I wrote about cultural appropriation in an older post, which contains essentially all of my thoughts on the topic. But considering how cultural appropriation continues to appear in the popular conversation, I thought I would give it another round. I want to focus on two issues: (a) the harm of cultural appropriation, and (b) the reason why people are having a hard time understanding why cultural appropriation is harmful.
Cultural appropriation is a real and serious concept, in that it describes a phenomenon that causes a real and serious harm. Cultural appropriation reduces cultural artifacts to a prop, which in turn reduces the people of that culture into a prop also. Cultural appropriation is not the same thing as cultural exchange, or being influenced by another culture. In a very real sense, cultural appropriation is stealing, as is clearly implied from the word “appropriation.”
What precisely is the thing being stolen when we speak of cultural appropriation? Detractors are quick to argue that no one owns culture, and no one can. But that is a crabbed view of what “ownership” can mean. Of course, no one owns culture like one owns property—say, a car. Ownership of a car, or any other property, is a legal right. A piece of paper with legal significance establishes your ownership of your car. By owning your car, you can exclude me from using your car. If I used your car without the legal right to do so—that is, if I appropriated your car—the force of the law would apply to me. You could sue for any damage I caused to the car, or you could call the police to come after me and send me to jail.
But property ownership is not the only kind of ownership that exists, for humans own many things beyond property. Chief among them is agency, the power to define one’s own identity. Your name, for example, is an artifact of your agency. It is a word that defines your identity. Yet you do not own your name like you would own your car. Unless you undergo the process of turning your name into some type of property—for example, by using your name as a registered trademark—you have no legal protection over the word that you use as your name. You have no right to exclude the use of your name. (If you are one of the millions of American men named “Michael,” you cannot prohibit anyone from naming your child “Michael.”) You cannot sue someone else who has the same name as yours, nor can you call the police over the name sameness.
Yet the lack of such legal protections does not make your name any less your name. When someone takes away your name—when someone appropriates it—the violence involved in such a taking is obvious. It is no surprise that bullying usually begins with name-calling, an act of replacing your name with another word. The replacement word need not even be derogatory; it merely needs to be arbitrary enough to show that you did not choose the replacement word. NBA player Jeremy Lin, for example, recounted how fans of the opposing team used to taunt him by calling him “chicken fried rice.” The term “chicken fried rice,” standing alone, is far from offensive; it is a delicious dish enjoyed by billions around the world. But obviously, the racist taunters of Jeremy Lin were not using the term “chicken fried rice” as a word that meant what it said. Rather, they were using the term as an arbitrary marker of their racism. Because Lin is Chinese, bullies took away his name in favor of an arbitrary Chinese dish. Jeremy Lin’s name, his identity, was appropriated, in favor of a random ethnic marker.
(More after the jump.)
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Cultural appropriation as a theft is easier to understand if you understand culture to be an integral part of human identity, just like a name is. Cultural appropriation is stealing in that the appropriator takes away a culture, distorts it, and redefines it in a way that redefines the original holder of that culture. It is just like a situation in which a bully gives you a humiliating nickname, and you are known only as your nickname to everyone. You are no longer Jeremy Lin; you’re just “chicken fried rice.”
One easy way to distinguishing cultural appropriation from cultural exchange is to examine the power relationship behind it. Cultural appropriation always involves power, as it is the strong who steals from and redefines the weak. It is no surprise, then, that colonialism provides the most obvious examples cultural appropriation. Although colonizers try to erase the culture of the colonized for the most part, erasure of culture is not all they do. Typically, the colonizers preserve a small segment of the colonized culture, distort it to suit their taste, and make the piece of distorted culture their trophy. In doing so, the colonizers take away the agency of the colonized to shape their own culture by stealing and redefining their culture.
Such examples are common everywhere, but since this blog is called Ask a Korean!, here is an example from Japan’s colonization of Korea.
The pictured food above is hanjeongsik [한정식]. Many Koreans know it to be a traditional dish—but it is not. Before the Japanese invasion in the early 20th century, the people of the Joseon Dynasty never ate like this, with dozens of side dishes on the table. By Confucian law, the maximum number of allowed side dishes [banchan] was nine or twelve, which was only allowed to the king and the royal court. (The nine-banchan table looks like this. It is still opulent, without being crassly lavish.)
Hanjeongsik is an artifact of Imperial Japan’s appropriation of Korea's culinary culture. Once the Japanese colonized Korea, well-to-do Japanese often traveled through Korea in tourist packages not unlike the Japanese tourism groups that were common around the world in the 1980s. After seeing the sights, the Japanese would come to a “traditional” Korean restaurant to have “traditional” Korean food—except there was nothing traditional about either the restaurant or the food, for no Korean ate at those restaurants, and no Korean ate like that. Hanjeongsik was a "tour of Korea" for the Japanese tourists. It was a freak show of a meal, a distorted culinary tradition that was commoditized for the conquerors. And today, many Koreans who don’t study culinary history deeply think hanjeongsik is a traditional Korean food. The Japanese colonizers appropriated Korean food; they stole a Korean food concept, distorted it, and redefined it, such that the distortion is now (erroneously) considered a part of the tradition. It should not come as a surprise that the first hanjeongsik restaurants—called yojeong [요정] back then—were also Korea’s first brothels.* The exploitation of commoditized female body immediately followed the exploitation of commoditized food culture. In both instances, agency was lost.
