We are living in a world where identities are fluid, ideals are shared, and cultures converge. No longer is it unusual to expect a typical Portuguese meal on the Mozambican African coast, nor is it odd to watch The Simpsons walk into an Ethiopian restaurant, in a fictitious Ethiopian neighbourhood in Homer’s hometown.
We consume cultures. And we cannot help ourselves.
Recently, however, the conversations around cultural influences have shifted to a direction that raises questions, and that often disagrees about which answer is the most accurate. Who is allowed to wear what? Who is not allowed to say what? These are all questions that emerge from our reactions to how people around us manifest other people’s cultures.
The term “cultural appropriation”, first introduced as an anthropological term referring to a natural exchange of ideas, now refers to the usage of “another culture in an incorrect or out of context manner, especially if said culture considers doing so offensive or otherwise immoral”. This is something that can happen at the simplest levels, but extends to those of higher complexity. One might describe wearing a turban as an act of cultural appropriation, if the person does not fully understand the meanings that are evoked by the turban itself.
In order to understand the interesting arguments about cultural appropriation, let us look at three main narratives that dominate this conversation.
- It is inappropriate to appropriate cultures!
This is, perhaps, the most popular view of issues of cultural appropriation. Think about the people with Dreadlocks as a street style, and not always as an accurate representation of the Rastafari movement. Or even one of our favourite TV shows, The Big Bang Theory, and its perhaps stereotypical depiction of the Indian character, Raj.
There are many more examples of cultural appropriation that escape us, because we are so used to borrowing and taking cultural aspects that we like, whether for fashion, for style, or simply to seem open-minded, we don’t always remember to reflect on our actions.
Not only are these actions detrimental to the dignity of cultures, but they further a collective and subconscious disengagement from cultural traditions and the symbolism they evoke. Today, doing yoga does not always need to be related to its ancient origins and benefits to the human body and mind. In fact, it has been commercialized, and so, the burden of cultural legitimacy has been lifted from it.
A more recent example that has been generating controversy is Coldplay and Beyoncé’s new hit, “Hymn for the Weekend”. The song is, no doubt, a commendable production, as we have seen in Coldplay’s journey as a consistent band. Some listeners, however, have pointed out the fact that Beyoncé was portrayed as a version of a Bollywood star, wearing clothes that glamorize Indian women and paint them as exotic accessories to the music video. This, most believe, is an example of how Indian culture has been displayed as the background of songs, or as the setting for recordings by Western musicians.
At the end of the day, the dominant argument is that we should refrain from using cultures as a means to add to our own personal image. Another person’s culture should not serve as a fashion accessory, for a simple dot in the forehead bears more meaning that a necklace around one’s neck.
- Appreciate, Don’t Appropriate
The other side of the coin is always brighter. True, borrowing from other cultures can constitute a major offense to those who belong to said culture, but it can also further an undeniable spirit of cooperation and collective growth.
“Culture” is not restricted to gastronomy or rituals, but it expands into knowledge, information, ideas. The world as it is today stands as the result of the mass sharing of cultures and ideas, from individuals to nations.
Today, more than never, people’s cultures are considered in the work place, making it a more conducive and open environment for personal growth.
During the World Cup, McDonald’s launched a campaign to incorporate unique world foods into their menu, and each branch has localized itself to serve each country’s favourite dishes, no matter how different they may be.
Corporations, NGOs, Schools, TV Shows, all of these spaces are becoming culturally sensitive and aware of the differences in the world, and as opposed to further differentiating people, they seek to capitalize on the differences and bringing the most each has to offer.
The benefits of appreciating and celebrating cultures other than our own have direct personal effects, as we grow into global-minded citizens who are open, and willing to understand our differences as a way to solve world problems. Cooperation is at the core of cultural exchange, and it has been thanks to this movement that world knowledge keeps growing, discoveries keep being made, and world investments continue to grow.
- The Global Village: Are we all the same?
With the increasing culture of a ‘Global Village’, many worry that cultural identities will eventually be lost and immersed into a huge cloud of cultural neutrality, where no culture will stand by its own.
This has triggered social movements that aim to rebuild, restructure, and maintain cultural traditions. Such movements may, sometimes, be perceived as pervasive due to their strong and straight-to-the-point nature, but they are to be seen as mere reactions to our very near future: a multicultural world, but also a multineutral world.
So the challenge is, how can we accept cultures, without offending them, while keeping them alive and strong?
There are three ways in which cultures and identities have always permeated the challenges of a globalized world: Music, Sports and Food.
No matter what turn the planet takes, these three areas bring people together despite their many cultural differences, as they capitalize on collective efforts that bring equal reward to everyone involved.
The future, then, looks bright, and challenging. The people of the world are creating more opportunities for interaction, more collaboration, and, ultimately, more ways of connecting with each other through appreciation, and not appropriation.