How dare you enjoy your own culture

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Remember that one time when Nicki Minaj wore a feathered headdress to announce her PinkPrint tour? A lot of people said, “Whoa, girl, why are you wearing a Native American headdress? Not cool, that’s not yours.”

Then other people said, “Simmer down, that’s not Native American, that’s a carnival headdress; it’s cool because she was born in Trinidad.”

It’s the Tumblr trap of trying to stop cultural appropriation in its tracks — but accidentally giving people flack for enjoying their own culture.

Now, I think Tumblr is usually pretty damn eye-opening when it comes to social issues. But I’ve also seen lots of Tumblr peeps get angry at someone for cultural appropriation, only to be told, “Um, hey, Tumblr, I just don’t look like my culture. Can I still be proud of it? That okay with you?”

I’ve totally fallen into the Tumblr trap.

On Offbeat Bride, we look through a lot of wedding photography, and some people still haven’t got the message that it’s not okay to fill their wedding with cultural elements that don’t belong to them or their partner. We try our best to politely filter those out.

But every once in a while, I catch myself getting ready to dismiss a wedding based on the photos (“Cultural appropriation! Begone, foul fiend!”) and remember to, oh yeah, read the text. Oh. That bride’s actually half Indian? And then I have an awkward moment of silence for my SJW-self.

But then I have another dilemma. You may have noticed that the internet is fueled largely by images these days. *Gets out old lady voice* People just don’t read like they used to. Case in point, I just admitted that I myself suck at reading sometimes before jumping to my own conclusions. So my question is: Am I still helping representation by showcasing an ethnic wedding that doesn’t fit the cultural mold at first glance?

Stay with me here. You saw Big Hero 6, right? Remember Honey Lemon, the chemist with a purse that produced balls of brightly colored, weaponized powder? Did you pick up on the fact that she was Latina? Not many people did. She’s super tall, super thin, and blonde. Some people were excited that a Latina was represented at all (her voice actress is Latina as well). But a lot of people were pissed — “Really? You finally animate a Latina character, and that’s what you made her look like?”

Honey Lemon from Big Hero 6

So in that case, was the representation enough? Sure, there are tall, thin, blonde people in just about every ethnicity. Genetics does what it does. But if a group of people aren’t generally represented in media anyway, is it really a great idea to represent them with a genetic outlier when they finally get some screen time? But on the other hand, ideally everyone would have representation in media because breaking the mold is kind of the whole fucking point. So, yes, get the pale Latina on screen too.

It is at this point that I freely admit that I am not going to get representation right all the time. I can only draw on my own cultural background (white, Midwest, American) while trying very hard to keep my eyes and brain as wide open as I can. I have to keep giving space for the experiences of others, even (especially!) if they don’t fit whatever image I’ve got in my brain for it.

You have the floor. Has someone ever tried to keep you from honoring your own culture because cultural-appropriation-how-dare-you?

Comments on How dare you enjoy your own culture

  1. I am torn about this. I have studied other cultures all my life, and am well familiar with the anthropological theory that someone studying another culture can be fully absorbed into that culture and still never truly be part of it in the same way as someone who is born into it. That’s certainly true with my favourite culture, Japanese, where a “gaijin” (foreigner) can live in Japan their whole lives and never really be considered Japanese by the natives – but, then, that sort of separation is part of Japanese culture in itself, so maybe a gaijin DOES get to fully experience Japanese culture. However, when I was in Japan, I took part in the tea ceremony, I prayed at shrines, I wore kimono, and the Japanese people I met (especially older women) loved it. Similarly, I was at a Sikh wedding recently, and I wore a salwar kameez. After the wedding, the groom’s relatives said how nice it was that I was wearing Indian dress and that we all danced “punjabi style”.

