The media and internet are lambasted with attempts to attribute ownership of a culture to a group of people. From some Native Hawaiian’s objections to the personification of Moana, to something as outrageous as claiming that dressing in certain hairstyles is cultural misappropriation.
This issue cuts in two directions, first, the cultures which are acceptable to ‘misappropriate’ is one laden with not just a political agenda, but also some logical problems. As an example, Western European cultural motifs and belief systems are acceptable to distort and destroy but Polynesian ones are not. The rationale is to enter a dynamic of ‘dominant culture’ and ‘subjugated culture’ on which we view the entire paradigm. Which I will question the methods these are devised and bring to question its validity. Secondly, even if we accept the definition of a ‘dominant culture’ (and all its laden, self-contradictions) then we must work further to attribute ownership of culture; this is a key point many people refuse to define. But it is essential because the claim is always that there exists some authority which can determine for the planet what is or isn’t misappropriation and that generally tends to be the groups of people who supposedly ‘own’ the culture in question.
It is all of course, nonsense. As we go through these two topics I think you’ll find that those who proclaim the most compassion and sympathy for a certain group of people are merely perpetuating the very racism they claim to be defeating. I will also offer an alternative guise to view this issue going forward.
Part 0: Let’s Define our Terms
The argument (almost always from the left) goes like this. A movie, book, Halloween costume, etc is claimed to ‘misappropriate’ a given culture. What does that mean? I’ll let the left describe it in their own words:
Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.
This definition is exceptionally broad. In its logical usage, someone of an opposing culture (say an Arab in Saudi Arabia) should not, therefore, write a fantasy book with a mythos inspired by Berber tribal folklore, they should not attempt to represent local Berber Tribes in their own languages literature, including any skewed portrayal of their religious beliefs, writing parody of their religious symbols, having characters on TV or in print dress or represent those tribal peoples without express permission, etc. That is, One Thousand and One Nights is what would be considered a form of cultural misappropriation.
Of course in the traditional discourse this is always viewed as a white North American oppressing a Native American but I used Arabs here to highlight in this article the racist skew that this line of reasoning forces leftists to take, and how it leads to the very systems of oppression they so fervently are against. Because, almost always, the reasoning is never focused on the Bantu African people’s oppression toward the Pygmy peoples in western Africa and their claims at representing ‘African culture,’ it’s focused on white westerners depicting any other group not of their own race.
Now we know what we are supposedly not supposed to do, ie, a ‘dominant’ cultural group cannot depict almost any aspect of a minority group without some minority groups ‘approval’, so now let’s explore the concept of what a dominant and subjugated culture actually is.
Part 1: Who is Dominant?
What is a dominant culture? Many may determine who dominates another by what race or cultural group is most populace within the territory. In the instance of the United States this makes some sense, white North Americans hold the guns whist Native Americans cower in alley ways. But, of course this runs into serious problems. Hawaii is 37.3% asian, (which is the largest cultural group there) would the leftist claim that whites are a subjugated culture in that state? I would say they are but the prevailing wisdom is to deny that fact. To go a little further, the definition cannot be this clear cut; there are many examples of minority groups holding power over a majority culture, such as:
- Alawite cultural group (Shite) dominating Syria (prior to current civil war) over a 74% Sunni Muslim country.
- Muhajirs, a muslim refugee group from India in Pakistan
- Sunni Muslims in Bahrain governing a predominantly Shite populace
- Arab Sudanese in pre-independence South Sudan (historical example)
- There are many others if you open your history books
So instead we may ask, maybe it is instead those who hold governmental authority? Whatever cultural group that is must indeed be the ‘dominant’ culture of a given society. However, this has problems with respect to what that government technically controls. This would also be incorrect as there are numerous tribal societies within a given governments territory which have violently refused contact or remain largely untouched, such as the Sentinelese near India, the Arunachal Pradesh people (up until 1940) in the Indian Himalayas, large swaths of New Guinea in Oceania, etc.
While the number of uncontacted people’s is dwindling by the year, they still exist. It is not possible for a group who no one knows anything about to have their culture misappropriated. So the question of governmental authority determining a dominant culture hits a snag on this issue and cannot be given such blanket definition when we start referring to the indigenous. Specifics matter.
In addition, the dominant culture definition is an entirely localized phenomena, Arabs may be the dominant culture in Saudi Arabian geo-political borders but not in the United States. Inuit culture would be the dominant cultural group in the remote, largely unvisited regions of Alaska (who operate without media or television to ‘oppress’ them), and Berber culture would certainly be considered dominant within their region of influence roaming the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.
