Written by: Jonathan Patrick Bongani Geach
If you’ve had the pleasure of existing since the dawn of the new millennium, and you’re currently undergoing some degree of formal education, then you’ve undoubtedly come across the term “Cultural Appropriation” being thrown around all over the place (usually angrily in your face by some picketing protestor).
Its important for us as the citizenry to unpack and understand whatever it is this term is trying to communicate to us, in order to defend against it, through the deductive and decrypting powers of reason and logic. In the spirit of audi alteram partem (listening to the other side) let us examine the content of the Appropriation argument:
Those who subscribe to its doctrine claim that certain “dominant” cultures view other “oppressed” cultures and their practices as curiosities, which can be pillaged and picked apart, taking the bits one “likes” and discarding the rest. They argue that this is unjust because the people who mimic the culture of the “oppressed” aren’t being oppressed themselves, which effectively further oppresses the oppressed.
Appropriation is the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission – so “stealing” in layman terms. Now that’s simple enough to understand, and it seems like a reasonable point of departure, but things go horribly wrong when something as arbitrary and convoluted as “Culture” gets lobbed onto it to form some pseudo-academic term, which naturally, only makes sense to the people who came up with it.
As easily as I defined appropriation, the same cannot be said when defining culture. When someone talks about their culture, what in actual fact are they referring to?
Are they perhaps referring to their faith (religion or spirituality)? Their ethnicity (race and genetic ancestry)? Their language or mannerisms? Their style, architecture or attire? The music they produce/listen to? A person’s identity, perhaps?
No one is quite sure – not even the staunch defenders of the ideology.
Religion, and faith as a whole, is a global phenomenon, and it is utterly ludicrous to claim it could ever “belong” to any one group of people. Even in instances where an entire culture is built around the pillar of a faith (such as Islam or Judaism), one cannot claim that a set of beliefs belongs to any particular population; firstly because thought cannot be contained, and secondly because of the extent to which these faiths have been “exported” all over the world, and now exist as integrated parts of so many non-Arabic and non-Hebrew people’s lives.
As a case study, the continent of Africa is de facto subject to the influence of two major religions: Islam and Christianity, both of which were not founded on the continent nor by any of its inhabitants. Both of these religions form part of the daily lives of millions upon millions of Africans, and have become so inseparable from indigenous practices, that the mere prospect of a believer trying to distinguish between their faith, and their culture, is inconceivable.
The matter of language is much the same. Its no secret that Spanish is in no way indigenous to any territory in Mesoamerica or South America, and yet it is spoken by hundreds of millions of people in these places as a first language, and has inevitably formed an integral part of their day to day existence. Language was invented as a form of interaction, so attempting to limit that interaction through staking cultural claims upon it, is contrary to the very nature of its founding.
With regards to ethnicity, we enter the murky waters of perceptual purity and bigotry. Ethnicity is brought under a cultural lens in two scenarios: the first and foremost is reproduction, and the second is adoption.
A child born from an ethnically Zulu mother, and an ethnically English father, is by every genealogical standard, of joint Zulu and English ancestry. Their skin colour is utterly irrelevant, because their biology is evident of their genetic ancestry.
Let us hypothesise the case of a Japanese mother adopting a Slavic child, who then proceeds to raise the baby as her own, in the Japanese custom. The child learns the Japanese language, practices Shinto Buddhism as his faith, listens exclusively to J-Pop music, only wears Kimonos, and considers himself Japanese. Despite all this, the child is still ethnically Slavic, and nothing will change that.
Is it just to accuse this child of “stealing” Japanese culture, of bastardising the customs of a people whom he does not “belong” to by virtue of his birth? Is it right to dismiss him just because of his ethnicity, just because he doesn’t “look Japanese” despite “acting Japanese”?
As far as identity is concerned, the child undoubtedly believes himself to be Japanese, having never taken the slightest interest in his Slavic ancestry, nor possessing any knowledge of it. He is in every sense of the word “trans”.
If one accepts the notion of transgenderism, then one has to accept the notion of trans-racialism, as well as trans-culturalism, by following the same logic. Gender, race, and culture, are all social constructs, and if one chooses not to identify with either one for any particular reason, who are we to dismiss them? How can one justify discrimination based on a non-harmful mindset?
Moving on to materialism (which unsurprisingly is the greatest point of contention on this superficial matter) we must examine culture specific clothing and styling. I believe the only way to tackle this is head on with the most common case scenarios, starting with hairstyles.
It is often remarked that “braids”, “dreadlocks”, “afros”, and “knotting” are African hairstyles which non-African people appropriate. Quite frankly, the thought that these styles are endemic to only the African continent, is the result of a gross assumption. The Iron Age Celtic tribes of Europe (namely in Britannia, Gaul, and Iberia) all practiced braiding. It was first recorded by the Romans, and it is reasonable and justifiable to assume that the practice occurred long before the Roman conquest of the aforementioned regions.
Scandinavian Norsemen where known to wear their long hair in dreadlocks, in order to keep it out of their eyes when raiding. Germanic tribes, such as the Suebi, used knotted hair as a cultural symbol ever since they settled the territory West of the Elbe river, in addition to many tribes on the Asian Steppe, such as the Mongols.
The “afro” is an ideological symbol of Pan Africanism, but the thought of “claiming” it as exclusively African is again ridiculous, seeing that since time immemorial, any person with curly hair could style their hair into an afro, such as the islanders of Papua New Guinea and the aboriginals of Australia, who weren’t African.
