A year ago, in my community of Farm Point, there was a controversy when a couple of European descent arrived at a community Hallowe’en Party dressed as Indians. I use the word ‘Indians’ to describe the costumes as more appropriate to old Hollywood films. Although I was not there, I was told that many people were offended by the clear cultural appropriation and implicit disrespect for a culture.
While I do not defend in any way those unfortunate costume choices, I think it is reasonable to plea for some calm in the consideration of cultural appropriation. I note that our Prime Minister, this Hallowe’en, appeared to be dressed in a desert Arab head dress. Is this not cultural appropriation of Islamic desert dwellers in the Middle East? His wife appears to be dressed as a witch; some might question the cultural appropriation of a Wiccan tradition.
We need to concede that the festival of Hallowe’en is itself a racist cultural appropriation of the Celtic Samhain. The Christian Christmas is racist cultural appropriation of Saturnalia, itself an appropriation of the Winter Solstice. Of course, capitalism engaged in cultural appropriation of Christmas itself, by turning it into a commercial festival. As a person of Scottish ancestry, perhaps I should object to the singing of Auld Lang Syne at the turning of the year.
Once you get going on cultural appropriation, it’s hard to stop. Many current cultural traditions or practices are built on previous traditions and practices from other cultures. Indeed our global society is built on adaptations and appropriations.
In what circumstances is cultural appropriation something to be censured? Perhaps a key distinction is the presence or absence of respect. The words of Robbie Burns are sung with fondness and revelry. On the other hand there is nothing respectful in capitalism’s exploitation of the birth of Jesus.
A precondition of respect is perception and sensitivity, an awareness of the meaning of what one is doing. Rather than censure of those who engage in cultural appropriation, one might try with better effect to build awareness in the reasonable expectation that respect would follow.