(*To be sure, prostitution existed in Korea long, long before the Japanese colonization. But prostitution as an organized industry, featuring brothels with pimps and madams, did not appear in Korea until after the colonization.)
In the U.S. context, the most apt examples of cultural appropriation come from Native Americans, the colonized people of the United States. The pattern is the same: the dominant culture steals from Native Americans, reduces them into a prop, and use the prop as a trophy. In America, this process happens pretty close to literally, as millions cheer for sports teams with racist Native American caricatures, the trophy symbols for savage bravery. Never mind the fact that these trophies rarely resembled the actual Native Americans who are living their lives in the 21st century, often not too far away from those who cheer for those sports teams.
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What went wrong with cultural appropriation? In the wider public discourse, cultural appropriation usually exists as an object of mockery rather than a serious concept. Yet when I explain cultural appropriation in the terms discussed above, I have encountered significantly less resistance. Of course, there are always those who are blind to their privilege such that they are unable to see the injustices caused by unequal power relationship. But I have found that many of the strident objectors of cultural appropriation end up seeing the value of the concept of cultural appropriation, if they come to understand that cultural appropriation involves denial of agency.
The real complaint, I have found, is not with the concept of cultural appropriation; rather, it is with the way in which the concept is commonly deployed in real life—that is, without reflection or rigor. Cultural appropriation is not an easy concept. The harm caused by cultural appropriation is real and serious, but very often invisible and beyond intuitive understanding. It would have taken decades of careful cultivation for the concept for cultural appropriation to be translated into a practical manual of behavior. Instead, the concept was thrown around as a cudgel, a weapon wielded indiscriminately to win petty political battles.
It is ironic that just as soon as we as a society began taking systematic racism seriously, the ersatz anti-racists stopped thinking in a systematic manner. Or maybe there is no irony, for systematic thinking is not for everyone. Whatever the cause may be, we are now living in the era of “magic word racism”—an attempt to detect racism by presence and absence of certain words or phrases, without reference to the context in which those words appear or to the intent with which those words were spoken. Instead of thinking deeply about racism, people now seek magical totems to figure out whether someone or something is racist.
I wrote plenty about the harms of magic word racism previously (here and here,) so I won’t repeat myself. For our purposes, it is enough to say magic word racism is petty moral hypochondria, a meaningless virtue-signaling at the expense of others. It is no surprise that magic word racism, the small-minded attempts to regulate what particular word people are allowed to say, only has currency in places that purport to be the most progressive, such as college campuses or certain cities. There would be no point in virtue-signaling in any other place.
And surely enough, it is the same places that see the most ridiculous claims of cultural appropriation, such as bad Chinese food in the cafeteria or white people making burritos. In these places, “cultural appropriation” no longer signifies the meaning of the term’s constituent words. There is no sincere effort to determine whether the particular use of cultural artifact at issue indeed involves power disparity, the distortion and redefinition of culture. “Cultural appropriation” became just another epithet, another spell to be hurled in the arena of magic word racism. “Cultural appropriation” merely serves as a marker for the hurler’s ill intent, just as “chicken fried rice” was not a real word but a marker thrown to insult Jeremy Lin.
The pettiness of magic word racism comes from cowardice. No one, and certainly not I, would deny that racism is real. But if one had to rank the problems caused by racism, “gringos cooking Mexican food” must fall pretty far behind issues like race-based mass incarceration, or the overwhelming racial disparity in police shootings. Magic word racism stunts mental growth by turning the focus of addressing racism inward towards petty extremities. Peddlers of magic word racism are too cowardly to go out and fight, so they retreat to their safe space to kick the dog.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Cultural appropriation is too valuable a concept to be wasted as a mere epithet. It is a sophisticated concept that requires careful nurturing, such that it would grow into an actionable set of norms. Boundaries of the concept must become clearer, and the behavioral requirements must be spelled out. And during this building process, it is absolutely necessary to be generous to those who fall on the wrong side of the boundaries that are only being drawn as of this moment. If your method of combating cultural appropriation involves creating a list of restaurants to be boycotted, you are doing it wrong. Prioritize conversation and persuasion over regulating behaviors and punishment. You can start by actually thinking about what cultural appropriation means, and what real life examples may fall within or outside the concept. We all could stand to be a little sharper, a little more rigorous about the way we use terms and concepts, because meaning of words matters.
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