Thoughts On The Line Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation

It’s time for white, middle-America’s favorite game – IS! IT! RACIST!
Source: Bored Panda

So, a certain story has floated past my news feed multiple times for a while now. It made me ask some powerful questions and I want to share those questions with you.

I’ll save you the time spent reading and sum up the source for you; a mom in Utah gave her little girl a traditional Japanese tea party complete with traditional garb and makeup, photos found their way to Tumblr, people cried racism (because that’s pretty much all Tumblr lives for anymore), and one user from Japan named ‘cheshireinthemiddle’ finally shut the whole argument by basically saying there was nothing wrong with what the girl did and the only racists there were the ones that were denying what they saw as healthy cultural exchange.

So this got me to thinking – Where do we draw the line? When does legitimate cultural exchange and appreciation descend into racist caricature? Is there even such a thing as cultural appropriation?

Well, this wouldn’t be a hot topic of debate if it weren’t loaded with unclear details that everyone interprets differently. That said, I CAN offer my own take on the matter and provide a different way of looking at the issue.

To me, the things that separate cultural exchange and flat-out racism are intent and context. Checked in the dictionary, racism is defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” By that definition, a racist act is any act that insists on the superiority of one race over another by highlighting a segment of another’s heritage or culture as a negative.

Now, let’s go back to our primary story that sparked this discussion. Did the girl make or intend to make any sort of negative statement of Japan as a racial group? No, what she did was demonstrate an interest in another person’s culture and a desire to learn more about it through first-hand experience. It’s literally no different than when white guys were wearing do-rags and gold chains out of an affection for black rap culture.

I feel the issue, in this case, has to do with a cultural barrier that prevents context from flowing freely and clearly between the two parties. A similar issue occurred between Japan and America in the opposite direction back in my day because we mistook the Ganguro fashion scene for racist depictions of black people (not helped by the fact that ‘ganguro’ translated to ‘black face’ in English) instead of a powerful message that challenged and contradicted the feminine beauty standard that Japan held for years. And it’s still an issue today; This is why in Pokèmon, Jinx is recolored for western audiences from black to purple (it didn’t stop them from having Jesse and James dress up as Ganguro Girls in the anime, though).

Honestly, I love learning about other cultures. I’ve often felt cut off from the rest of the world my entire life and sharing in the traditions and habits of other people gives me a chance to expand my understanding of the world. It fact, allow me to give you a first-hand example from a primary source.

When I was in college, I worked closely with a campus’ LGBTQ rights group who, in-turn, cooperated with the campus’ diversity office. As such, I ended up working with a varied spectrum of people with a plethora of different views and insights that I cherish to this very day.

But the most fun I had with them was the semester’s end soul food dinner that we all shared. Almost every culture can relate to bonding over a family meal, after all. I also got to experience culturally influenced dance performances from the students that were legitimately tear-jerking. As for the food itself, it often consisted of things like oxtails, pork jowls, and chitterlings – what foodies like to refer to as offal or  ‘variety meats’ that were often used as a means to ensure that nothing from a meat animal was wasted. As someone with a Scotish-Irish background whose heritage produced haggis (the pluck of a sheep broiled in its own stomach) and black pudding (seasoned pork blood sausage), I can relate.

And that’s why I feel cultural exchange and showing interest in other people heritage is so important. It’s a chance to expand our understanding of the world and the people in it as well as learn that we aren’t as dissimilar as we like to think; We may have different ways of doing things, but we’re all basically after the same thing – a happy, comfortable life where we can celebrate who we are.

So, the next time you find yourself confronted with a cultural sensitivity issue, remember this rule of thumb: if you’re doing it because you’ve experienced or want to experience the culture and share how amazing it is with others, it’s cultural exchange; if you’re doing it because you’re chasing a fashion trend at best or you just want to poke fun at how silly it looks to you at worst, you’re probably just racist.

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3 Generally Awesome YouTube Channels

You know what, I’m still reeling from illness and haven’t talked about anything positive for a while. So, let’s shout out some talented people.

