Monday, January 30, 2017

Thoughts on "Cultural Appropriation"

So, I've had some version of this post on my mind for a while now, ever since the whole Orentialist Kimono debate last year.
But I was prompted to write this post today in particularly because I saw that Bill Maher's video mocking the Left and their concern over Cultural Appropriation* was popular with my Vietnamese Facebook friends.

"So True" one  of my Vietnamese friends wrote while sharing this on her Facebook page.

Of course this type of anecdotal evidence is never statistically reliable. (Your Vietnamese friends on Facebook may be posting something completely different than mine).  But nevertheless, it made me reflect on something that I have long thought:
As someone who has lived in Asia for a long time now, I've always felt that this debate about Cultural Appropriation was a particularly American debate, and that Asian countries take a different view of it.

I also sometimes feel that there a soft racism behind the concern about "Cultural Appropriation", because the assumption seems to be that dressing up in Western clothing is the default standard for human behavior.  So when the Asian countries abandoned their traditional clothing to dress up in suits and ties like Westerners, that was considered the normal march of human progress.**

But when Westerners adopt Asian dress, this is somehow considered unnatural. ***

But this is a view of the world that you can only hold when your culture is the dominant one.  If the whole world dresses like you, then you take your culture for granted, and you're not concerned about fighting to get more attention for your traditions.
But when your culture is being buried, then you don't necessary worry if it's being appropriated by someone else, you're just happy to see it survive somehow.

In Japan, for example, they are very well aware of the fact that much of their traditional culture has been wiped out and replaced by Western culture, and they are worried about losing their traditions completely.  So from their point of view, any attention that Westerners pay to their traditional clothing is good attention.

There's also a weird inferiority complex in Japan.  They feel that their culture is inferior because they've had to accept a lot of Western culture, but very little of Japanese culture has ever been accepted abroad.  For this reason, they absolutely love it when Westerners take any notice of Japanese culture.  They want Westerners to try on Kimonos, and talk about Japanese culture.

Which made that whole Orientalist Kimono controversy last year so bizarre.
Fredrik Deboer pointed it out at the time (HERE and HERE).   People in the US had taken it upon themselves to be offended at the Cultural Appropriation, but in Japan the Japanese were bewildered by the whole controversy, and simply sad that this meant fewer people would get to experience wearing a Kimono (LINK HERE).

*Like a lot of these controversies over Political Correctness, I'm not sure how real this actually is.  (I suspect a lot of these things are blown out of proportion by conservative media).  But since I've got some free time today, I'm going to go ahead and write my feelings anyway.
Also, I'm not defending everything Bill Maher says in the video (I think he goes a bit too far) but just using this as a jumping off point for the discussion

**(A quick side rant while I'm on the subject of dress: there is nothing stupider than a suit and tie.  A tie serves absolutely no function, and simply serves to restrict your flow of oxygen while making you feel hot and uncomfortable.  It was a stupid style of dress to begin with, but it was an even stupider idea to introduce this style of dress to tropical countries.  Introducing Western style clothing into Vietnam was one of the worst ideas ever!)

*** Arguably this attitude even has colonialist origins--in the days when the French and British colonized Asia, the colonial officials always used to look with derision and suspicion on any white people who "went native" and adopted the local dress.

Link of the Day
The ACLU Is a Conservative Organization - Noam Chomsky


Whisky Prajer said...

The many varieties of Liberal (White) Guilt have obviously got under my skin (pun intended), but none moreso than this business of cultural appropriation. Holy shit and holy cow, what a distraction from the real work! And worse than that, it's a significant element of what's got us in the mess we're all in right now. I could rant on, but this guy says it better -- and he isn't "white."

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for the link.

I'm afraid I may have (criminally) previously overlooked that post you mentioned.

I re-read it now, and it does appear that we share a number of the same concerns.

And thanks for that other link as well