I’ll be honest. Cultural appropriation is an idea I am still working to wrap my head around. That there is something wrong with a member of a privileged culture (read:white 99% of the time) making money off of the symbolism and traditions of another culture – for instance for someone to create a company that manufactures imitation dream catchers and sells them for massive profit while the NA tribes that dream catchers come from are fighting to get the money to provide their people with food and housing… If anyone is going to make money selling cultural items and ideas it should be the culture they came from. People using trappings of another culture to try to look exotic or cool or hip? Yeah, that’s just wrong and I’m not going to pull any punches. But, the idea that, as some have maintained, it is cultural appropriation for my friend to practice Buddhism? Possibly it is because I grew up a culture where it assumed to be a good thing when someone converted to your religion, I don’t get this. TBH, I especially don’t get this when applied to Buddhism, which has a long history of proselyzation and, yes, forced conversions.
Would it be cultural appropriation for me to write a story set in Mongolia or India? I honestly don’t know. I also know it isn’t my opinion that matters.
But this intro is actually off topic from my musings today.
Stavver‘s linked to an old but good piece on reverse cultural appropriation. Now, the idea that it is reverse cultural appropriation for PoC to wear business suits, when it is impossible to get a ‘good’ job wearing anything else, that Native American’s should not be wearing jeans, when they have been stripped of their ability to make enough clothing for their people using their traditional methods AND their ability to evolve new methods… I have, in fact, heard more ridiculous ideas. But not many.
If white people think it is reverse cultural appropriation for PoC to wear business suits, then white hiring managers had better start welcoming applicants in kimono, sari and other formal clothing from other cultures.
But it was something in the comments that really got me thinking about cultural appropriation and intersectionality.
A person who identified as Irish (I don’t know if they were a person of Irish decent living in the US or a person of Irish nationality – and I don’t think it makes a difference) raised the issue of St. Patrick’s Day, and asked if her being upset with people getting drunk, painting themselves green and generally making a mockery of her heritage would be seen as cultural appropriation or just another whiny white girl crying ‘reverse cultural appropriation’.
To which I can only respond with the classic geek battle cry: Yes, no and 42!
Yes: The adoption of St. Patrick’s Day and its associated drunken celebrations are definitely a form of cultural appropriation.
No: This is not an issue of crying reverse cultural appropriation.
42: But factor in everything else, and it’s pretty damned complicated.
Okay, first off, Wales, Scotland and Ireland are where the English first practiced colonialization before exporting their oppression to the rest of the world. According to my father, I have ancestors who were forcibly shipped to America for refusing to swear loyalty to the British crown. The oppression of the Irish has a history that is actually longer than the oppression of PoC. That said, the suffering of my ancestors who were forced from their homes and thrown into what history tells us they would have perceived as a ‘howling wilderness’ is DEMONSTRABLY LESS then the suffering of PoC, in particular for purposes of this example, the Africans and Native Americans who were forced in slavery or subjected to genocidal campaigns. (There may well have been genocidal campaigns against the Irish, and I have been told that ethnocentrism in Great Britain continues to create and oppressive social structure for the Scottish and Welsh with some similarities to the racist social structure in the US.)
So the Irish are NOT a historically privileged group trying to divert attention from their own oppressiveness with cries of ‘reverse cultural appropriation’ and similar bullshit.
Historically, the Irish were part of the oppressed.
But intentionally or not, the Irish were also the oppressors.
Does the fact that my ancestors had no choice about coming to America change the fact that they and their descendants kept slaves, forced NA tribes off of their lands and were able to live comfortable lives off the suffering of others? No, no it doesn’t.
The history of the Irish in America, as opposed to the history of the Irish in Ireland and Great Britain, is not a tale of the oppressed. It is a tale of a people stuck in the middle. A people who were once faced with “No Irish allowed” signs as ubiquitous as “No Negros allowed”, but who were able to level themselves into a white identity and become part of the dominant, and privileged majority.
