Marks and Spencer have been in trouble over a Sweet Potatoe Biriyani Wrap for cultural appropriation. It’s a term I’ve been hearing more and more about, but always struggled to understand what it actually meant. While I could have turned to Google to provide me with a completely unbiased and objective answer, I instead turned to Twitter.
I don’t understand #CulturalAppropriation. Does this mean I can’t go to my favourite Indian restaurant anymore. Someone please explain this to me.Skellyrocker
Mercifully in this age of Twitter Rage, I got the obvious answer back, “Seriously?” (along with a link to the Wikipedia page) from someone who I trust to have a balanced point of view in these matters.
Cultural appropriation, at times also phrased cultural misappropriation, is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures. Because of the presence of power imbalances that are a byproduct of colonialism and oppression, cultural appropriation is distinct from equal cultural exchange.Wikipedia
…and also an example in three words: “Slutty Pocahontas Costume“
As amusing as that was, I went back to see what all the fuss was about with respect to the Cultural Appropriation of a veggie wrap.
So why are Marks & Spencer in trouble over a wrap? The key argument seems to be that the Biriyani wrap doesn’t contain the proper ingredients and is thus cultural appropriation. A traditional Biriyani will have mutton or chicken (not sweet potatoe) and saffron, cardamom and garam masala (not lettuce and roasted peppers). But is this cultural appropriation in a country where we each spend about £30,000 over our lifetimes eating curry? It sounds a lot more like a trading standards issue to me. Of course unlike a trading standards battle which costs money and no one really cares, crying cultural appropriation on social media is free and we can all get behind and be offended about. I guess the solution is for M&S to simply change the name to ‘Curried Vegetable Wrap’ (at least then I won’t be tempted to buy one!)
Then I got to wondering who else is upto Cultural Appropriation?
First up is Bollywood star Shraddha Kapoor. (Who?) She got into a spot of bother about wearing a Native American headdress (see slutty Pocahontas costume) in her recent calendar shoot. It was seen as being disrespectful to the Native American culture and making fun of them. I can imagine that the thousands of Native Americans at Standing Rock whose way of life and right to freedom are threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline went from being mildly irritated to absolutely incensed at the news. Worst case? Bad taste – Indian wearing and Indian headdress.
Last year when I was in England at my cousins wedding, I didn’t bang on about one of the English groomsmen wearing a kilt – and yet fashion seems to be one of the linchpins of the Cultural Appropriation ‘movement’. Ariana Grande has been accused of C.A. for using Japanese lettering on her clothing. The lettering in question means: “Thanks” – as opposed to her tattoo which for some reason means: “Japanese BBQ Finger”. At least she decided not to go for leggings with the Japanese characters for “Whale Murder” plastered up the side.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, Laduma Ngxokolo, a South African fashion designer, who got into a legal dispute last year with high street chain, Zara over a pair of socks. Laduma is building an ‘African Luxury Heritage Brand’ and it was the media who claimed that this was C.A. on Zara’s part – not Laduma himself. What he saw, quite correctly, was an infringement of his copyright.
But racism is a door that swings both ways and Jay Park got it when he was accused of suggesting that Non-Asian people listening to K-Pop was cultural appropriation. That was not what he said or meant, having just been defending white rapper Avatar Darko for having dreadlocks. What he was pointing out is that hating someone because they use the same hairstyle as another culture or race is as bad as saying non-Asian’s shouldn’t listen to Asian music. He pointed out that the key element in all this is respect – finally something I would get behind. (BTW, the head of Geology for one of my clients is Polish, white and has dreadlocks – I didn’t think that was cultural appropriation, I just thought he was an arrogant SoB)
Cultural Appropriation is a relatively new term (70’s – 80’s) and along with ‘Strategic Anti-Essentialism’ began as a critique on post-colonial expansionism. This reflects majority cultures deliberately utilising elements of a minority culture for its own ends and such that the minority culture is not seen to benefit. The key word here for me is deliberately and the fact there is no transfer of benefit to the minority culture. Two perfect examples of this are British Imperialism and the American Expansion into the west of the United States (I’m guessing that’s why the Slutty Pocahontas Costume is such an obvious example). But while these continental expansions caused so much damage, much of the C.A. in the media is focussed on small groups or individuals (see above). As my friend pointed out on Twitter:
The line is intent (objectification of a culture for disrespectful purposes) and effect (offense/ degradation /perpetuation of negative stereotypes). There are grey areas and potential for slippery slope, but the concept itself really isn’t that difficult.Robyn
Again the key is respect and understanding and to be open and honest about who you are and why you chose to include other cultural aspects in your life. My concern is that more and more people will be accused of Cultural Appropriation when what they actually mean is straight forward theft or racism or bigotry. As George Chesterton pointed out:
Everything is cultural and it’s all appropriatedGeorge Chesterton – GQ Magazine