    My OH is Chinese, but very Westernised and doesn’t really celebrate Chinese culture (except the food). I am actively encouraging him to learn more about traditional Chinese culture and incorporate some elements into our wedding. He’s begun actually reading about events in his family’s history (they’re Chinese, but lived in Vietnam and fled to Hong Kong and then Britain after the war) and getting more interested since he met me. His Mum is thrilled that I will be wearing a cheongsam at our wedding reception and that he has started asking questions about his history. He’s even visiting China next year, and we’re going to Vietnam as part of our honeymoon.

    TL;DR, I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking on elements of another culture, providing it is done with understanding and respect. I do think there is a problem if you are appropriating elements for fashion or to make fun of that culture.

  2. The issue of cultural appropriation is so tricky because some of us aren’t just living within a “melting pot,” but rather we are the melting pot itself. I’m half Irish (with a splash of Native American, French Canadian, and a couple others) and half Jamaican (mostly of African descent with a weak splash of German), and raised in a town in “the South” with an extremely large population of Jewish and Italian retirees among other Northern and Midwesterners and not a single “y’all” or sweet tea to be found. It would have been way less awkward for me to include almost any element of the cultures that I actually grew up with than the ones I am genetically “entitled” to. (Even though I really dig my Irish music and Jamaican food, I still don’t feel that they are necessarily “mine” in any way that is more significant than my affinity for Jewish deli fare, for example, or the wide variety of other cultural traditions I experienced growing up in my town), Although I think that for me, it would have felt like appropriation to showcase almost any culturally-specific element in my wedding (other than the usual “mainstream” American stuff) because I was raised in a home that felt (to me) about as 50s American sitcom as life could get, regardless of my parents’ cultural background. Imagine my surprise at the #couplesofcolor tag on my Offbeat Bride wedding post. I mean, what color? Isn’t everyone a color? Surely when that editorial decision was made, they were considering my German/Irish/Scottish husband’s pinkish hue while wearing a suit in the middle of summer. Oh, maybe it was the picture of me being laced into my wedding dress with the rather large and relatively colorful tattoo on my back? No, they missed that tag…I guess it was just my obvious presence of melanin? I know it’s important to offer balance, variety, equal representation, etc and we’ve got a long way to go and all that, but did we need that stamp on there? Does someone truly need to search for a wedding story based on how brown the bride is? (Full disclosure: I’m not actually offended. I was, however, surprised.) This is why it’s so hard to pin down. It’s complicated. We can all be surprised and offended by what we see others doing with their use and assessment of race and culture, and I don’t think there’s an absolute answer other than this: dialogue is good and maybe slow down the judgment, on all sides. If we keep thinking about things outside of our own experiences and asking questions and talking about it, we can get a better tack on how to conduct ourselves in ways that will promote the most positivity. Unless positivity isn’t your thing, of course, in which case, I understand. We’re all individuals here.

  3. This has been a pretty well discussed topic during my wedding plans. I am Scotch-Irish and Choctaw, my fiance is Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and Eastern European. He is Atheist, I am Atheistic Pagan. Since my Choctow grandmother married an Irishman (if you know the history, Native Americans in general had a special dislike of the Irish) she left the tribe, thus her family has lived as “white.” While I may wear something to honor mt grandmother, I do not feel right or comfortable representing the tribe from which she was born. (I do not claim “Native American” on forms,either.) I may wear our family’s tartan pattern somehow. My fiance has no heritage connections to his gene pool.

    My son is not Japanese by any stretch of the imagination; however, he follows the Bushido Code and normally dresses in traditional samurai clothing, including carrying a handmade katana. He has gone through training. I feel he has a right to wear tradition clothing .

    For my upcoming wedding, we are planning a sort of a neo-Victorian theme–if the Victorian was more Firefly multi-cultural–and have been wading through what we feel is appropriate. My son wants to wear his Japanese clothes, but is afraid that my choice of restaurant would make his clothing offensive. (We are having dinner rather than an actual reception, and I want Chinese food.)

    Any help?

    • Neo-Victorian Firefly multicultural is an awesome idea/theme. So much!

