Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Mixing?
Cultural appropriation has been used as a method of subjugating people for a long time. Imperial powers come in and take, degrade and belittle the cultural artifacts of those they’re invading. This is undeniable. However, not all ‘takings’ should be considered appropriation.
First, we most understand that culture is not homogenous. It exists in the localities that produce it. The hip hop culture in Newark is not going to be the same as the hip hop culture in Los Angeles. They can’t be because the participants in each city cannot interact with each other. Though participants from both areas can use the internet to communicate and share ideas, I’m not convinced that the internet’s power transcends the actual ability to participate, collaborate and perform in the same space. Because culture is not homogenous, the ability for those outside of a locality to speak authoritatively on a similar culture (or a culture going under the same name) is diminished.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that culture cannot be reduced to skin color. In the United States, the dominant ideology incorporates white supremacy into itself. This means that people who are not assimilated into the white structure will have similar burdens and experiences, but it does not mean that all Blacks, all Latin@s, or all Asians will have the same cultural experiences as those within the same identity group. Especially looking at the construction of the Asian American identities, while many in the group enjoy higher class advantages, others in the group (Vietnamese and Hmong) have higher levels of poverty and incarceration rates (rivaling black and latin@ rates). Because of this and because culture isn’t homogenous, we are forced to realize that skin color cannot be a determinate of what culture one ‘belongs’ to (or conversely, which culture belongs to which race).
Culture is not homogenous and it cannot be reduced simply to skin color. It is not static either. Cultures change over time and when different cultures are put into the same space, it’s inevitable that they will mix. What all of this means is that the origins of cultures cannot be easily reduced to a certain place or time and that many instances of appropriation are indeed just the mixture and growth of culture.
Multiculturalism, while fighting for the inclusion of people of color, unfortunately creates barriers between different races. There are Asians, Blacks, Latin@s and Native Americans, but they all exist separately and have their own histories. Vijay Prashad’s insistence on polyculturalism rectifies that problem. It insists on a shared history and a shared experience of people throughout time. It posits that cultural authenticity does not exist and that the point of origin for culture is never certain.
Liberalism of the skin, which we generically know as multiculturalism, refuses to accept that biology is destiny, but it smuggles in culture to do much the same thing. Culture becomes the means for social and historical difference, how we differentiate ourselves, and adopt the habits of the past to create and delimit social groups. The familiar dichotomy between nature-nurture becomes the basis for distinction between the white supremacists and the liberals. Culture, unlike biology, should allow us to seek liberation from cruel and uncomfortable practices. But instead, culture wraps us in its suffocating embrace. If we follow liberalism of the skin, then we find our- selves heir to all the dilemmas of multiculturalism: Are cultures discrete and bounded? Do cultures have a history or are they static? Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change? Do cultures leak into each other? Can a person from one culture critique another culture? These are the questions that plague both social science and our everyday interactions. Those who subscribe to the liberalism of the skin want to be thought well of, to be good, and therefore, many are circumspect when it comes to the culture of another. The best intentions (of respect and tolerance) can often be annoying to those whose cultures are not in dominance: we feel that we are often zoological specimens.
To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change. We’d have to accept homophobia and sexism, class cruelty and racism, all in the service of being respectful to someone’s perverse definition of a culture. For comfortable liberals a critique of multicul- turalism is close to heresy, but for those of us who have to tussle both with the cruelty of white supremacy and with the melancholic torments of mi- noritarianism, the critique comes with ease. The orthodoxy of below bears less power than that from above, but it is unbearable nonetheless. We have already begun to grow our own patchwork, defiant skins.
These defiant skins come under the sign of the polycultural, a provisional concept grounded in antiracism rather than in diversity. Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages—the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions.
What does polyculturalism mean for us then? It gives us another method of looking at certain instances of ‘cultural appropriation.’ In Everybody Was Kung-fu Fighting, Prashad recalls the mixing of cultures (Black and Indian) in Jamaica that resulted in the Rastafarian religion/culture. It mixes aspects of Hindu/Sikh mysticism with Jamaican religious culture to form a completely new culture. How can people then limit the participation of those in the religion/culture to just those with black skin? If an Asian child grows up in a neighborhood that primarily uses AAVE, how can someone from another locality tell that child that they are appropriating AAVE because their physical features. And in the struggle to protect culture, why is it necessary to create these arbitrary barriers to participation that limit productive collaboration and interaction?
In an article for ColorLines Magazine in 1999, historian and cultural critic Robin Kelley dismissed the idea of the purity of our bloodlines, finding the world of cultural purity and authenticity equally unpleasant too. Kelley argued that ‘‘so-called ‘mixed-race’ children are not the only ones with a claim to multiple heritages. All of us, and I mean ALL of us, are the inheritors of European, African, Native American, and even Asian pasts, even if we can’t exactly trace our bloodlines to all of these continents.’’120 Rejecting the posture of a ‘‘racism with a distance,’’ Kelley argued that our various cultures ‘‘have never been easily identifiable, secure in their boundaries, or clear to all people who live in or outside our skin. We were multi-ethnic and polycultural from the get-go.’’ The theory of the polycultural does not mean that we reinvent humanism without ethnicity, but that we acknowledge that our notion of cultural community should not be built inside the high walls of parochialism and ethno-nationalism. The framework of polyculturalism uncouples the notions of origins and authenticity from that of culture. Culture is a process (that may sometimes be seen as an object) with no identifiable origin. Therefore, no cultural actor can, in good faith, claim proprietary interest in what is claimed to be his or her authentic culture.