The last time I had something nice to say about YouTube was when I shared a trio of channels for the artsy DIYer. Today, I just want to go off on three channels that had nothing in common other than just being a lot of fun and offering something nice and/or useful to the viewer. So, let’s just get happy and celebrate some cool people.

The Obscure

The tongue-in-cheek review has been a staple of internet entertainment for as long as most of us can remember the internet. However, they’ve almost always come from a stance of crapping on old media for laughs.

The Obscure stands out from the horde of angry reviewers by demonstrating genuine nostalgia for the things of the past that mirrors the fond memories that we have for our favorites-gone-by; offered through the character of someone with all the enthusiasm of someone who probably shouldn’t have dropped the brown acid at Woodstock.

While the goofy comedy is the primary draw, The Obscure does occasionally drop some insight on us; showing how these things long-forgotten helped shape popular consciousness today.

AvE

Here’s a little something special for the handymen in the audience.

AvE may be a little to foul-mouthed and rough around the edges for some, but for me, he more than makes up for it with his knowledge of tools and machining.

AvE combines his experience as an engineer with his glorious and uniquely Canadian sense of humor (“skookum as frig,” has become one of my favorite phrases) to teach us the nuts and bolts of making your way around a DIYer’s workshop. In amongst his workshop tricks, he also works on his series, ‘Bored Of Lame Tool Reviews’ (BOLTR for short) where he disassembles and analyzes everyday tools and appliances to determine if they’re actually worth your money.

CGP Grey

An American-born teacher living in England, CGP Grey is the kind of person you want to run an educational YouTube channel; someone you genuinely enjoys teaching and believes that knowledge can change the world.

CGP Grey covers a broad swath of topics including modern technology, civics, politics, and geography while explaining in clear terms why these things are so important to know and how they affect us. Overall, he’s very good at making you care about what he’s saying with a calm, mellow, and charismatic voice.

He also has a podcast with his friend Brady at Numberphile if you need more knowledge dropped on you by people WAY smarter than I could ever hope to be.

The Dying Art of Debate and Why We Need To Save It

See these dumbasses? They're doing it wrong. Source: Eligible Magazine

See these dumbasses? They’re doing it wrong.
Source: Eligible Magazine

Just a quick one while I’m bouncing back from a nasty cold.

Unsurprisingly, given the recent string of political events around the world, my Twitter and Facebook news feeds have been clogged with a depressing amount of posts calling other people stupid with little to no facts given – Just a seemingly endless stream of name-calling and bile-spitting.

That’s when I stopped to ask myself, “why don’t people debate anymore?”

I touched on this lightly on my Thanksgiving vacation announcement, but I wanted to go into it more here. It seems that people are genuinely afraid to debate back and forth on issues and fall back on schoolyard taunting these days and I want it to stop.

This is just me spitballing ideas based on my own experiences, but I feel the problem is that people look a debate as a win-lose game rather than a combination mutual education session and problem-solving process. Each side is convinced that they have to win because the other is ignorant, evil, or worse. So rather than work things out in a civil manner, they demonize each other to avoid debate and achieve easy success by shaming each other.

We see it every day; Democrats think Republicans are under-educated buffoons clinging to guns and religion when they’re just honestly worried about how deviation from tradition will affect them. Republicans think Democrats are spineless children crying over how everything offends them when they just want a country that anyone could be happy and honored to live in. People keep turning to broad generalizations of the opposing side rather than actually getting to know what they want.

Look, I get it; debating is hard work. I know; I had to do it to graduate college. But it’s honestly the best system we have to figure out what works and what doesn’t. We need to stop seeing it as a battle and understand that debate should be an intellectual growth event for all parties involved. If one or both people have left a debate unchanged from the time they started, then they both failed to do their job.

That’s why I say not to shy away from a debate when it comes your way. It’s a chance to edify yourself as well as someone else. Who knows, the two of you may stumble upon a way to fix the world.

Remember; the chaos of debate may be uncomfortable and intimidating, but those choppy waters never go stagnant.