In the Appalachian coal mines, the descendants of Irish and Scottish immigrants still do a disproportionate amount of dying in the mines that feed the US’s need for electric power. But people of Irish descent are well represented in boardrooms, legislative houses and other centers of power across the country.
Yet the specific question for cultural appropriation is even more complicated.
Sometimes I think the real basis of cultural appropriate is not modern avarice, but ancient awe. I think on some level Anglo culture has never forgotten that when London was a cesspit, the Mughals ruled a powerful empire, Istanbul with THE City, center for culture and power, held in awe throughout Europe, and Ancient China was a united power when William the Conquer was in nappies. And even if Anglo culture didn’t exist yet when the pyramids were raised, what European traveller, however firm in his superiority, could not be overwhelmed faced with the glories of ancient Egypt? Cultural appropriation happens, I believe, because we recognize the wonders of other cultures, and rather than being willing to come as students and learn from the wisdom and might of others, we insist on coming as thieves, taking the work of others and trying to make it our own.
There was no cultural appropriation of the Irish in Britain. That waited for the US. Yet… within the US, Irish culture was not sought out by Anglos and other ‘white’ folk (b/c the Irish were not considered ‘white’ for long periods of US history). Irish culture came to America with the Irish themselves, as they worked to recreate and hold onto the traditions that had been stripped from them. The popularity of Irish music in America is as much cultural appropriation as the popularity of rap or jazz. Both are attempts by a displaced and broken people to create or retain something of their own in a place where they have been stripped of their past and made into the ‘other’.
But… St. Patrick’s Day. Oh, that may be the most complicated of all. For Saint Patrick’s Day is the day when EVERYONE can be Irish. It is literally day publicized specifically for the appropriation of Irish culture by everyone in the US. It is a holiday built on cultural appropriation. Isn’t it?
Well, let’s get back to where we started – yes, no and 42.
You see, while St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in America originated in Irish-American’s desire to connect with each other and their cultural heritage, in the mid 19th century when discrimination against Irish was at its height, Irish-American’s organized politically and used St. Patrick’s Day as part of their organization. They pushed to make St. Patrick’s Day a revelry celebrated across the nation. The transformation of St. Patrick’s Day from a relatively sedate celebration of pride in one’s heritage into the drunken revelry it is today can be directly linked back to this push. So is it oppression and cultural appropriation for the non-Irish to take up a celebration vigorously promoted by the Irish? in a country where the vast majority of people are a quarter this and a quarter that when we look at nationality and national culture rather than race, is someone with an Irish great-great-grandparent celebrating their heritage or stealing someone else’s when they get drunk on green beer and wear “Kiss me, I’m Irish buttons?” Factor in that commercially St. Patrick’s Day is widely promoted by Irish companies making money off of Irish traditions being celebrated by both Irish and non-Irish people…
And what about St. Patrick’s Day in other parts of the world? St. Patrick’s day is celebrated in several Asian countries, parts of the Caribbean and even Russia.
In the end, I can understand an Irish person trying to hold onto their culture being upset, insulted and dismayed by the drunken revelry that St. Patrick’s has become in the US. I do think it is a kind of cultural appropriation, when non-Irish try to claim for themselves Irish-ness on this day that is traditionally an important holiday and a cultural unification for people of Irish decent in the US. But I also think that such a person needs to recognize that whatever cultural appropriation may be happening one day a year, is not in the same league as the culture appropriation going back centuries faced by PoC from around the world.
And whatever oppression the Irish have faced in the US in the past, they have levered themselves into a position of privilege, and it is important to recognize that fact. Any structural ethnocentrism which remains in UK is oppression and needs to be fought. But oppression is not always international, and a person of Irish descent in the US is not dealing on a daily basis with the oppression in the UK, while they are benefiting on a daily basis from the privilege of being white.
We all function in a matrix of both privilege and oppression. Recognizing the ways we or our cultures are oppressed does not give us a pass on the privilege we benefit from.