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Rethinking cultural appropriation in wake of controversy

Dave Marques, Copy Editor

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Beyoncé Knowles is no stranger to controversy this year, but in a bizarre turn of events, one of her latest scandals has provoked the ire of sociologists instead of TMZ viewers.

In January, Beyoncé made a special guest appearance as a Bollywood actress in the music video for Coldplay’s latest single, “Hymn for the Weekend,” a psychedelic and exuberant depiction of the Indian color festival, Holi. Though the video featured stunning visual effects, they were not enough to defend the pop superstar from vitriolic accusations of “cultural appropriation,” a term previously unknown outside of academic and social justice circles.

Fordham Law professor Susan Scafidi was among the first to discuss the phenomenon. In her work, Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” and explains that it is most harmful if the “source community is a minority group that has been oppressed” or if the appropriated object has a high degree of historical or religious significance.

The controversy surrounding the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s 2015 exhibition of Claude Monet’s 1876 painting “La Japonaise”, which depicts the artist’s wife wearing a kimono, reveals that this interpretation of “cultural appropriation” is not universally held. When the museum opened a special exhibit in which patrons could don replica kimonos and photograph themselves in front of the painting, mainly American protesters argued that the event constituted cultural appropriation and perpetuated “Orientalism,” or the reduction of Asian cultures to a series of exotic and mysterious stereotypes. However, several Japanese citizens and Japanese-Americans, including the Deputy Consul General of Japan in Boston, viewed the event as a positive example of cross-cultural interaction.

Though highly contentious, Scafidi’s definition of cultural appropriation has its place in modern social justice discussions. Wearing a Native American war bonnet to the Coachella music festival or depicting the Hindu god Ganesh on an Urban Outfitters T-shirt can be considered cultural appropriation, as these actions take highly significant items and iconography out of their intended social/religious contexts and use them inappropriately. The same would be true of a Chinese retailer selling Purple Hearts as fashion accessories or Egyptian hipsters wearing Papal regalia to a rave.

That being said, the concept of cultural appropriation is often erroneously invoked, and loses its validity outside of a limited number of cases, such as those described above.

Cultural exchange (or “diffusion”) is not the same as cultural appropriation, though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. The former is the inevitable result of contact between two or more cultures, and such contact now occurs to an unprecedented degree with the advent of the internet and globalization. It is also now a two-way process. In the era of Imperialism, Western colonists aimed to “civilize” (read: eradicate) non-Western cultures with the imposition of their own languages, religions, and customs; today, however, global influence is no longer limited to Europe and the United States, and consequently cultural exchanges between Western and non-Western nations are much more egalitarian and mutually beneficial in nature.

In the vast majority of cases, adopting elements of another culture is completely harmless. Learning to speak Arabic, tasting Ethiopian cuisine, wearing the latest Korean youth fashion, and listening to Spanish rap music are not examples of cultural theft or misuse (as the term “appropriation” implies) because the context of usage is the same in both the source culture and the adopting culture.

Furthermore, “dance…music, language… [and] cuisine,” which are among the cultural elements that Scafidi considers off-limits for non-members, are meant for use in everyday life rather than in sacred ceremonies.

Another puzzling aspect of Scafidi’s definition of cultural appropriation is the notion that culture is something “owned” and has specific owners that set the rules for its usage. Take this scenario, for example: a family consists of two grandparents who came to the US from India. Their son, who is assimilated into American culture, has his own daughter, who is half white and half Indian. Which member of the family has the strongest claim to “ownership” over Indian culture?

Culture is fluid, intangible, and constantly changing. If the son in this hypothetical family adds Indian seasonings to a Texas-style BBQ meal, does this devalue his own Indian culture? Of course not. It would be absurd to assert, therefore, that a non-Indian chef fusing Indian and American flavors is degrading Indian culture, which has thrived for millennia.

The fact remains that the dynamics of culture are complex, and are bound to be become even more so as the world grows increasingly interconnected. The notion that all cross-cultural interaction is appropriation therefore runs counter to reality, and furthermore reflects a dangerous trend in modern politics and activism- the painting of issues with nuances and shades of grey as issues with concrete, black and white distinctions between right and wrong. It is true that cultural appropriation exists and should be addressed, but in fighting for social justice one must be able to distinguish between stereotyping a culture, accidentally misusing cultural elements, and respectful cultural exchange.

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Rethinking cultural appropriation in wake of controversy