The attempt to claim clothing as belonging to a population is also unfounded from the outset. Denim Jeans are worn all over the world, yet they were created by the French people of Nîmes. The same is true for silk clothing, which was exclusively worn by cultures and people hailing from the Far East, but are now found worldwide. Specific clothing and architectural styles are always formed by adapting some form of an original style. The Romans stole the art of making frescos and arches from the Etruscans, as well as togas and mosaics from the Greeks (who themselves stole it from the Mesopotamians).
In fact, the entire history of art is that of thievery! So eloquently put by Pablo Picasso in the words: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” The fact of the matter is that style cannot develop without drawing from external inspiration. It is a constant cycle of inspiration and adaption, which cannot be stopped by any arrogant protestor, frothing at the mouth.
Even more outlandish is attempting to compartmentalise music into its cultural origins. How could Rock n’ Roll ever be English, Hip-Hop be African American, Symphonies be German, when they are created, and listened to, by a multiracial and multicultural group of people worldwide? Stating otherwise would be robbing millions of people throughout history of their significant contributions to both the development of the genres, as well as their fanbases.
All of this is because culture is by its very nature uncontainable. Its a constantly flowing and changing social force, and an identity which evolves with the times. Every single culture on Earth stems from a previous culture. The Korean culture and language evolved from the Han Chinese, Xhosa and isiXhosa branched off from Zulu culture, which itself hailed from migrating Congolese tribes. The entirety of Western Legal and Administrative culture is based off of Greek and Latin principles and customs.
No one group can claim culture, for culture is the collective product of humanity, and it belongs to all humans, collectively. Trying to bully people into a box which someone else determined, is a form of social control, which is hardly unexpected from Leftists. It’s saying “you’re not allowed to wear or look like this, because it displeases my ego.”
Stay in your lane, don’t leave your box, and for heaven’s sake don’t partake in the practices of others,” sounds a lot like something Verwoerd would’ve scoffed out. The utter joke of the crusading leftist, social justice warriors is that by persecuting people under the banner of “Cultural Appropriation” they are perpetuating the very apartheid ideology which they claim to be destroying with their revolution, making this a fallacy ab initio.
Dare I comment on the statement that this fallacious appropriation has the power to oppress? We have grown so accustomed in this day and age to the term “oppression” being used as loosely as an unhinged door handle, and its very meaning being watered down to the point where it can hardly be taken seriously anymore. If someone feels that someone else is oppressing them by wearing an item of jewellery, or by expressing themselves in some other form, then quite frankly the problem is vested in their own hypersensitivity.
If an individual (I know populists don’t like that word) blatantly pretends like they invented something which they didn’t, then they are lying. We don’t have to construct some revolutionary socially-just term for it (which is actually just saturated with Leftist ideological rhetoric), with the ulterior motive of trying to control other people through shaming.
Let us live and embrace the nuances of each other! Let us dabble in the thoughts, identities, and practices of our fellow humans, as we celebrate and partake in the feast of diversity laid before us, instead of starving as we seek crumbs of attention.
Author: Jonathan Patrick Bonging Geach is a second year LLB student at Stellenbosch University and published e-book author.
And here I was just about to be entirely on board with this entire article when you had to go and ruin it by broadly painting a political group as all of one mind. Otherwise this was a great article, except for the shoody thinking snark about ‘eftists there. Congratulations, you invalidated your entire point by acting like the people you seek to critique.
Next time, try and actually show some rationality by making a point without broadstroking a group that is not all that homogeneous. 😉
Assuming you are attacking the notion of collectivising leftism – but leftism is by its very nature a leftist ideology. People are leftists because they subscribe to a particular doctrine. If you call yourself a leftist, but don’t subscribe to the doctrine, then you aren’t really a leftist.
Well, dear “Silent Bob” you have a point but i may say that the author has a certain type of leftist in mind which I call the “Cultural nihilists” I may in all modesty refer to my article >> “The politic of nihilism and the attitude of resentment”. Sure, there is also a thinking, classic left out there but at present the “four legs good, two legs bad’ shouting crowd prevails and dominates.
Hey there, really interesting article. I completely agree with the motion that culture can never be “owned” by a group of people but I think another important point to consider is the context or the reasons for which people decide to take a piece of another culture. In many cultures certain practices, clothing, etc. are seen as symbolic and have a greater meaning to them. Seeing someone from another culture play around with something that is viewed as “sacred” in ones own culture, disregarding the meaning and values associated with it is offensive. And if you have personally experienced oppression of some kind (in the form of racism or religious hatred etc.) just because of who you are, to see the “oppressor” take something that you feel is part of your identity (the very identity for which you were discriminated against), it can feel like a slap in the face. You can give people the right to feel offended. I think the root of the problem is prejudices which exist in our society. A lot of people adapt something from another culture in appreciation for its meaning or aesthetic appeal. If people didn’t feel prejudiced by particular sections then I think people would actually feel proud of the fact that they can celebrate their culture with people of other cultures. There is another point of cultural exclusivity, where people think that only people of their culture are “worthy” to partake in their practices, but that goes back to the point that no one actually “owns” culture. And just to clarify: I just used the word “culture” here, but as you said “culture” is a combination of many factors including religion, ethnicity, language etc.
Michael Nathan Bain
Culture as used within Anthropology is an incredibly vague term, so much so that any discussion of it, is normally preceded by distinct classification so as to prevent ambiguity in context – as its use varies so dramatically.
The notion that culture is conscious to the point that it can steal or even refuse to share is born of a sort of hatred.
When cultures mix, they naturally find the good in eachother and make use of it, be it words, terms or technologies.