We danced like fools around the living room. One of my best friends just announced that her dream was to have an Indian wedding one day, so we cranked up some Punjabi MC and basically started rehearsing what it would be like. When we sat back down exhausted from trying to move our hips to the music, we couldn’t help but question her. After all, she is Namibian. A Namibian throwing an Indian wedding? Would her family approve? Since there was no guy in sight yet, we asked: what guy would be willing to have an Indian wedding if he wasn’t Indian himself? None of this seemed to phase her, which was great. She will know when the time comes.
We soon realised that the motive behind these questions was the notion of cultural appropriation. Basically, was a Namibian woman throwing an Indian wedding misappropriating Indian culture? This was a legitimate question but it bothered me. After countless debates, reading many negative articles on the topic and knowing that I myself am a product of cultural appropriation, I’ve come to find that cultural appropriation is often a non-issue. In a culture fuelled by debate, we’ve managed to make something which is very much a part of how we as humans evolve, a problem. So, to shed some positive light on this topic, here are four reasons why cultural appropriation should be celebrated:
1. Cultural appropriation is survival
Ask anyone who has moved to another country how they survived. They will tell you they learned the language, ate the local food, even bought books that taught them how the people in this country live. They basically appropriated the country’s culture and guess what, by appropriating the culture, they thrived. Because once you can speak the language, finding a job is easier; when you dress like them, making friends is easier when you respectfully adopt a culture, its people feel comfortable to accept you. As a new country becomes a new home, you learn to love a culture that isn’t yours. At 8 years old, I learned to appropriate a culture when I moved from my home country to another one. I am living proof (as are many other people) that appropriating a culture in many contexts allows one to succeed and move forward. Today I have the privilege of having two cultures and using the best of both perspectives to figure out this big wide world. It is such a blessing.
2. Cultural appropriation is admiration of beauty
There is one popular cultural appropriation movement I am utterly dumbfounded by the Japanese B-style sub-culture. It’s a subgroup of Japanese kids who want to be African American, mostly like African Americans within the rap culture. They dress like rappers, listen/dance to hip hop/rap music and share their absolute love for that aspect of black culture. Some may say this is vulgar or disrespectful but you know what I admire? It’s the absolute love and fascination they have for it. They truly admire it, an admiration seen through their effort to re-enact it. As a black person, I am flattered that they see such beauty in that aspect of my culture, even pleased they want to borrow it. They may not do it 100% perfectly, in fact tanning their naturally pale skin to look more black is borderline and their portrayal is stereotypical (I mean they live in Japan, real examples of African American culture are most likely very scarce) but they do it from a place of love and admiration, not disrespect.
I truly believe that appropriation of culture can be the admiration of beauty. When someone borrows something from your culture because they find it appealing, unique, fun, they are applauding you, they see beauty in you. As humans sharing what we love brings growth and open-mindedness, cultural appropriation reflects that.
3. Cultural appropriation: the reality of your culture on the world stage
The only thing I would criticize about these B-stylers is how painfully stereotypical they are. However, as mentioned, they live in Japan, they are so far from the actual culture so their shallow interpretation can be understood. What I believe is that stereotypes carry the truth but only a fragment of it. These B-stylers are copying the most popular fragment of African American culture carried across the world: rap culture. I do believe that it’s their duty to further educate themselves about the people they want to imitate but it is also the part of African Americans to change the “single-story” public discourse around their culture. They need to influence media and popular culture to portray other more in-depth aspects of their culture. Instead of being upset about stereotypes, let’s take it as an opportunity to reflect on what values in our culture we allow media to portray and think of ways we can change or broaden that discourse. There are ways we can influence in our own communities, in our professions to change the conversation about us. This cannot be done in a day of course, but I believe that with the current fixation on changing black narratives in media, this will slowly be achieved. There will come a day when these Japanese kids will see more than rap videos when it comes to African American culture, even in Japan. In this sense, cultural appropriation is a sort of feedback on how a people projects itself to the world and an opportunity for them to reflect on and improve that portrayal.
4. It’s about teaching others how to borrow your culture well
Now don’t get me wrong, there are times when cultures are burrowed in a vulgar manner. Instances when clearly the underlining motive is degradation and racism instead of respect or admiration. Take black face for example: painting yourself black is not even cultural appropriation, it’s utter disrespect for the identity of people of colour, aka blunt racism. However, I believe that instead of getting angry at these people, we need to put them back in their place respectfully. Show them that if they want to borrow a culture they need to do it well and that when it becomes racism or exploitation, it is wrong. In other cases, aside from exploitation or racism, instead of “don’t touch my culture,” let’s open the conversation and say: this is my culture, let me teach you how to borrow it well. Getting angry because a white girl braids her hair like a black girl would is frankly a waste of energy and time. It is crucial, of course, that those who want to borrow elements of a culture that is not theirs give respectful credit where it is due. On the other hand, I say to those who’s culture is being borrowed: be willing to educate and share the beauty of it.
I could tell from the excitement in my friend’s eyes that she wanted an Indian wedding because she was so taken by the beauty of their ceremonies. It came from a place of love and as long as she does it right, who is to say she is not allowed to have an Indian wedding because she is not Indian? I believe that cultural appropriation can be a thing of beauty. It’s a symbol of how as humans, we grow when we share and appreciate each other. Next time you feel your culture is being misappropriated, speak up with dignity and lovingly correct others and when your culture is appropriated because its beauty is admired, appreciate the borrower. Most importantly, we must remember that we have all appropriated a culture at some point in our lives and that if we did it right, it made us better, more open-minded people.