There’s this thing people ask about cultural appropriation a lot and it confuses me
They ask “Is it okay to wear [other culture’s clothes/ornamentation] if you’re invited to an event by people of that culture and they want you to do it?”
Which to me is like asking, “I heard that breaking into your house and stealing your stuff is bad, so, I don’t know if I can accept this freely-given gift.”
Am I missing something?
When people ask this question, I seriously have to wonder if they have a basic sense of what the problem is re: cultural appropriation.
OPENING UP MYSELF TO ANGRY CRITICISM
My question about cultural appropriation is different, and here is an example…
If I study Japanese tradition, culture, and history, and want to wear a kimono (properly chosen for the season, of course) complete with accessories (obi, obidome, etc…) and appropriate hairstyle, all for a costume…is that cultural appropriation?
My guess from the tumblr social justice league is ‘ABSOLUTELY OMG HOW COULD YOU EVER THINK TO DO SUCH A THING’ but I figure I might as well give them a new target to scream at for a few minutes.
Really it comes down to this: why would you do that? What is the motivation? Is it “because you want to?” Cause that’s not a very good reason, you know, for non-spoiled adults?
Consider this: suppose I study US military culture and learn all about it, does that entitle me to wear a US military uniform, complete with medals and other accessories? Or would that be disrespectful?
Now sure, a kimono is not a uniform, but it is formal wear that exists in a particular cultural context, and comes with a lot of cultural weight. Removing it from that context is not a neutral act. It will hurt people, it will make them feel like their culture is just an accessory for other people, it will make them feel insecure about participating in their own cultural practices.
In other words, it will in a small way help enact cultural genocide.
So I ask again, why would you want to do this?
Because if you learn about a culture, what that entitles you to is this: knowledge about that culture. The knowledge is its own benefit, not an entry card. It does not entitle you to counting yourself part of that culture. It does not entitle you to speaking over people from that culture. And it does not entitle you to taking over their cultural practice.
If that’s not reason enough to do the study, don’t do it.
Oho! A bite.
Your analogy is inaccurate. You speak of the kimono accessories as if they are equivalent to medals - they are not. A more accurate equivalent would be house crests on the kimono itself. Otherwise the kimono is just clothing.
Would you have the same level of upset over a Japanese woman wearing a 50’s pinup girl outfit as a costume?
Honestly, a lot of what I hear about cultural appropriation seems to be on the level with “you can’t wear costumes of ANYTHING because OFFENSIVE”. I would never dress as a maiko and walk through the streets of a hanamachi, but there is a business that caters to people who wish to do just that, for Japanese and foreigners alike.
I tend to be bad at understanding what is offensive to other people, partly because I am somewhat difficult to offend. The other part is because I frankly wasn’t exposed to a lot of prejudices growing up that other people saw every single day. So I try to find people to help me understand because ultimately, I do not WANT to offend anyone.
This line is very odd in the context of the rest of your post, which sounds very much like it’s trying to cause offense. I’m going to assume that the abrasive tone of the rest is accidental, though, and go with this line, and maybe what I can say will help.
So, first, I agree that my analogy isn’t fully accurate, and needs to be taken loosely — think of it in terms of the emotional response the action would provoke, rather than the specific symbolism, if possible.
Second, you don’t seem to be aware of the power dynamics at play in the cases you mention. I say this because you’re bringing up situations that look on the surface like they may be analogous, but because of the relevant power dynamics, they’re simply not. Let’s use me as an example: I am an extremely sickly person. I have a brother who is much bigger and stronger than I am. If I step on his foot, yeah that sort of sucks and I’ll apologize, but if he steps on my foot, I am in major serious pain and a simple apology won’t suffice, he’ll need to get me medical help. Therefore the situations are not analogous, and just reversing roles for an analogy doesn’t work.
Because cultural appropriation is not about whether people are offended and yell at you. It is about whether you hurt people and participate in making their lives suckier. And you cannot judge the effect of that without looking at relevant power dynamics.
A 50s pinup girl is not a relevant part of white US cultural practice. Even if it’s a modern American person dressing up as a pinup girl, that is a costume. My understanding is that the kimono is not just a costume for the people who would wear it on relevant occasions. So, that’s one difference: it would be turning something that is not a costume into one.
The bigger difference is that if you “dress up as” Japanese in their clothing, you become part of a much larger pattern, one that has been used to sexualize Asian women in general and lead to higher abuse rates for them, among other things. The action has negative force because of the cultural context in which it happens.
That’s why people get angry about cultural appropration, you see. It’s not because we want more things to be angry about. It’s because it’s part of a pattern that causes us actual, serious material harm.
The analogy is also inaccurate because it doesn’t take into account the inequality between a regular Japanese-American citizen, especially a Japanese-American woman, versus a military officer.
The stereotypes of military officers are NOWHERE as insidious or problematic as the stereotypes that the kimono signifies, especially when lifted by white Westerners.
The statement “A kimono is just clothing” is also problematic, because you have voided a clothing of its cultural context, which is exactly what appropriation does: strip the original context from an item / idea, and resignify it, often with what the dominant group wants it to mean.