When people point to a ‘dominant’ culture in terms of media they are almost always doing it in the English language. But, change your language and the dominant culture will change in an instant, be it Chinese, Hindi, Portuguese, or Russian.
Therefore the question of what a dominant culture truly is becomes a tricky one to peg down, so leftists, always on the hunt to give sweeping generalizations to save their worldview, attempt to give it a global perspective by claiming that European colonialism is our principal enemy. So anything non-European (like the various African cultural groups) can be considered ‘minority’ in both the digital world (since English is considered the lingua franca) and sometimes in the physical world as well.
Let me be perfectly clear, this last assumption by leftists is an extreme, racist inaccuracy which is very dangerous. Not everyone does it, but it is shockingly prevalent.
The imported patriarchal religion does not allow women to play the leading roles they have in the indigenous African religion….
Clearly, Europeans manipulated true Christianity for profit and plunder. If the colonialists’ understanding of Christianity could be used to justify rape, theft, murder and empire, then their understanding of Christianity is completely wrong….
The greatest threat towards African women having a glorious future is our people’s ignorance of African women’s glorious past. Armed with knowledge, Africans must now fight to restore African women to a position of respect and dignity that exceeds that which she enjoyed before colonialism.
Garikai Chengu is a scholar at Harvard University.
With the proliferation of NGOs in post-independence Africa and subsequent NG-organising, there is a lack of acknowledgement of the interlocking nature of the factors and systems of oppression and how they continuously work together to produce domination, discrimination and marginalisation in this continent. Indeed as many commentators would agree, all of Africa’s so hyped ‘advancement’ has been founded on pyramids of oppression.
African farmers especially those in government sanctioned irrigation schemes have had to shoulder the burden of poverty and exploitation on the altar of neoliberalism.
The issue of course is that all these articles, blog posts, newspaper articles, etc. are written in the English language (a dominant culture issue, as pointed out earlier). The people who write these things are typically living in the West, and so, they focus primarily on the issue of the harmful evil that the western world is inflicting on Africa via ‘neo-colonialism.’
As a result, they often give a free pass to existing cultural oppression taking place in Africa. Be it from disgusting cultural ‘rituals’ like the cutting of a pre-pubescent woman’s clitoris, the near rape of young girls prior to woman hood, or the killing of lions to become a ‘man’. But of course, these are subjugated cultures which must be respected.
But before we turn our gaze I want to highlight how racist and evil much of the world still is, even as the western world critically analyzes its own troubles and often ignores them under the guise of ‘respecting’ differences. Turn now to the Bantu African’s oppression of the Pgymy African peoples.
A choice quote,
Historically the Pygmy have always been viewed as inferior by both colonial authorities and the village dwelling Bantu tribes. This has translated into vicious discrimination on both a societal and state level. One early example would be when Belgium colonial authorities captured and exported Pygmy children to zoos throughout Europe, including the world’s fair in the United States in 1907. Among their taller Bantu neighbors, Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying (if they are given any) jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling.
Part 2: Who Owns What?
Where is the outrage on the left when Bantu Africans attempt to represent their own west African nations in a way that white North Americans attempt to represent North America? The crickets are chirping.
Leftists protect the nonsense arguments via generating fake compassion. They care so much for the oppressed and the downtrodden, how dare you question their methods. Let me say, I am fully insulted by this racist attitude, they allow any Bantu African who they personally (and, with a twinge of racism) consider to be ‘African’ to represent and express ‘African’ culture. They indirectly attribute ownership over a land block they have no way of actually representing and, some groups, historically are found to be oppressive and cruel. So no, anyone with black skin does not represent african culture.
Marauding rebels are massacring and eating pygmies in the dense forests of north-east Congo, according to UN officials who are investigating allegations of cannibalism in Ituri province, where fighting between several rebel groups has displaced about 150,000 people in the past month.
Many of the displaced tell of rebel fighters capturing and butchering pygmies, Manoddje Mounoubai, spokesman for the UN ceasefire monitoring mission in Congo, said yesterday.
This is the principal issue with the cultural misappropriation question, why is the western world silent on African authors and their portrayal of the Pygmy people? Where are the demands for permission from this group for their representation in African literature? Because they’ve incorrectly attributed ownership. Anyone who is black ‘owns’ what is Africa. Because as we’ve seen, you apparently need permission to portray any minority group by that group itself.
Who is lambasting the Arab authors writing about the Berber peoples in the Sahara? The list goes on.
