Darkness on Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been seeing this topic pop up a lot on the internet with some heated discussion.

“I hate when X group of people think that they can bump with Y type of music.”

“People X, you cannot Y, stop pretending you can.”

“The other day I heard two X talking about how much they liked Y, and it pissed me off so much, like you are the most Z person I know.”

This morning I saw a video about students on a Yale campus angrily confronting a professor about an email regarding freedom of choice in Halloween costumes that may be inappropriate, including ones that appropriate cultures. The thing that I found ironic is that Halloween itself is a twisted, modified, appropriated version of a Celtic holiday, so no matter what one dresses as, if they are not Celtic they are already appropriating.

It all got me thinking, can a person really have exclusive permission to enjoy a type of art, or a food, or to do things a certain way solely because of their bloodline? If so, what about those who are not sure where their ancestors are from? Do they not have permission to do anything?

Certainly everything in the world that is man-made was made by a person, and every person must be part of an ethnicity, so is each thing X that is created in the world the property of only a single ethnicity, the ethnicity of the first person who created that thing?

Could a person who is unsure of their origins assume that their ancestors could potentially be of any ethnicity, like some sort of Schrodinger’s cat of identity, and therefore take part in any and every fashion, food, and culture that they desired? Would this all-encompassing privilege end if they found out which ethnicity they were actually prominently from?

Fortunately, (in my opinion), there is no official enforcing body that decides who gets to do what, or even who is part of what ethnicity.

I have often been critical of some aspects of the US and its less-than tethered free market in the past, but in this instance, it is one of the greatest unbiased forces of nature I have ever witnessed. The US historically is relatively new, and if it were composed of the objects and practices only of its original inhabitants, the Native Americans, it would look a lot different than it does today.

The US, as I see it, is the “international nation,” if that makes sense. The US is like what would happen if the whole world were a country; or if we found a habitable planet, and humans from every corner of the Earth started a city on it.

We do not have a single history, as a nation, we are faceless, and that’s a beautifully freeing thing. We, (especially in the age of the internet), get to look at any and every part of the world and basically say “I like that, I have it too now. That looks good, now I have my own version of it. I want to dance the way he is dancing, and now I am. I want to drive what she is driving, and now I am. I want to eat what they are eating, and now I am.”

Some members of certain cultures, even when they themselves are in the US, may try to hide away aspects of their culture from outsiders; they may try to shame those outside of their culture that wish to participate in its traditions. This is where the free market I mentioned earlier comes through in the most satisfying way. You could be from Italy and create reggae music, your mom could be from Nigeria and you could draw anime, your grandparents could be from Iran and you could open a Tex-Mex restaurant.

The cultural purists will scream, gnash their teeth, and pound on the wall, but it will have no effect in any regard. That’s why the free market is beautiful, it does not see your skin color, your race, your heritage, your accent, or your family, only your merit; if you have skill, you will be successful.

The other day I was squirting sriracha sauce on a ham sandwich (which I significantly enjoyed). I wondered, “How many people, if they saw this, would tell me it is an abomination? How many would say that I should not be allowed to combine these ingredients in this way because that’s not how the original culture that used the ingredients intended it? How many would tell me that I shouldn’t be allowed to use the sauce at all because my parents weren’t from the right place?”

I wondered who first brought the sauce to the US, and what their life was like before and after. I smiled when I found out the creator was an asylum-seeker from Vietnam, who, (without intending to), became very rich. I wondered if any who came before him, between 1930 (when, according to some, the sauce was created), and 1980, (when he started his company), ever made the sauce and made a conscious decision not to share it with the greater public. I hope such a person exists because I would love to imagine what they would be thinking if they saw how popular the sauce is now, and how successful they could have been by sharing a piece of their culture.

What I conclude from my thoughts is that no matter how long it takes, the US, and the entire world, will eventually appropriate, modify, and participate in every form of art, every product, and every tradition from every culture. To attempt to fight against that all-appropriating force, to keep parts of your culture exclusive, to shame and dissuade others from participating in your unique way of life, only succeeds in ensuring that you are skipped over as the chosen herald; that another is the one to enjoy the rewards and acclaim for bringing something new and great to the larger public. Whether it be a unique product with the potential to make one a wealthy entrepreneur, or just a new fashion fad that can earn one the title of ‘trendsetter’ among their own small social circle, it is only a matter of time before someone will step up to the plate. In layman’s terms, the first person to ‘whore out’ their culture wins.


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