I’ve lately been privy to the reality of White people seeing ‘cultural appropriation’ as another way to slap other White people and non-White people about what culture is or is not for them. Ironically, they often do not have any education about the culture they speak of, nor about the complex nature of identity, cultural heritage, diaspora, hybridity, soft power as nationalism and all the myriad issues that actually go into the complex construction of the self in its cultural and historical milieu. No, culture is *not* atemporal, as much as the White self yearns for the ahistorical construction of culture- an idea that I argue is a romantic and mythic one.
What do I mean by ‘mythic’? I mean that Americans do not have an encompassing myth or belief system and are hungry for one. In a sense, the whole agreed notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ is predisposed on a yearning for a cultural heritage that North America arguably does not have. To transpose the idea of a timeless, romantic Ethnic self appeases some of the guilt dripping down from the colonization and genocide of the past. However, such a romanticized construction of culture silences actual ethnic minorities. It is saying: your concept of identity at a crossroads with globalization, the internet, government policies, migration and diaspora is irrelevant because Culture is in of itself ahistorical and atemporal.
Ironically, a lot of this desire for a lost mythos is glossed over by a contemptuous talking down of other ethnic minorities when they try to express their own self-identity. This is what I call the White Saviour Complex, a concept that I argue is a product of White Guilt. If that reeks of cultural colonization, it is. When a white person tries to ‘protect’ other ethnicities from imagined projections of racism by other white people in order to protect their own narcissistic integrity of self- that’s the prototypical White Saviour. I argue that this is a violent act of silencing and rewriting of a person’s own personal narrative, which exists in the intersection of many geographical, cultural and historical crossroads. To take away a person’s ability to tell their own story is not only censorship, it holds the violence of colonization and silencing.
Let me give you two examples of this in action. I grew up in Singapore, an arguably multicultural society with a charged history of racial violence that has been put way back into the leaves of history books by aggressive policies of assimilation. The Singaporean government, keen to avoid events such as the race riots of the yesteryear, formed policies that forced a certain ratio of ethnicities into each public housing block. Multiculturalism is part of our daily pledge that we have to make on the parade ground from the ages of 7 to 18. We even have a day called Racial Harmony Day in which we have to wear each other’s ethnic costumes as a show of ‘racial harmony’. Identity (let alone racial identity) in Singapore, a heavily Westernized society in which multiple rituals and traditions exist alongside hypermodernity and rapid development, is a complex concept, to say the least. Although English is our first language, we are a country perhaps epitomizing ideas of identity hybridization at the threshold of hypermodernity and tradition in a globalized age.
That being said, I have had various White people ‘scold’ me about my own ideas of identity because it was complicating for their static ideas of the Mythic Cultural Self. Once, when I brought into a discussion the idea that Racial Harmony Day even exists as an idea, I was blocked and deleted with two words. Another time, when I suggested that I was not the least oppressed or offended by the idea of White people starting a Singaporean restaurant (food being one of our national heritages) because it would bring Singaporean culture out into the world, I was called ignorant of my own oppressions (erm?). Somehow, it seems alright for White people to tell me how I feel about my own identity and what emotions are associated with it. Do they realize that by doing so they’re committing an act of silencing and violence? I think not.
The thing is, culture is an evolving concept. There is very little purity of culture in our age where there is so much diaspora and migration, not to mention cross-fertilization of cultures and the supremacy of North American media over the world. Yoga began as an Indian attempt to popularize Indian culture in North America. If you are curious about this, check out Swami Sri Yukteswar’s The Holy Science, which makes the ambitious attempt to show the unity of all religions by bridging Western Empiricism and Christianity with Eastern Philosophy and traditions. Now, however, White people see it fit to tell other White people they cannot practice yoga because they are not Indian. Similarly, Korea is very militaristic in its pushing of Korean media and culture, repackaging it to the West as a commodity, a form of ‘soft power‘ or nationalism (see: Korean Wave). How dare anyone suggest that the branding of culture is a racist concept necessarily when cultures openly and continuously do it for themselves for various different reasons? Why else do we have cultural and heritage festivals? How is it even possible that White people dare to tell others that it’s ‘racist’ to wear a costume that is not their own?
I suppose this all can be summed up in this question: why is it appropriate for white people to form communities to police what is Right and Wrong about culture in order to put other members in their place? When someone accuses my husband of racism in a trading group because he traded a native American figurine, I think that ‘racism’ has become another term people throw around in order to feel superior to each other, rather than a term to signify bigotry. In other words, it’s one of the myriad array of things people can ‘take offence’ to in order to ignore their own problems. Because if you can label all actions into discrete categories everyone has agreed upon without questioning, then it gives you a false sense of intellectual control over the beliefs you hold, right?
This is usually when people gib on about racial history, genocide, etc. But no, that idea is dated and primitive. It makes no sense. It would mean that, as a Singaporean, I should hate Japan because they killed and massacred a lot of my people 70 or odd-so years ago. Should we boil ourselves down to the sum of our historical trauma? No, that’s dangerous and has the effect of recreating generational trauma by ignoring immediate, present issues. It colours over the complexity that is identity. We are not just the sum of traumas that occurred to our ancestors. If so, we should put a ban on British television, because they were the most ardent colonizers, no? Take note, though, that I’m not ignoring the existence of collective, generational trauma. But I can assure you that reliving past traumas in the present is going to contribute, not deduct, from suffering. We need money, policies and support systems to decrease the addiction and suicide levels in Native communities, not more White people policing others about what is appropriate or not for them.