      The Japanese outfit with a Chinese restaurant is a tough one. Anyone who knows your family will, I think, know that your son is totally fine and appropriate. But to the outsider? That’s where most — if not all — of the cultural appropriation fighting comes from, from someone who doesn’t know the actual situation and assumes the worst. Would talking to the staff make it easier, so they know your son isn’t just grabbing at East Asian cultures and mixing all together? How big will the dinner be — will the restaurant have other patrons in the same area or will y’all have your own event?

      • Meg,

        Thanks for responding. The dinner will be small, as our current guest list is less than ten names, and I honestly do not think it is going to get much bigger. I am hoping for a (at least) semi-private area, but depends on how things go. I have asked a few independent booksellers about using their store for our wedding, with hopes that the store will let us hold a small, relatively quiet reception with take away and a cake. If they do not agree, we plan on going to a restaurant, and the accommodations would depend on which store agrees to the use of their space.

        Cultural appropriation is a pretty hot topic for me, but I do see some of it as being perfectly okay. I have a huge issue with Native American caricatures being used to promote sports teams–do not get me started on the deplorable celebration of genocide and war by the “Redskins”–and unearned headdresses as “hip accessories,” but I do not have any problem with everybody suddenly being Irish every St. Patrick’s day.

        I used to do American tribal belly dance before becoming disabled, so I gained a deep appreciation for Middle Eastern and North African cultures. My love of the dance led to supporting women’s groups within those countries, especially those that promote economic independence. Through it, I have acquired some beautiful pieces of art and textiles. Yet, sometimes when I would get dressed for belly dance, I would worry that others would not see that I am aware of the plight many women in these countries face, or that I do not lump Berbers and Khaleeji as being one collective culture. (I am considering wearing Moroccan styled harquus as part of my wedding make up.)

        My son is very mindful of what he does. Because he lives by samurai code and has had intensive study–not to mention that not all samurai were Japanese men–he normally does not feel “wrong” for wearing the traditional clothes; however, he is aware of the past, which is why he is concerned about wearing Japanese clothing into a Chinese restaurant.

        I know this us is the home site and not the bride site, but because of how we live, we want to be sensitive and appropriate in all aspects of our lives, including our wedding. I know how it is to have my family’s heritage and culture abused: I do not want to make anyone else feel that way.

  4. I find it so weird white Americans apparently don’t perceive themselves as having a culture. I guess it’s like the accent thing, where you can’t hear your own. I don’t know if it applies to other white-majority countries, though, because we have you to compare ourselves to. I grew up with maypole dancing and sunday roasts and football hooliganism and only ever talking to strangers about the weather (and then only under very specific circumstances), and I knew that was part of being culturally English because I didn’t see it in US media. You had coffee shops and bars instead of tea shops and pubs, white teeth and neat facial hair and adults wearing baseball caps, casual dating and abstinence-based-sex-ed, sports that go on all day no one else plays, trick-or-treating and thanksgiving, prom and teenagers with cars, big white weddings… And talking to strangers, of course.

    • At least in part, I understand. I am from Canada, but most people you meet will tell you where their great-great-great-great grandfather was from, instead of saying “We’re Canadian”. Part of it is the multiculturalism. While other white-majority countries have immigrants, it’s not to the same extent as countries in the Americas do. Apart from the first nations, everyone here is an immigrant at some point in their history.

      Some of those families preserved the culture. This is most noticeable in my area with Jewish, Italian, and Chinese families; they often immigrated with many others from their own culture, and established neighbourhoods with their restaurants, clothing stores, baked goods, religious buildings, etc. Other cultures that are less represented- or less appreciated- are not as well preserved. It makes sense: a child who goes to a school with most of their own culture, goes to a religious building for their culture, eats the food, and has friends of the culture, will understand and preserve it much more effectively than if you throw one child into a school and community entirely different. Then they grow up, and their children are one step away from that. They can’t pass it on if they don’t know it themselves.

