Cultural Appropriation: What's Wrong With It?

Until recently, complaining about cultural appropriation has been mostly associated with the same small segment of the population that uses the word “intersectionality” in daily conversation and thinks that Noam Chomsky is hardcore. This year, for some reason, it’s a big thing, particularly around Halloween costumes on college campuses. Our wise and highly-paid administrators have decided that we need hotlines and flowcharts to help students ensure that their costumes are sensitive. They’re not worried about serial killer costumes dripping with gore or zombie costumes with fake entrails hanging out–those are totally sensitive. Rather, it’s the notion that some costumes are racially insensitive.

And that’s just one outbreak of concern about appropriation. New York’s Gilbert and Sullivan players recently canceled a production of The Mikado because it’s not kosher to have white actors playing Japanese roles. (Actually I’m not sure whether using the word “kosher” figuratively is appropriation, maybe I need a consultant to help me figure these things out.) The soldiers in the war against fun and enjoyment seem to have Madame Butterfly staked out as their next target. The Washington Post had a good article listing some of the more ridiculous instances a few months ago.

Missing from all this is any explanation of why appropriation is supposed to be harmful. A production of The Mikado featuring white actors does not harm anybody. Neither does a fantasy author borrowing elements from Russian fairy tales. The conclusion that seems to suggest itself is that there are certain people with a desperate need to whine about something, and they’re having to find sillier and sillier things to whine about as time goes on.

The whole English language is one big linguistic appropriation. “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

As for the cultural appropriation crowd. A joke. Nobody takes them serious.

One question that I’d ask is, Do the Japanese people themselves care about their depiction in operas in The Mikado or Madame Butterfly? If they don’t, then think it’s presumptuous of us to worry on their behalf. Similarly, do the citizens of Seville worry about their culture being appropriated in the French opera Carmen? Or do the citizens of Verona worry about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet?

I think cultural appropriation is a real thing, but we ought to let the owners of the cultures appropriated speak up. Having others speak up for them is, in its own way, a harmful piece of cultural appropriation.

People don’t like see their identity trivialized.

And because, in the case of stage productions, there are so few roles for non-white actors as it is that casting roles that actually ARE non-white with whites is kind of insult to injury, especially when casting directors (assuming it’s the same problems as in Hollywood) are reluctant to cast anyone non-white to begin with even for roles that don’t necessarily call for one race or another. Heck, I just read of a theatre production of a play about MLK Jr. in which that lead role has been cast with a white guy, but who else but minorities protest if the reverse happens? I realize that’s not a directly related issue, but it is an issue.

In the case of appropriation mentioned in the OP, well, one might argue that it started with the original writers to begin with (I’ve read that some productions of The Mikado, for example, actually replace the pseudo-Japanese Foreign Sounding Gibberish names with genuinely Japanese names), so might as well go all the way and reclaim some dignity from the ignorant white dudes who got stuff wrong.

A lot of the protests I’ve seen these days on this issue seem to zero in on a few particular issues, like clothing, especially when used as costumes (e.g. Native Americans for whom the war bonnet is something special, almost sacred, who don’t like it being worn like it’s NBD by people who haven’t earned it — kind of a Stolen Valor type of thing to them). I saw a post somewhere online that defined cultural appropriation in what I felt was a reasonable way; I’ll have to see if I can find it, because it was a while ago.

You are kinda trivializing the bipolar community.

I didn’t say I cared.

That made a lot more sense in a serious drama like Miss Saigon, rather than a cartoon like The Mikado. I completely agreed with the criticism of Miss Saigon for casting an Anglo in the role of a Vietnamese.

But the Mikado is too goofy to care much about. ANYONE can be cast in it. You could have Africans, Asians, even Native Americans. You could have a totally diverse cast…or an all-Black cast! It’s like asking real pirates to be offended by the Pirates of Penzance!

As usual, ITR champion comes out swinging, poisoning the OP with extreme accusations, playing the victimhood card, and demanding that everyone stop whatever they’re doing, because he has a problem with it. An application of The Golden Rule might have moderated his position somewhat.

People complain about cultural appropriation because they are racists. It is true that a historical costume or artform does not belong to a white person who wants to use it, but it doesn’t belong to you either. There was once a person who it did belong to, but they are dead now, as are their next of kin. Just being descended from people who lived in the same country as an artist does not give you the right to say that their art is yours.

This is so meta.

The ones I know are perfectly happy both with Carmen and with Figaro.

