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Once again the issue of cultural appropriation has raised its head, but I contend for my generation there is a difference been appropriation and appreciation.
About 20 years ago, when I was 15, I spent some time in Tanzania. A nerdy white girl from Sydney’s Lower North Shore, it was about as far out of my comfort zone as I could get. Wandering around a small market town on the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro, I was transfixed by the noise, by the bustle and by the style and beauty of the local women, their brightly coloured dresses and the intricate corn-rows in their hair. I’d been traveling for a month, living out of a backpack, camping at night, trekking during the day and had limited access to showers. Having my hair braided and out of the way seemed a sensible solution. On top of that, I thought it looked awesome. It looked sexy and playful and fun. I had no idea there were connotations attached to corn rows. Certainly the woman in the salon seemed to take no offence when I asked for it. I got home a few weeks later, removed the braids and thought nothing more of it – until just this week, when I read about fashion designer Marc Jacobs getting slammed for cultural appropriation after sending (mostly) white models down the runway with brightly coloured dreadlocks in their hair.
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for white people and cultural appropriation. There were the morons who got stuck on Uluru after being asked not to climb it. There was Lionel Shriver’s widely-covered attack on political correctness and artistic license (and the subsequent rebuttal from Yassmin Abdel-Magied) and before that the account of the young mum from WA who boasted about sending her kid off to book week dressed up as Nic Naitanui, complete with wig and blackface. All of those I get. I think Uluru is sacred and blackface is abhorrent and free speech too often a defence for racist, sexist behaviour.
But when I read some of the attacks against Jacobs’ fashion week faux pas I must admit, I thought…what’s the big deal? The hair looked celebratory and fun and fabulous. Jacobs and his stylist defended their choice, saying that dreadlocks aren’t exclusive to black culture (which is true; the style has been recorded as far back as the Celts, the Vikings and the ancient Greeks) and that the influences for this show came from movements like rave culture, acid house and club culture, travelers, Boy George and the transgender filmmaker (and current Marc Jacobs model) Lana Wachikowski. The designer ended up apologising for any offence, claiming he truly didn’t think that it would upset anyone, which of course upset people even more through his supposed ignorance.
In other words, it was just another day online.
I think I’m fairly enlightened and culturally sensitive. I’ve travelled extensively and have friends and family from all walks of life representing a multitude of sexual, religious and cultural identities. I am mostly of Anglo-Irish stock but I have some Indigenous ancestry of which I’m incredibly proud and which I feel deeply connected to. So I, like most people these days, can no longer claim ignorance when it comes to what classifies as offensive. But at the same time I sometimes struggle to see every “offensive” act as outrageous – more to the point, as an act of appropriation rather than appreciation. To me, the dreads, like my corn rows, were exactly that: a tribute – albeit a fashionable one – and a celebration, not an insult.
Perhaps I’m being idealistic, even Pollyanna-esque. I’ll cop that. Stigmas change at a glacial pace and a lifetime of trauma takes a lifetime to heal. But something has to give. We’re all so “on guard” all the time, so ready for a fight, it’s no wonder our go-to position is outrage.
I absolutely accept that in my life, I’ve never suffered discrimination because of the colour of my skin, my ethnicity or my religion. But I have suffered discrimination and abuse because of my gender, and I’ve struggled to have my voice heard in a room full of people whose gender is different to mine and whose voices were louder and more strident. I know the feeling of people talking about you, not to you, when you’re perfectly capable of answering for yourself. When I see yet another film made by old men for teenage boys using women as one-dimensional bimbos or painful shrews, I’m offended. When I watch awards shows (like the Emmys) and see that out of 25 writers up for gongs only four are women, I’m offended. I’m not saying that men can’t write women, but more women need to be given the opportunity to write their own stories.
I feel the same way with cultural appropriation. I don’t agree with Lionel Shriver but I also don’t agree entirely with Yassmin Abdel-Magied. I think we should all be allowed to tell whatever stories we like – as long as we do our research (as Jacobs ostensibly did for months before his runway show), and as long as we tell them respectfully and are ready to accept being told we got it wrong by people who know better. I want to read stories and watch films and understand perspectives that aren’t my own. And if that means at my own expense, so be it. I’m talking through quotas – like Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative, and scholarships, like the one that so offended Sonia Kruger earlier this year that provides opportunities specifically for LGBTQI students. We need to see more people like Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari winning Emmy awards and calling out under-representation of Asian voices on screen.
