Thursday, May 8, 2014

Little Mix, Avril Lavigne, and Cultural Appropriation: Why We Just Don't Get It.

Cultural appropriation is sometimes a tricky thing to talk about. Where do we draw the line between what is cultural exchange and cultural appropriation? Is every example of cultural exchange racist? Certainly not. The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation are generally to do with the power balance between the exchange cultures, particularly within the target audience.

Colonialism has created a phenomenon in the West in which Western, White culture, because of the power imbalance they had with their colonies, was able to take what they thought were the most desirable elements of the cultures of their subjugated classes (for example, tea or curry in Britain or Soul Food, Rock, or Rap music in America) and then claim it as their own; changing the original significance of that cultural practice. There is nothing inherently wrong with this fusion. Japan for example is well known for taking elements of other cultures and "Japanizing" them. 

Where we start to fall into hazy territory is when the people from whom these cultural products originate are not exchanged with as equals, and the cultural elements taken serve to "other" those cultures (for example, the media fascination with Miley Cyrus and "twerking", which in a sense made it fashionable when it was not when black artists were doing it) or to reinforce negative stereotypes among the dominant group in society (White women "twerking" to mock the dance style of black women).

And then we come to the announcement from the British band Little Mix that they wanted the audience members for their latest tour to wear headdresses and war paint. They even provided examples that unsurprisingly mostly featured only white women. They don't want to pay respect to First Nations culture. They want their fans to dress up and wear this culture as a costume as if First Nations people were some mythical creatures that do not actually exist anymore. 

But the reality is that First Nations people were brutally subjugated for daring to speak their own language or wear their cultural clothing. Wearing these items for fashion without any benefit to First Nations communities and then discarding them is disrespectful to those who have suffered, and continue to suffer from these abuses. Additionally it reinforces the stereotypes of the First Nations people as savage warriors or somehow less than civilized. 

Then there was the matter of Avril Lavigne and her somewhat controversial video Hello Kitty. The video features her eating sushi and using Japanese women as stage props for her dance routine. There was considerable push back on the idea that the video was racist, but these criticisms missed the essential problem with the video. It reinforced the stereotype of the stoic and docile Asian woman in the same way Gwen Stefani used this trick 10 years ago. 

Although she made the video for her Japanese fans to air in Japan, as I explained before it takes on a different meaning outside of Japan because of the power balance in the West, where Asian women are a minority group and are still seen this way by the majority culture. 

It is important to make the distinction between cultural exchange in which both sides benefit and cultural appropriation where stereotypes are reinforced by the dominant culture. Cultural appropriation is something we should be conscious of and it is important to have these discussions in the media to bring to light the need for more respectful representation of minority groups in the dominant cultural discourse.

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