On Cultural Appropriation and the Watering Down of Tradition

IMG_2040I’ve been seeing a lot of posts about cultural appropriation lately and I thought I’d throw my two cents in the ring. I first heard the phrase used to refer to people wearing Native American Headdresses to music festivals and getting shit faced. Yes, I thought, that is some obviously disrespectful BS! Next came dressing up as another race for Halloween. I decided not to go as Aunt Jemima, a geisha or Pocahontas this year. Totally cool with that.

Lately I’m seeing people offended at things like white people wearing dreads or doing traditional Indonesian dances, and that kind of thing. Which makes me wonder, Is it offensive to study martial arts, to play the blues, to learn Tuvan Throat singing? Is it offensive for me to listen to Hip-hop and rap or just to sing it? To sag your pants? Are those things only offensive when you do them badly, or is it always bad? Can I wear a dashiki or Guatemalan pants? What if I bought them in Guatemala?

While I would never condone being a disrespectful asshole I feel like some of these things are actually good things to be doing. Yes, culture has been and is being oppressed and people all over the world have fought and died to preserve their cultures. That is a fact we must remember and teach, but there is another side that I’m not hearing. Culture is like language, it is alive and the only way to keep it alive is to live it and share it. The only way that we can preserve our cultural heritage unchanged is to wall ourselves off from others. This is what naturally happens when people are oppressed and pushed into ghettos, segregated. But the natural byproduct of integration and moving out of oppression is to get to know each other and to share the things that make us who we are. Sharing culture is the antidote to racism, but it’s true that sharing it in some ways waters it down. In America more than anywhere in the world people came together and lost their heritage and culture, but we also created new ones. The banjo, the blues, jazz, ragtime, rock and roll, salsa music and old time music were all fusions of different cultures. New York Pizza, The Burrito.

The American cultural melting pot is perhaps the greatest threat to tradition that the world has ever known and the backlash against it has inspired traditionalist movements from ISIS to the Amish. Maybe there is some level of cultural policing that needs to be done to keep it all from becoming a wash, but I also think that learning about and participating in other people cultures is one of the worlds most powerful tools for combating racism and bigotry. To me, when white people wear traditional styles of oppressed peoples there is some solidarity in that statement. Nobody is going to mistake me for Jamaican if I get dreads but they might assume that I love Bob Marley. Hopefully I even know enough about reggae to talk about how Peter Tosh was killed by the CIA for insighting a revolution. It reminds me a little bit of when the Danish people all wore a star of David on their arms during the Holocaust.

Traveling and making friends with people I never would have thought I would connect with changed my life forever. It broke down my stereotypes and inhibitions and made me a better person. Participating and immersing myself in other cultures changed my perspective on the world forever.  Those people are no longer Other. They are my friends. The whole thing was probably even more powerful because before I left home I had no idea I even had a culture! I wasn’t raised religious, holidays were casual… I didn’t connect with mainstream corporate culture. I felt like an outsider and I am eternally thankful to the people who let me in. I learned traditional embroidery in Mexico. I sing South American Folk songs. When people ask what kind of music I play I often answer traditional, as many traditions as possible! Latin American, Baltic, Celtic, Blues, Appalachian… I often tell the stories of these songs when I perform them. I like to think that I’m a part of a living tradition. An oral history.

The alternative is to meet people and go places and to hold back. To stay in our places politely, to dress and act like our parents or grandparents. To buy and or sell but not to share or participate. I’d rather be a traveler than a tourist.

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One thought on “On Cultural Appropriation and the Watering Down of Tradition

  1. Lee

    I think that part of why traditional cultures tend to dissipate in the US is because the US never really had “traditionalism”. US culture was always fluid, so to speak. The English language itself is essentially a slacker language: there is no boundary between nouns, verbs or adjectives. Because the English language – and by extension, US culture – is such a low-context one, it leaves the door open to a sarcastic, ironic, even silly approach to things. Gore Vidal once said that advertising was the only art form ever created by the US. Mass media, mass communication, and the wide reach of the entertainment industry have ensured that the only way to retain “traditionalism” is to isolate oneself entirely.

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