Cultural Appropriation, Art and Free Expression

Recording artist Justin Bieber poses backstage after winning the Dance Song of The Year Award for ìWhere Are U Nowî and Male Artist of the Year Award at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Awards in Inglewood, California, April 3, 2016. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok - RTSDF9Z

The idea of cultural appropriation is a controversial one. On the one hand, it has been used as a critique of mainstream stereotyping of other cultures and oppressed peoples and the use by some artists and writers of aspects of other cultures without truly attempting to understand them or respect them. On the other hand, however, overzealous and hypersensitive activists have become a force for suppressing artistic and personal expression, ironically becoming racist themselves by dividing humanity up into racial groups and seeing others by the colour of their skin or their ancestry rather than by their common humanity.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation at its most basic level is when a person of one culture adopts aspects of the culture of another. This is arguably the basis for all cultural evolution and development. Humans are by nature migratory and no culture has evolved in true isolation without taking or inheriting culture from elsewhere.

When activists use the term, what they are often referring to is not the blending of two or more cultures into something new, but the unfair usage of elements of ethnic minority cultures by individuals from outside that culture. What exactly determines unfair usage or misappropriation is hotly debated.

The most zealous activists would condemn any white person using or adopting any aspect of a culture that is not European in origin and would forbid white artists or authors from using non-white mythology, art, dress, music, literature or religion in their own works. More moderate activists, meanwhile, would instead merely condemn such usage where it plays into stereotypes, is disrespectful or takes elements of another culture without including the context from which it is developed.

My objections are mostly confined to the overzealous, if not down-right racist, assertions of the former rather than the latter. I accept that wrongful cultural appropriation exists, what I challenge is the idea that white people, by virtue of our historic dominance, cannot be inspired by or genuinely value the culture of other peoples.

The Battle of the Dreadlock

First, I want to correct one of the most egregious errors that many activists have fallen into and that is the ignorant assumption that the wearing of one’s hair in dreadlocks is an exclusively African cultural phenomenon. Humans from all across the globe have been putting their hair into dreadlocks since time immemorial and it is in no way an exclusively African hairstyle. It is prevalent in cultures throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Indeed, one of the earliest depictions of dreadlocks in art is from Europe appearing in Minoan or Ancient Cretan frescos, circa 3500 BCE.

Dreadlocks have of course become popular in certain alternative cultures in the West due to their association with the Rastafari religious movement and the movement’s somewhat free attitude to drugs like Marijuana. Rastafarianism did indeed emerge from the Afro-Caribbean culture of Jamaica, however, if Rastafarianism is legitimately a religion, then like any religion, it can be followed surely by anyone, black or white.

Admittedly, not everyone who wears their hair like that is legitimately a Rastafarian, however, they wear their hair like that not because they seek to mock or deride the religion or African culture; they do so because they feel that the hairstyle expresses who they are. Like any hairstyle choice, it is one intended to express their personality, and we should not be condemning people for it but celebrating the diversity such cultural exchange creates. Indeed, such exchange is the driving force of cultural development in history.

The argument that people should not be free to adopt aspects of other cultures in their personal expression is a corrosive one. It divides us up into little racial or cultural boxes that we are not permitted to move out of and encourages separation and division that can only be bad for minorities in the long run. To take this idea to its reductio ad absurdum then, white people would be banned from enjoying jazz or hip-hop, eating noodles or practicing eastern martial arts or religions! Whilst obviously absurdities, such ideas follow the same logic as condemning people for wearing their hair in dreadlocks.

Harry Potter and the Native American Controversy

Back in March 2016, Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, caused outrage among many Native Americans, activists and scholars with her writings on her website Pottermore, detailing her fictional history of magic in North America. It was part of the wider marketing campaign for last year’s hit film return to the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which saw Rowling take us to the wizarding community of the United States for the first time.

Image source: Distractify

Many felt that her inclusion of references to aspects of Native American cultures and mythologies was done in a disrespectful, lazy and stereotypical manner. This was seen as an example of cultural misappropriation as she had taken Native beliefs and used them for her own ends.

The controversy seems to hang on three things. Firstly, that she refers to Native Americans as though they are all one monoculture, rather than the array of diverse and often widely different cultures that they actually are. Granted, it wasn’t a particularly long article and she perhaps felt she didn’t have time to reference all Native cultures, but it is a very common tendency in popular culture to refer to ‘Native Americans’ as though they are all one single group, and this is a myth that Native activists are keen to dispel. At worst, this could be seen as an example of lazy writing as much as anything else.

The second objection, as raised by Native American campaigner Dr Adrienne Keene in her blog on the subject, stems from the line about Native Americans being particularly good at “plant and animal magic.” This was felt to play into the common stereotype of Native people as being, to quote Keene “…mystical-connected-to-nature shamans…” rather than real people with just as diverse interests and personalities as white people. Although an admitted fan of Rowling’s works, I can agree with Dr Keene here; this was playing into stereotypes and Rowling should have done better. Knowing her political alignment, I doubt it was done with deliberate malice, but it remains a mistake.

