A culture is not a costume. That sentiment has become a common theme on social media and student newspapers (here from James Madison University and here from Chapman University, for example) with the approach of Halloween. The sentiment makes sense with people, primarily identified with a majority community, masquerading for fun as a stereotyped member of a minority. The history of using minority images for entertainment and benefit of majorities is long and painful, including the blackface minstrel shows of a century ago. Such costumes reinforce the costumed person’s majority status as he/she masquerades as something other, thus demonstrating differences in power.
However, accusations of cultural appropriation also can become assertions of power and control from some in minority groups. In the video embedded below, the narrator describes cultural appropriation as “when you hijack a part of a culture without permission, not out of respect or tribute.”
The assertion about permission illustrates the complexity of cultural control, as who has the authority to grant that permission? In this video (at 2:00), the narrator heightens this difficulty as she asserts that having one person identified with a culture claim that they are not offended is insufficient to make a stereotyped theme party acceptable. Obviously, the person not offended cannot speak for everyone in her/his cultural group.
Some people, however, put themselves in the position of determining what in a culture needs protection from appropriation. When Selena Gomez wore a bindi, some who identify as Hindu accused her of cultural appropriation. The person denouncing her use of the bindi the most vocally, Rajan Zed, presents himself as a “Hindu statesman” and attempts to promote his conception of Hindu values. While some who identify as Hindu accepted Gomez wearing a bindi, Zed’s complaint centered on the sexually suggestive style of Gomez’s dancing. Thus, the accusation of improper cultural appropriation also served to reinforce Zed’s vision of proper modesty and sexuality along with his authority. To reverse the video’s question, if one person finds an act to be an improper appropriation of something that he identifies as part of his culture/ethnicity, does that automatically make it problematic cultural appropriation?
The issue of cultural appropriation extends to literature and artistic images. For example, Sita Sings the Blues is an animated retelling of the Ramayana, commonly identified as one of the central epics in Hinduism. Filmmaker Nina Paley tells the story of Vishnu’s incarnation as Rama from the perspective of Rama’s wife Sita, emphasizing Sita’s faithfulness to Rama and Rama’s mistreatment of her. (Read this student blog post for more analysis of Paley’s film.) Interspersed in the film are semi-autobiographical parallels to Paley’s life and difficult break-up. Particularly since Paley identifies as neither Hindu nor Indian, some have opposed the movie because of the way it retells the story, even accusing her of theft. The accusation here has ideological elements related to gender roles and theological issues about the nature of Rama. Thus, the accusation of cultural appropriation here becomes a way to restrict critique and interpretation and reinforce particular values as Hindu.
Cultural appropriation, then, can become an act of power and identification when people identified with one community (typically a dominant community) employ a stereotyped minority image to emphasize, among other things, their dominance, but the accusation of cultural appropriation can also reflect the desire to control a story, image, artifact, or practice and determine the proper use of that element, both within and outside a community. A blanket restriction on cultural appropriation can serve to limit the range of voices, even within minority communities, as those in positions of authority within minority communities can use charges of cultural appropriation to limit representations and discipline community members. As you prepare your costume, consider the dynamics of power, the power of stereotyped images to diminish minority communities as well as the power of some to assert authority and ideology in the guise of charges of cultural appropriation.
Image credit: Strobridge & Co. Lith (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons