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Who's Offended by Cultural Appropriation?
Cultural appropriation tends to be frowned upon, but by whom? Recently, I found myself watching a video where someone had dressed up in a traditional Chinese outfit. When this person, who was decidedly NOT Chinese, positioned himself on a university campus, he was met with a lot disdain—particularly from students who were not Asian. But then he went to Chinatown where the reaction was actually quite different. His outfit actually garnered quite a few smiles and positive engagement. Mind you, for full disclosure, I believe that this was a PragerU video and it was attempting make a particular statement—and personally, I found the outfit to be rather cliché. Still, it does not change the fact that the Chinese immigrants depicted in the video really seemed to take no offense, and in fact appeared to enjoy the outfit, unlike those virtue warriors on campus seemed to be outraged on their behalf.
This echoes my own experience too. One of the perks of being a part-time travel writer is that I get invited to visit different parts of the world and partake in different cultural experiences.
One such experience took place in Mexico during Día de Muertos—Day of the Dead—a giant fiesta to honour the dearly departed and help guide them on their spiritual path ahead. It’s a Mexican tradition that goes back some 3,000 years, stemming from the idea that relatives and friends come back for a visit once a year.
I have to admit, I’m not someone who likes to play dress up. But, I was invited to do just that and even be part of the parade. And, the truth is that I was swayed by this tradition that I jumped in. When the makeup artist in the Mexican mall was done with me, frankly, I thought I looked kind of magnificent. And so did the locals who had asked for pictures with me. I even ended up getting interviewed by Mexican television!
When I posted a photo on my Facebook, however, I was immediately accused of cultural appropriation. I explained how I was invited to be part of the experienced and how much I’ve learned and written about the tradition and the friend backed off.
Later, I was on another trip with some fellow travel journalists—including one who immediately described herself as a social justice warrior. Her words, not mine. There were also several journalists from Mexico.
I jokingly showed them my photo in my Day of the Dead getup and asked, “Is that cultural appropriation?” They laughed. “Of course not.” Her reaction was far more judgemental and insulted. The Mexican cohort, however, continued: “On our Halloween, in Mexico, we dress up as Cowboys…”
Thrown of by their response, the SJW struggled. Then she got her retort: “Well, you’re privileged, Mexicans because you live in Mexico,” she said, “The Mexicans in the United States, they are the oppressed Mexicans and therefore it cultural appropriation towards them…”. We all looked at each other, a bit dumbfounded for a moment.
I think it’s one thing when someone just dresses up in a costume from another culture without giving a second thought to where it came from, poking fun of it, being careless and thoughtless—and a completely different thing when someone is doing it out of respect, trying to learn and appreciating a culture. Most people can the difference and appreciate the effort.
A family member recently confided in me about how she was invited to an Indian wedding and had considered wearing a saree. Ultimately she decided against it because she feared offending. Later, she learned that the opposite was true. The family would have in fact appreciated it more had she worn one.
Too often, the ones who get offended seem to be not even of the cultures being ‘appropriated’ (or appreciated—whatever your outlook happens to be). So my current philosophy is…listen to people of those cultures and what they actually think about the topic at hand—the rest is noise.
What do you think? Whose opinion counts? Have you had similar experiences? Do you mind when people ‘appropriate’ your own culture? Leave a comment below.
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