      Some of the families of other cultures (predominately Irish, in my case) manage to preserve some or many of their foods and traditions. However, those that don’t will cling to anything, even if they know nothing about it. Perhaps from outside we seem to have a “culture” in Canada, but from the inside? It’s all from other cultures, and we know it well.

      Despite the prevalence of claiming your distant heritage, it’s becoming more and more challenged if you actually participate in those traditions- especially if you’re not of the more common cultures. It seems to be both a feeling of judgement (Oh no! I’m 1/9999th _____, will they think I’m not good enough?” and thinking the person is pretentious. My family has preserved some things, but not others. I have been challenged for learning my own culture and language. Can you appropriate your own culture?

      Although the majority of ancestors came from England and France, those aren’t considered “heritage” or “culture”. Mostly everyone here can trace an ancestor to England or France, but most have no ties whatsoever. It’s like dumping a bunch of different glitter, and then trying to only pick out the green ones. Almost every handful will have some, in various concentrations.

  5. One of the things I’m noticing most people talk about here are sacred/religious/spiritual elements of culture. I can understand being a bit more hesitant to share those pieces, but that’s a small part of any culture. Cultures have elements including: social organization, customs and traditions, religion, language, arts and literature, forms of government, and economic systems. As I said above, every country, region, time period, and stereotype of people have their own culture. Just because I’m an American doesn’t make me a Southerner. As a Millennial, I’m not a 70s hippie. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good biscuits or Joan Baez.

  6. This discussion, while wonderful, has veered from the original post, where @chriswolfgang asks a specific question, “Am I still helping representation by showcasing an ethnic wedding that doesn’t fit the cultural mold at first glance?”

    The original post used an example of a portrayal of a Latina with a more Caucasian complexion. I think the issue here is power (BTW, the definition of racism is a system designed to maintain and increase the power of the majority group while marginalizing the minority group). Anyway, one could argue that the people who designed the character that way were using their power to enforce the ideas that fair skin and hair are the standards of beauty in this country, regardless of ethnicity (which is different from race). Others could argue that the people who designed the character were using their power to showcase a Latina that is different from the stereotype. And, stereotypes really are the definition or view of an ethnicity that the majority group will accept.

    So as an editor of OBB, the answer to your question lies in how you want to use your power. Are you going to use it to reinforce a stereotype? Are you going to use it to judge one’s culture (values, traditions, loved ones) based on their race (skin color) or ethnicity (geographical lineage)? Or are you going moderate discussions about it so people can move away from cultural appropriation and toward cultural exchange?

  7. This is a touchy subject with me. I am 100% Hispanic/Latino, as in my mom immigrated from Cuba and my Dad was the first member of his family born in the USA. Latinos run the gammet from Black to blonde haired blue-eyed, and am more European looking. I never learned Spanish, and didn’t grow up around my extended family (my Dad was in the army and we lived all over the USA and many places in the Middle East). I don’t see myself as White, but other people tend to see me as White (or Arab, or Jewish).

    My whole life I’ve felt a desire to reconnect with my own heritage, been told by other Hispanics that I am fake, and haven’t really been accepted by White people either. I shouldn’t have to lay my whole life story on the line, to justify my affinity for something. I shouldn’t have to give a DNA sample to be taken seriously in certain conversations or certain circles. While there are legitimate cultural appropriation issues, so much of it just feels like people trying to out “ally” each other. If it’s something you personally feel is sacred, and you feel like someone is mocking it, by all means speak up. otherwise, can we stop policing each other?

    The line about “some people still haven’t got the message that it’s not okay to fill their wedding with cultural elements that don’t belong to them,” really bugs me because first of all, you feature cultural appropriation all the time. Sugar skulls, hand-fastings, henna, Celtic or Native American elements? What are you saying that some traditions are okay to borrow, but others are too sacred? Secondly, it’s not your place to determine someone strangers cultural identity.

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