Much ado about cultural appropriation
America, which is said to be a melting pot of different cultures as a result of cultural assimilation among its people, largely because of the large influx of immigrants in its formative years, is today gripped by growing concerns about cultural appropriation instead. Fortunately, Singapore as a multi-cultural society has not caught the fever, or we would have gone down as one of the world's most culturally insensitive nations.
America, which is said to be a melting pot of different cultures as a result of cultural assimilation among its people, largely because of the large influx of immigrants in its formative years, is today gripped by growing concerns about cultural appropriation instead.
Actors Justin Timberlake and Zac Efron, being white, were censured for wearing cornrows and dreadlocks. A US college theme party where participants donned sombreros was criticised for being culturally insensitive, and a white collegiate wearing a qipao (cheongsam) to a prom event drew disapproving comments.
Fortunately, Singapore as a multi-cultural society has not caught the fever, or we would have gone down as one of the world's most culturally insensitive nations.
Singapore Airlines would be the biggest offender cladding its female crew, whatever their race, in the sarong kebaya.
Many school children would have committed the faux pas of dressing in costumes of other cultures to celebrate Racial Harmony Day. And we would have been guilty of cultural appropriation adopting the celebration of Halloween, not to mention the costumes that some participants are wearing.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”
However, it is now used liberally to include almost anything that is not germane to one's culture – from attire to music and dance, food, traditions and ethnic practices, language and symbols, and ideas.
It has also been suggested that any borrowing should be conditional on whether permission has been sought from the owners, something that is difficult to implement and police. Otherwise, it is tantamount to identity theft.
Ironically, far from protecting the sanctity of certain cultures, a lot of the protest based on such loose definitions may actually go against the grain of cultural assimilation which thrives on the diversity of different cultures.
Therein lies the danger of absurd extremism and indiscriminate slamming. The world would have been poorer if not for the wealth of cross-cultural influences in many of the things that we enjoy.
There would be no fusion food because it is stealing from different cultures, just as celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been told that his “punchy jerk rice” is appropriation from Jamaica and should not be allowed. Paul Simon's “Graceland” would be considered offensive because it includes elements of African music.
Peter Hobbs would be censured for writing the delightful novel, “In the Orchard, the Swallows”, because it is a Pakistani story written by a white man. It is the death knell for fiction writing.
Writer Lionel Shrivers, speaking at the Brisbane Writers Festival 2016, lashed out at critics who took issue with writers writing about characters from a different race, let alone assuming a different cultural persona. She said: “The ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn't belong to us is that there is no fiction.”
Yet there seems to be no end to finger pointing, which just shows how ridiculous we can get debating the toss.
In being too dogged about appropriation, we miss out on appreciating another person's cultural heritage.
Interestingly, while Americans railed against a white girl wearing the qipao, China took a different but enlightened view with pride that its costume was adopted abroad. That didn't rob it of its Chinese-ness.
It is a paradox that as the world becomes more intermingled, we have become more conscious of our differences.
The obsession with the slightest hint of cultural appropriation becomes divisive, lending an easy spark to race issues and racial conflict.
The result is cultural isolation, perpetuated by the lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation, which in turn breeds prejudice and intolerance, sprouting cultural stereotyping that until today has been the bane of the East in the way its inhabitants are portrayed in films produced by the West. But that's another story.
Where then do we draw the line?
The key word is respect, being sensitive to cultural taboos and not denigrate those beliefs by inappropriate application or causing a mockery of them.
For example, wearing a native American war bonnet as a fashion accessory is considered offensive because of the spiritual and political significance attached to the headdress, as is using a cultural symbol without due recognition of its sacred nature.
Indeed, there is a fine line between Zara's designs of clothes fashioned after the Asian sarong, which could well have been African, and the Met Gala's showcase of papal fashions, even apparently with permission from the Vatican, which drew anger from the Catholic community. Appropriation is not the issue, but the perceived insult to a particular religion.
A lesson for the divisive world is the Singapore success story of how the different cultural communities are receptive to celebrating each other's heritage as a nation – a true blend of multiculturism which Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently reiterated as one of the intangible values that “hold us together as one people.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Leo is a published author.