The Root of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is making headlines once again. It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself writing a piece on cultural appropriation in which I defended the idea that it does indeed exist. This time, given the current headlines, I want to tackle the question of where it exists, or rather I should say at what level it exists at. However, I am getting ahead of myself. If I want to do this properly, I ought to start with the story itself.

This week a story about a non-Chinese girl, twitter user Keziah, from Utah wearing a cheongsam has been making the rounds. To make a long story short, Twitter user Jeremy Lam felt insulted by the girls choice in dress and put forward the claim that her action constitutes cultural appropriation. This obviously went in the direction we all knew it would go: with every angry corner of the internet jumping on the story. Lam supporters claimed this was another incident of White America abusing and commoditizing minority culture, whereas his detractors contending that this is politically correct culture gone too far and asking questions like “if I eat Chinese food is that also cultural appropriation?” I don’t want to wade too deep into this debate, as wading too deep into any internet debate is unlikely to lead to anything rewarding, but nonetheless I want to at least make an attempt to answer the question of “is this a case of cultural appropriation?” as it is a necessary building block in my argument. To this end, I could approach this by defining cultural appropriation and seeing if this case fits that definition, but I am not so interested in covering ground I already explored in my last piece on cultural appropriation. Not to mention that there is an easier method to arriving at an answer.

As a short aside, I want to also confront the obvious question: why am I doing this at all? After all, it may seem odd that I would write an article defending the existence of cultural appropriation against those who would deny it only to later write on whether a certain action constitutes cultural appropriation, seemingly playing into the arguments of those same deniers. Yet I feel that this is an important question to engage with, as long as we are careful to engage it on intellectual terms and not on the terms of the demagogue and the racist. This is because ideas of cultural appropriation can be all too easily twisted to further the efforts of nativism, the exact type that Fanon describes as leading only to embracing the Manichaean worldview and therefore blocking a liberating way forward for all parties. To label all cultural exchange as appropriation means confining “oneself to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, it’s built-in chauvinism, and it’s limiting sense of security.” (Said, Culture and Imperialism: p. 294) To do this would lead to ahistorical visions of the past and a divisive and conflicted future. We must therefore walk a tight rope of sorts: it is imperative that we root out the institutionalized power imbalances that lead to cultural appropriation while maintaining the cultural interactions and complex identities that make up our world.

Back to the matter at hand now. When it comes to tackling questions related to cultural appropriation, few scholars are quite as capable as Edward Said (indeed, he was at the centre of my argument last time I wrote on the subject). In his landmark work Orientalism Said explored the history of intellectual colonialism and the impact it had open the colonized cultures, with a facet of this history being the appropriation of “exotic oriental” cultures for the study and consumption of the West. This book highlights to problems effectively and critically, however Said never arrives at a solution at the end of the book (he ends his work by offering it to future generations to do what he could not at that time). This clearly never sat well with him, and in his later works Said tries hard to come up with a solution that both allows for cultural interaction that is not exploitative while also escaping the Manichaean world of colonialism and post-colonialism. To this end, I think he largely succeeds in Covering Islam when he offers these words as a guide by which we can avoid the issues he highlights in Orientalism: “…knowledge of another culture is possible, and it is important to add, desirable, if two conditions are fulfilled…One, the student must feel that he or she is answerable to and in uncoercive contact with the culture and the people being studied…[Second] no interpretation can neglect…[its] situation, and no interpretation is complete without an interpretation of the situation…[therefore] a great effort has to be made to pierce the barriers that exist between one situation, the situation of the interpreter, and another, the situation that existed when and where the…[research] was produced.” (Said, Covering Islam: pp. 163–164) These rules, used as a guideline for academic study of a culture external to our own, can easily be used as an equally effective set of rules on how we can escape the problems of cultural appropriation: (1) we are in dialogue with the culture we are borrowing from and (2) are reflexively aware of the relationship we have with that other culture.

So, to bring it back to the story of the prom dress, we can now ask the question of whether wearing that prom dress qualifies as cultural appropriation. To uncover this, we have to ask ourselves whether Keziah followed Said’s two rules. Ultimately, the answer is a simple we don’t know. Neither we, nor Mr Lam, know if Keziah was in dialogue with some form of representative of Chinese or Chinese-American culture when she made the choice to wear this dress nor do we know if she was reflexively aware of her position in relation to Chinese and/or Chinese-American culture(s). She has made some comments on the topic and they do allude to some reflexive thinking, however they do little to illuminate her thoughts enough to firmly grasp her position on this matter. Nonetheless, we can still draw an important conclusion from all this: that a person wearing a cultural item from a cultural group they are not a part of is not automatically cultural appropriation, but rather we ought to understand the narratives that informed their decision to wear the particular item. This conclusion itself is important enough that, if I so chose, I could end this piece right here and now.

But where would the fun in that be?

It is at this point that we can finally tackle the promised topic of this piece: at what level does cultural appropriation occur? Up until now we, along with the media in general, have been discussing cultural appropriation at an individual level, as a sort of contest between Keziah and Lam as to whether the former appropriated the latter’s culture. However, Lam’s criticism itself does not simply rest here, but moves the conversation up to a communal, or perhaps national, level: “In a time where Asian women were silenced they were able to create not only a piece of art but a symbol of activism…For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience is parallel to colonial ideology.” This is interesting as it moves the conversation away from the difficult to prove question of whether Keziah appropriated Lam’s culture and to the broader question of whether American and/or Western culture appropriated Chinese and/or Chinese American culture. In doing so, Lam seems to be placing the blame not upon Keziah herself but rather upon the entire culture and the institutionalized factors within that society that dictated that external cultures are reducible to exotic commodities to be bought and sold. This opinion implies to us that the individual’s actions are merely a symptom of the systemic racism that exists within American/Western culture. Such a line of argument does not exonerate the actions of the individual, but certainly minimizes them in the face of what is deemed to be “the real problem.” However, critics could contend that this line of argumentation is itself flawed as individuals ought to still be understood as being actors who are at least capable of checking their cultural biases and therefore even with institutionalized factors leading to it, cultural appropriation occurs at an individual level. This then raises the question: which is it? Where does cultural appropriation occur: at an individual level or a communal level?