Take the example of the whole Halloween costume hoo-ha in which Native American costumes gained a notoriety for being offensive and disrespectful. I do appreciate that sacred objects lose their impact when made into costumes, but Halloween is in-itself a festival in which normal rules and hierarchies are upturned. To police what people can or cannot wear seems to be beyond the point. Also, I do not see how banning ethnic costumes could actually help minorities themselves to be seen or heard. Does policing what people can or cannot wear actually give exposure to the culture of said minorities? No. To the contrary, it reenforces an unequal power balance in which White people get to dictate what is acceptable. Also, it bestows a false superiority in which White people can feel superior to other White people for having the ‘right’ political belief, while at the same time remaining ignorant to the cultures of which they are policing. Ironically, it also adds to a culture of shame in which power is handed to those who ‘call out’ others, and a swarm of people descend to make said person feel shameful. Sounds like bullying? It is.
Although it began with Halloween costumes, accusations of cultural appropriation have extended to yoga, dreadlocks, even kimonos and popular movies such as Ghost in the Shell! How do cultures create visibility for themselves without cultural exchange? I argue a representation of a cult anime in Western media is better than the absence of any representation. Also, our economies would die if this principle of homogeneity extended to economic policies, as well. Ironically, it’s often white people paddling these ideas of white-washing and appropriation, completely oblivious to the impact this may have on the exchange economies which these cultures rely upon.
Rather, I argue that culture is an evolving and fluid concept that cannot be pinned down to a single definition. All cultural heritages and traditions exist at the intersection of globalized media, having to negotiate their identities in light of Westernized society. Even European countries and cultures are not exempt from this: it’s not an idea that only applies to Native peoples, Black culture or ethnic minorities in North America. The majority of my friends come from mixed races, are second or third generation to their native ethnicity, and are culturally displaced in one form or the other. Reclaiming roots is another sensitive subject for us because we are culturally confused as a society. What I see, however, is White people telling others how identity should be constructed according to them, completely discounting the fact that we all are on our individual journeys towards finding our selfhood in an increasingly disassociated, divisive and alienating world.
In light of this fact, can we be a bit kinder in our ways of approaching people who are not Us? A lot of racism I see comes not from bigotry and hatred but ignorance. White people simply are not aware that they are not the Center, and still classify everyone else as Other (If you think about it, this is not very different from Orientalism, a term coined by Said to describe the Western tendency to portray the East as mystical, underdeveloped and exotic). Most people don’t realize that the sociological concepts that they grew up with are simple one permutation of a huge, cosmological spectrum of ways of being in our world. Isn’t it strange, then, that we take for granted that the Western framework is the only framework, so much that it gains a type of invisibility? Meanwhile, other non-Western frameworks (ahem, Eastern frameworks) gain a painful visibility at the forefront of White consciousness, being the main object for White people to feel better about themselves about whether by fetishization (because mindfulness is so mystical! and omg, Buddhism!) or ideas like ‘cultural appropriation’.
I argue that this new fad of ‘cultural appropriation’ is just another way of cultural colonization. Said out loud in a sentence, this sounds borderline offensive to White people, but maybe it’s time that we call for a critique for one of the many ideas in the bag of “Concepts People Silently Agree Upon as Facts Without Questioning For Fear of Offending”. After all, I can’t arguably be racist towards White people as an Asian in Canada. Let’s also forget the fact I grew up in an Americanized society under the strictures of Christianity with friends of many ethnic identities. Or that many Singaporeans are ‘racist’ towards immigrants from China (but how is it possible for one race to be ‘racist’ against itself, you ask? Well, of course it’s possible, if you classify racism as bigotry and ignorance, or simply prejudice). After all, all these ideas are a bit too uncomfortable for the average white person to consider because it displaces North America as the meaning-making capital of the globalized world.
The thing is, difference exists. It’s the singular flaw in human nature that we are prejudiced because of one or many factors, and race is just a trojan horse. A minority may lash out because of race, just like a racist person may lash out because of race, but either person on either end of the equation is dealing with the tip of an iceberg that cannot be reduced to one factor alone. A lot of people have unprocessed trauma or bad experiences from bullying but are projecting it outward into the world. Call-out culture contributes to this climate of bullying and shaming. I think it’s vital that we are vocal about our experiences, but it’s vital we don’t silence or talk over others on the way towards healing. There must be other ways to heal one’s own trauma without resorting to victimization and blame-shifting.
To the contrary, I argue that the dogmatic dishing out of Right and Wrong reduces difference. Difference is an unavoidable fact of life, if not in race but in everything. Race is a little factor in a huge colour palate of differences. Similarly, prejudice will always exist in all forms and shades. Did you ignore a homeless person on the street or perhaps you assumed they were alcoholic because they were buying beer in the afternoon? That can be prejudice too; it’s not necessarily harmful because we need to make qualified judgments every day of our life. However, it does become another tool of colonization and oppression when it results in silencing and victimization. And ironically, the entire white-washed White-as-Centre narrative reduces culture to exactly that.