Now (and sorry, yes, I know I’ve mentioned it before), having falleras in the streets of Seville (Mission Impossible II), that’s something to which people did take exception. But not because it was an appropiation, but because it was, in a smaller scale, akin to having a scene in Rome with the Kremlin clearly visible and blondes in furs everywhere. It wasn’t a problem with appropriation but with misuse. And AFAICT, when people have problems such as the aforementioned war bonnets, it’s for the same reason: the problem is not with the appropriation but with the misuse. Place the aforementioned falleras in Seville in a comedy, no problem, it would be one of the jokes. Do it thinking that it’s culturally appropriate and the ignorance, it hurts.

Personally, as a Jew, I don’t find something like thisoffensive. In fact, I think it’s pretty awesome.

I think it’s because it’s not appropriation that bothers me, it’s stereotyping. If someone dressed up as “a Jew” for Halloween, I’d probably be a bit leery. But if they wanted to come as Tevye, or Moses, or Moshe Dayan? I’d be cool with that. Just as long as you treat us as individuals, and you show a minimum of respect.

Everything is fair game to me. I go by the Golden Rule as mentioned upthread. I wouldn’t do anything that I wouldn’t want done to me.

If anyone around the world wants to copy, bastardise, parody or otherwise manipulate an aspect of my culture, music, art, dress, religious practicies etc. Then please go ahead. I don’t care one jot.

I will only ever complain if it is done with malicious intent but even then I don’t expect anyone to take notice of me. Similarly, I’ll feel free to take whatever aspects I fancy from other cultures. No-one “owns” the right to a culture.

I recently attended a performance of Turandot and damn that was full of the worst Chinese/Mongolian/Persian/who-knows-what-they’re-meant-to-be stereotyping I’ve ever seen. Didn’t see or hear anyone complaining.

Agree with Novelty Bobble. If you want to dress up in a monocle and tweeds, wave a boiled cabbage around and say “cheerio” when you mean “hello”, knock yourself out. At the worst I might tell you why you’re wrong.

Then again I’m not from an oppressed minority.

Then again again, stereotyping happens everywhere all the time and when it’s connected to silly Hallowe’en costumes, it’s all in good fun. Just grow up and grow a pair - or educate people how to make their representation more authentic.

Then again again again, I think an outright racist costume (e.g. blackface with a bone through the nose) is probably going a bit too far, but again I don’t think anyone should be prevented from doing so - they just must take the consequences.

The problem is that determining malicious intent is not always possible.

My default position is to assume no malicious intent unless there is evidence to suggest otherwise.

If I fail to note the malicious intent in the first place then it has obviously failed and in what way have I been harmed?

By the same token, if someone does happen to offend me but there is no malicious intent then that’s my problem not theirs.

It’s all well and good to say it wouldn’t bother you, but that doesn’t mean jack squat. I’ve seen a lot of Americans live abroad, and it gets to all of them eventually, to a greater or lesser degree. It gets to some so bad that they leave. The issue with being a minority in America, of course, is that you don’t really have the option to just go home.

What do you think is more likely- that white Americans in the US are remarkably thick skinned and emotionally balanced while everyone else is basically a big whiner…or maybe it is genuinely unpleasant?

It can definitely be jarring when one culture enjoys elements of another culture with one hand while condemning it with another. The old expression “Everyone wants to be black, but no one wants to be black” comes to mind.

Or when people want to borrow the pastiche of another culture, without any first-hand experience with that culture. We’ve had discussions about Cherokee Princesses and Wiggers before. Weaboos, too. It’s annoying to see people perpetrate a manufactured identity, even when their intentions are good. Of course, people are entitled to portray themselves however they want. But people are also free to roll their eyes at them and tell them to sit their Rachel Dolezal asses down somewhere.

Personally, I’m not bothered when I see most examples of cultural appropriation. You’re a white person who wants to wear locks? Go ahead! They don’t belong to me. After all, no one gave me a hard time when I wore my hair straight and European-like all those years. And I’m not going to have a problem if you jump on the stage and start performing like James Brown (especially if you credit James Brown as your inspiration). If you’re respectful about it, no one is really going to care except for the fringe who’s always got their drawers in a wad.

I think we should all be guided by the principle that the difference between Cultural Celebration and Cultural Appropriation is much like the difference between erotica and porn - you know it when you see it.

And, oh yeah, don’t dress like Hitler.


So… how is one supposed to authentically represent the non-existent cannibals beyond the edges of maps?