.

Capitalism in particular has driven people to migrate across the world, “discovering” cultures different from their own — and bringing their own ways with them.

But class is important too. There is a great difference between Christopher Columbus arriving on the shores of the Americas, with the weight of the Spanish crown behind him, and the Hispanic migrant workers entering the US today with particular cultural practices.

When cultural appropriation is discussed it is taken for granted that “race” is the most significant divide between different cultures. But this downplays the question of class, losing all distinction between different classes within one national “culture”.

The emphasis on personal experience and actions within identity politics can lead to a theoretical cul-de-sac.

Of course, those suffering from oppression should be at the forefront of fighting it. But where personal experience is seen as the only way to understand and challenge the unfair world we live in, it doesn’t actually explore the root causes of oppression or how to get rid of it.

The marginalisation of certain cultures is a symptom of structural oppression bound up with the development of capitalism — be it colonialism or the suppression of particular groups within Western societies. It is not, as some commentators would have you believe, the act of the individual oppressor.

Discussions around cultural appropriation reflect an increased interest in race and privilege, particularly among younger generations of activists.

Although these ideas are not new, young people who are serious about fighting oppression are now taking them up.

However, these discussions of oppression inevitably come up against the limitations of the identity politics they are built on.

Cultural appropriation can be viewed cynically as obfuscation, but we must engage with popular debates around theories of oppression as they shape activists’ understanding of the world.

Although it’s important to engage in these debates, we must be clear that to end oppression altogether, we have to destroy the system that maintains it.

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