The third objection, and the one that is most clearly an example of cultural appropriation is, Rowling’s references to the Navajo legend of Skinwalkers. Briefly, Skinwalkers are a type of malevolent witch or magic user who has, often through some violent act or ritual, acquired the power to transform into animals or even other people, and uses this power to inflict suffering and evil upon others. They are a taboo topic within Navajo society and form an element of the wider Navajo belief system. They are effectively the opposites for the medicine men and ceremonial magic users that make up central parts of the Navajo tribes.

Rowling’s reference to Skinwalkers in her article conflates them with ‘Animagi,’ wizards in her own mythos that can turn into animals, and suggests that the legend of the Skinwalkers was spread by charlatan medicine men who were jealous of the real magic possessed by Animagi. Given the importance of medicine men to the Navajo’s beliefs and the taboo surrounding Skinwalkers, we can, I think, understand why so many felt hurt by Rowling’s writings here. Not only is she seemingly attacking the Navajo’s belief system but she is also simultaneously using the same belief system to further decorate her own fiction. She completely misunderstands the nature of the belief in Skinwalkers, or indeed what they are, and equally fails to grasp the enormity of the insult she has issued to the Navajo and other Native peoples by her suggestion that medicine men, who are a central part of Navajo identity and community, deliberately deceive others into thinking they have magic.

Rowling’s transgression was perhaps made worse by her silence over the issue. Despite being very active on Twitter normally, and receiving thousands of messages about it, she has remained silent on the issue thus far, neither explaining her writing nor apologising for the offence generated.

Some more radical Native activists have, in their outrage, suggested that white writers and artists cannot and should not ever write about or include Native American beliefs or mythologies in their works. They argue that they cannot understand them and are suppressing Native writers by stealing their culture from them. Whilst I agree it would be great if more Native writers were able to get their works published and their voices heard, I don’t think the problem is white authors using Native ideas as inspiration. The problem is bias on the part of a white dominant and profit driven publishing industry which overlooks writers of ethnic minorities due to the fear that their books won’t sell to a white majority readership.

I firmly believe that writers, as artists, should be free to take inspiration from anywhere and anything. However, with that comes a duty to respect the source material about what you are writing. This is especially important when the source material is from a living culture, or in particular, an oppressed or minority culture which already faces persecution and marginalisation from so many other sources. If Rowling had wanted to include Native American myths and legends in her writing then she could have done so without disrespecting them.

Navajo Medicine Man

Washing the Colour Away

The Rowling controversy raised the frequent complaint by Native peoples of their artists and writers being overlooked by the mainstream publishing industry leading to a dearth of characters and stories told about native peoples by native peoples. With some claiming that white authors and artists, by using non-white culture as inspiration, are denying such fame and renown for artists, writers and actors of colour.

This is part of a wider issue of minority artists not receiving the exposure of other artists. I don’t think the problem here is cultural appropriation by white or majority artists as some have argued, but rather, biases and prejudices in how art in its many forms is disseminated and produced.

It is the publishers, movie studios, recording labels and artistic elites that overlook minority artists, writers, actors and musicians because they believe that people will not relate to or want to buy works that come from minority groups or have minority characters, stories or themes in the lead. A well-known example of this has been the whitewashing controversy in Hollywood, where movie executives have been reluctant to hire ethnic minority actors due to the belief that a majority white audience won’t relate to them or their stories.

The problem for these industries is that they are run as capitalist ventures, which means that their primary concern is not creativity or artistic achievement, but making profit. Like all capitalists, they are highly risk averse and would rather spew out endless works that follow the same tested formula than risk a product not resonating with their white, straight, majority consumer base.

Personally, however, I find the idea that people cannot relate to people who are different from themselves to be blatantly ridiculous. We all have an imagination, we are all Humans and the majority of us have a degree of empathy that allows us to put ourselves in the place of others. People in minority groups can enjoy and relate to mainstream characters, so why should mainstream people be any different? Harry Potter has an enormous fan base across the globe, yet the fact the protagonist is a white straight male has made no difference to its readability and value. The capitalist grossly underestimates the imagination, empathy and intelligence of the consumer if they think otherwise.

If producers and publishers were more open-minded about diversity, then perhaps, ethnic and other minorities wouldn’t feel so under threat by majority artists and writers drawing inspiration from their culture in the first place.

Activist vs Artist?

To close, cultural appropriation is a complex issue. There is a fine balance to be struck between protecting the intellectual property of other cultures and not suppressing the artistic or personal freedom of expression of others.

There are those activists who believe that, as the dominant culture or racial group in the west, white people should not make use of or appropriate aspects of other cultures under any circumstances. Others, meanwhile, believe that usage that is intended to mock, deride, stereotype or disrespect the culture of minorities is unacceptable.

I would reject the totalitarian approach that bans white people from taking inspiration from or adopting the culture of minorities for artistic or personal use. I find this idea itself to be racist and regressive that would inevitably lead to segregation. Providing your intent is not to mock, disrespect or stereotype minorities. It is my belief that such cultural exchange and mixture is healthy and vital to human progress. Ultimately, the cultures of humanity form a common heritage for all humans and thus, belong to us all to enjoy and partake in.

About Michael J Bramham 14 Articles
Michael is an aspiring writer and blogger based in Leeds UK. He writes on history, politics, religion, science and other topics

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