At the same time, I don’t believe only one person can own an experience. It shouldn’t be remarkable that Taiwanese-born filmmaker Ang Lee rendered an exquisite, faithful version of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, nor should it be notable when a young Jewish man, Benh Zeitlin, is nominated for an Oscar for sensitively directing Beasts of the Southern Wild, a story about a young black girl and her father in the steamy backwaters of the Louisiana Bayou, because the fact is, there is a universality about some human emotions and experiences that absolutely transcend race and gender and religion. At the same time, just as there are people who don’t fit their gender or don’t love the sex society tells them to love, there are people who are drawn, culturally, to places and peoples beyond their experience or understanding. It’s why we migrate, travel, study, experiment with substances and alternative therapies and even convert to different religions: we, as a human race, are capable of much more understanding and sensitivity than we are given credit for. Yes, there will always be knobheads who think it’s funny to team some black face paint with a tinnie and a thumbs up and chuck it on Instagram for a few laughs and a dozen likes, without thinking of the hurtful connotations. But there will also be those for whom identity, and race, is a construct, not something inherited. Sometimes a flirtation with a culture may just be that, and sometimes it may be life changing, like it was for Dr Susan Carland, recently profiled in the SMH, who said that as a white, Christian teenager she never felt she belonged – and then Islam “found” her, and she was home.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Am I racist?
- Political correctness and the allure of self-righteous rage
- Anti-political correctness: A country gone mad
The difference between appreciation and appropriation rests entirely with us, how we present it and how we receive it. Storytelling, of all forms, shouldn’t be a free-for-all, with imagination the name of the game. But if our imaginations were only allowed to stretch as far as our experiences, the human race would never get anywhere. Still, imagination must always give way to research and artistic license must be bound by cultural sensitivity. We must check our privilege at the door. But beyond that, we must try to change the narrative.
One of the most touching – and powerful – advertisements I’ve seen was the ad for the Rio Paralympics. This three-minute long video titled “We are the Super Humans” was a celebration of just how incredible Paralympic athletes are. It tells all us able-bodied ignoramuses that we shouldn’t feel sorry for these people, we should feel intimidated because, quite simply, they are a cut above us: they are super-human.
I think we should all be allowed to tell whatever stories we like – as long as we do our research, and as long as we tell them respectfully and are ready to accept being told we got it wrong by people who know better. I want to read stories and watch films and understand perspectives that aren’t my own. And if that means at my own expense, so be it.
In a strange way, I feel like when it comes to cultural appreciation, we can all learn something from the super-humans. Just this week Disney was slammed for releasing a kids costume as a tie-in for their upcoming film Moana. The character was Maui, a Polynesian demigod and the costume came complete with grass skirt, necklace, brown-skin and tribal tattoos. Frankly, I’m surprised (in this current climate) the costume ever got past the initial idea stage. Brown skin and tribal tattoos? It’s obvious why people are offended and I guess, rightly so. But I wish they weren’t. I know – I know – it’s so easy for little white me to say that. All I mean is that I wish we were living in a time when there was no difference between a little white kid desperately wanting to look like the Polynesian demigod he idolises on screen and a little Japanese girl dressing up like Elsa from Frozen. Because there shouldn’t be a difference, one shouldn’t outrank the other. And I wonder if the way we break through these barriers is just for once not responding to the outrage by ripping the costume from the shelves (as Disney have reportedly done today) but instead selling the costume with an accompanying booklet explaining the symbolism and the meaning behind the tattoos, teaching kids about why “browning up” is offensive to people and helping them understand the importance of preserving and celebrating identity rather than seeing it insensitively appropriated. Whilst teaching a few lessons, this approach would at the same time allow kids who do have Polynesian heritage to have a kick-ass superhero costume that represents them and their identity, and to wear that identity proudly. Shelving the costume shelved progress. Yes, it stopped potentially offensive cultural appropriation, but it also stopped the opportunity for a conversation, an opportunity that might have brought about change and greater understanding.
Perhaps I’m being idealistic, even Pollyanna-esque. I’ll cop that. (She was also an overly-optimistic white girl without any real understanding of what other people are going through.) It must be hurtful, frustrating and exhausting to keep banging your head up against a brick wall of prejudice; I get that stigmas change at a glacial pace and a lifetime of trauma takes a lifetime to heal.
But something has to give.
Quotas and scholarships and incentives and anti-discrimination laws are imperative but so is a change of attitude – especially from white people – but it has to come from all sides. We’re all so frightened of being offended or offensive, of having our right to free speech taken away, or of being triggered, pushed into facing something confronting. We’re all so “on guard” all the time, so ready for a fight, it’s no wonder our go-to position is outrage.
Facing the hard truths rather than hiding them away is a start. Changing the narrative is another option. Or maybe we could just take the pressure down, pull up a chair and start making time and space to listen to each other’s stories. We might learn something.