Let’s take a break here
My point in the western world holding a microscope to some forms of oppression over others, isn’t to say that what we are currently doing is wrong or right, but to highlight the fact that these definitions are so broad, so sweeping, and so outrageous that literally every civilization and culture on every rock on this planet is guilty of this supposed sin; and there is no satisfactory way I’ve heard yet of how to not do it. Everyone is guilty of the crime and its impossible to stop because even if whites completely ignore native american culture so as to not ruin their portrayal, they are once again sinning because now they are are ignoring their contribution to North American culture. This is a catch 22.
Okay we’re back
The lenses of leftist cultural misappropriation are in full color, merely focused on white oppression and giving Arabs and Bantu African’s a free pass due merely to the color of their skin. By determining that the ‘dominant’ culture is white and the subordinate world culture is anything but Western, they allow these groups who are just as racist as western whites, the privilege and power to represent a group of people who yet again have no voice.
To take the leftist argument and spin it against itself, the problem, at its very core, is that by ignoring one races oppression you are perpetuating it; making the one forming these moral judgements once again guilty of the very oppression they are claiming to eradicate.
African Americans do not represent ‘African’ Culture. Bantu African farmers do not represent ‘African’ culture either. Cultural ownership is a fake, nonsensical construct used as a political tool to halt creativity and mythos adaptation as well as artificially give louder voice to certain minority groups (who are in turn oppressing other groups) merely by virtue of their race.
Germans do not ‘own’ Germanic myths. There is no centralized authority who houses intellectual rights over Thor or what dress may be portrayed on television for medieval times German peasants. The Lakoda tribe in North America do not house exclusive rights over the usage of the symbols generated and used by those long since dead. To give them special status is to ignore the Lakoda’s own oppression similar to the Bantu Africans, that is their own pillage and slaughter of surrounding native tribes during their reign. There is no evidence to suggest that the Lakoda themselves uniquely invented their own religious symbols and motifs, and if historical examples from around the world are to be believed, it’s likely they adapted and drew inspiration from those tribes and peoples who came before them.
Adaptation is misappropriation, we are told, so long as the one doing the adapting is from a dominant culture. By this reasoning the Lakoda can find themselves guilty as charged, as during their religious adaption of a minorities religious motifs, they were indeed the dominant culture.
Who is calling out the Mayan people who should require permission from the now dead Olmec people with which they drew their own religious symbols and beliefs from? And if the argument of ownership ends with the death of the practitioners, then those native American people have already been infected with the taint of Christian symbols and imagery and so, many would no longer hold their supposed cultural copyright after their lengthy stint in the notoriously oppressive indian schools of the US government.
No one is free of this logical trap we’ve woven ourselves into, the definitions are broad and the implications are cruel.
I want to end with a couple main take away.
- There is no satisfactory way to determine who, or what a dominant culture is, and even more, who even is a part of it. Is an African American born in a white suburb and excluded from ‘urban’ African culture now an owner of Western culture? Or is he still apart of his African culture although he had no contact with it at all?
- There is no logically consistent method upon which you can define cultural ownership. And even if you could, by what method does this intellectual ownership of ‘culture’ operate anyway? No one has answered this basic question, does the entire Lakoda tribe have to hold a popular vote to decide on a correct adaptation of their portrayal? Is it done by 51% majority? By consensus? By the tribal leader? Instead we get ‘consult and have them agree,’ this is nonsense.
Leftists love to form moral judgements about people and their behaviors. Whites who wear their hair ‘black’ are set on fire because whites are in the ever ambiguous and shifting definition of a ‘dominant culture.’ Blacks who wear their hair ‘white’ are not given such treatment because they are a ‘subjugated’ or ‘minority’ culture. If people wish to continue this moral judgement and expect others to pay attention, they need to get a little more specific on their definitions and the mechanisms they believe should exist for this supposed ‘consent’ to use ideas from across cultural barriers.
All of human history is people stealing ideas, religions, stories, dress, etc from everyone else. The only difference is that now we are in 2016 and not in 1,000 BC where the Assyrians are wrapping their women up with a rudimentary Hijab. But there is no one screaming from the rooftops about how the entire Middle East is misappropriating and defacing the entire purpose of the original head coverings women wore in those ancient times.
As it stands, leftists house an ‘I know it when I see it’ definition toward what they view as immoral or wrong. The problem is that it’s entirely unconvincing because they have left the realm of some respectable theory and entered into the realm of ‘belief.’
I’ll sit with my arms crossed until I get better arguments about why I can’t do the below.