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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