The idea of cultural appropriation has gained a lot of attention and controversy in recent years. Indeed, the very prospect of dressing up as Indians and Pilgrims for Thanksgiving has been recently described as just plain “racist” in an article on our very own Stand. Of course, Thanksgiving is a unique event with its own particular history, one that will most likely confuse the non-Americans among us and just leave us satisfied with the much simpler understanding that it has something to do with sweet potatoes. But is “cultural appropriation” more generally a form of implicit racism in itself?
As a mixed race individual, cultural identity has always been something of a complex topic. My brown skin and apparently unpronounceable name (it’s two syllables, people!) immediately set me apart from almost everyone in the overwhelmingly white country town I grew up in. When visiting my family in Sri Lanka, however, I can’t help but feel English. When my skin would get darker or I’d eat meals with my hands, it was not unusual for a family member to comment that I looked like “a real Sri Lankan,” presumably someone who’s Asianness wasn’t diluted by European heritage.
Now, I’m not trying to say that mixed race people are inherent victims of some sort of cultural identity crisis – there are plenty of perks of being from different parts of the world too – but it does make it impossible to identify with just one particular culture that is distinctly your own. As a result, the very concept of “cultural appropriation” is quite a confusing one. It is grounded on the idea that there is one pre-existing, exogenous culture which is given to you based on where you live and the colour of your skin. According to this mentality, then, there are different cultures, separate and distinct, which you are not entitled to be a part of.
Being raised in a diverse cultural background, this dichotomous interpretation of culture starts to fall apart. There simply are no wholly separate cultures given to you by the world. Furthermore, he notion that someone can lay claim to a culture, and anything deemed to be a ‘product’ of that culture, is exactly the same way of thinking that leads certain individuals to try to exclude people like me from their conception of that culture – one that they supposedly own and one that I can only be lucky enough to be deemed a part of.
The interpretation of cultures as wholly separate from each other and owned by different people is not just intellectually dishonest, but dangerous and exclusionary. If we construct barriers between cultures and dictate how we should act according to them, how long will it be before we start constructing barriers between people too? How long will it be before this blunt categorisation is used to exclude people like me from ever being deemed a part of any culture at all? Isn’t every culture just a combination of other cultures anyway?
It goes without saying that no one should go out of their way to offend someone or insult their heritage. And it is true that Thanksgiving is a particularly sensitive issue for many (perhaps it’s easier to focus more on the sweet potatoes and less on the imperialism). But we shouldn’t create divisions between people based on a dichotomous and intellectually lazy definition of what culture is. It is time to embrace culture for the colourful, diverse blend of global human thought that we are all a product of and, knowingly or unknowingly, contribute towards.