The easy answer here would be to argue that it happens at both levels. That is, that cultural appropriation is both a symptom of an institutionalized problem at a communal level as well as the actions of an unreflexive individual. Certainly it is hard not to take this as true regardless of which of these two is the “more responsible,” given that both the individual who appropriates and the society that allows for appropriation play a role. This conjures up an argument somewhat similar to the one I made in my piece on the recent apology by Trudeau to the Tsilhqot’in Nation — that there are two agents of power, an active agent and a passive agent, and that both ought to be considered in any full understanding of institutionalized power imbalances. However, I would posit that both of these are informed by a third level, a level that transcends the other two and, in turn, informs both of them: the level of the episteme.

Foucault introduces us to the notion of an episteme in his excellent work The Order of Things, where it is in short the eponymous order of things. An episteme is “the transcendental [and a priori] foundation of knowledge” and is itself “on a different level from that of the field of real knowledge.” (Foucault, The Order of Things: p. 269) The individual action and communal institutions therefore occur at a level which is subsidiary to the episteme which governs them, indeed the individual and the community itself only exist because the ideas that construct them are found within a particular episteme. Knowledge is therefore constrained by the episteme that governs it, that defines the conditions of its possibilities, and that dictates its limits by which all that exists are to be ordered. It does this by acting as the basis for knowledge, existing a priori to knowledge by necessity as, without an episteme, understanding would be impossible due to the inability to build its foundations upon something. Foucault explains this clearly in a discussion on taxonomy: “from the elements that the System juxtaposes in great detail by means of description, it [the episteme] selects a particular few [characteristics]. These define the privileged and, in fact, exclusive structure in relation to which identities or differences as a whole are to be examined. Any difference not related to one of these elements will be considered irrelevant.” (The Order of Things: p. 152) Taking this example forward, we can see how something like taxonomy, or even the simple act of telling two species of animals apart in a non-scientific way, would be impossible without first defining what is essential to knowing those species (there is something in this argument that has always seemed reminiscent of Plato’s forms to me). An episteme should be understood as serving this same function, but for all knowledge.

Therefore, returning to cultural appropriation, it becomes imperative that we see beyond the immediate actors of cultural appropriation and instead look at its core roots. Though the individual and the community are certainly the actors by which appropriation occurs, the episteme forms the framework which allows for it to occur by building the appropriation as something appropriate within the scope of our discourse. Though power imbalances are what leads to abuses such as cultural appropriation, it is the episteme that allows for the construction of the abuse as a legitimate exercise of that power imbalance. We can talk of individual actors and communal institutions, but such conversations are pointless without a similar conversation about the episteme that allowed for them in the first place. The root of cultural appropriation can therefore be found within the scope of the modern episteme, the mode by which our actions are informed and our institutions perceived. It is seemingly so far beyond us, so deeply ingrained in our way of thinking (or perhaps it would be more correct to say that it is so deeply ingrained in the way by which our thoughts are ordered), that it is virtually imperceptible to us. Yet it is immutable. The episteme that governs knowledge can change over time, as Foucault observes in The Order of Things while exploring the three different episteme that have governed Western thought since the Renaissance. Therefore, when Fanon and Said talk of liberation, which in the context of their arguments is a re-arrangement of the self-other relationship that has historically defined colonialism and post-colonialism, they are talking of changing and/or creating a new episteme where the narratives that inform such abuses of power imbalances fall outside the boundary of what is.

So dense conversations on philosophical concepts aside, what does any of this mean for Keziah, Lam, and the dress? Well, as I mentioned above, it is hard to tell as it is unclear as to whether this even is a case of cultural appropriation. Nonetheless, this story was jumped on by pundits hoping to discredit the very idea of cultural appropriation as part of “PC culture” (see the link I posted above of Keziah on Fox News and watch how the interviewer attempts to lead the conversation in that direction at every turn; Keziah, to her credit, resists going down that path). In my previous article on this topic, I attempted to defend the idea that cultural appropriation exists against such critics by arguing that their arguments overlook the power imbalances and the narrative constructs that allow “us” to appropriate from “them.” Here, I have attempted to highlight at what level cultural appropriation is rooted, at the level of the episteme, and I have done so in the hope that identifying where a change needs to occur with help us to make that change — as Fanon and Said have both done before me. Yet after fifty-seven years after The Wretched of the Earth and twenty-five years after Culture and Imperialism this solution, which remains the only realistic cure to culture appropriation, is depressingly no closer to fruition. Such debates as that of whether Keziah’s prom dress represent a case of cultural appropriation are all too often corrupted, bent out of shape, and used as a tool against such a liberating shift. They are a tool to maintain the system and, in such a way, themselves represent the system that informs the applicability of cultural appropriation in quite stark detail. It is therefore upon us to engage in such conversations — and I do believe we must engage as, to paraphrase Gandhi, any action is better than no action when facing injustice — in a constructive manner. One which is rigorous and intellectual, reflexive and self-aware, and at all times keeps in mind the goal of ending cultural appropriation.

We must change the way we think and the sooner we do so, the better.

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Brendan McKee

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!