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THEORY FLASHBACK: Richard Fung, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation” (1993)

Those who advocate against cultural appropriation often assume the definition of this term to be self-evident; those who disparage the formulation make it into something ridiculous. The critique of cultural appropriation has suffered precisely due to a lack of clarity which leaves it open to misapplication. Initially propounded as a concept to explicate and justify cultural self-determination, the term has itself been appropriated by opposition to discredit any attempt at redefining the status quo through anti-racist activism. Thus, in discussing cultural appropriation, it becomes necessary to unpack the various meanings, emotions, and agendas with which the term is invested, and to sift through and foreground the different contexts within which positions have been drawn up.

The primary dictionary meaning of the verb appropriate is “to take and use as one’s own.” Despite the rhetoric of various nationalisms, there are no unique, pure cultures today; people have steadily learned the ways of others and taken them as their own. By this definition, most of what we think of as culture involves some degree of appropriation. Foods, religions, languages and clothes all betray contacts with a larger world, which includes our closest neighbours, as well as distant imperial centres. There are no clear boundaries where one culture ends and another begins. But while some of this fusion may be celebrated as exchange, a larger proportion is the result of domination. The task of establishing cultural hegemony in the colonial context, for instance, entails the supplanting or harnessing of the social, economic and cultural systems of the subjugated, by those of the dominant power. For Native people in Canada, this has meant an often violent process of assimilation, coupled with the marketing of superficial difference either for profit (the tourism industry), or political gain (official multiculturalism). Those who raise the issue of cultural appropriation see it as a process that is not only wrong, but also incomplete—thus as one which is necessary and possible to organize against. The critique of cultural appropriation is therefore first and foremost a strategy to redress historically established inequities by raising questions about who controls and benefits from cultural resources.

In working through the question of appropriation, it is crucial to remember that all oppression does not express itself through the same means. Even within the category of racism, there are significant differences in the ways that the various racial others of the West have figured, both within representation, and in the economics of cultural production. Colonialism operated differently in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and varied also according to the colonizing power concerned. To enslave and uproot the population, it was convenient that Africa be represented as a place without a culture or a history of its own—requiring, of course, the excision of Egypt from that continent. On the other hand, the aesthetic contributions of India, China, and Japan had long been valorized in Europe, and it is the products of their culture and agriculture that motivated and justified colonialism in those parts. Diasporic Africans and Asians in the Americas have different histories from each other and, in turn, from those of Native peoples: slavery is not indentureship is not internment is not head tax is not residential schools. The ways that we various “others” are integrated into and excluded from contemporary commercial culture may be related, but they are also marked by crucial differences.

As a person of Chinese West Indian heritage, I feel the need to preserve what I know, and to make that knowledge and history an acknowledged component of Canadian identity and Canadian culture; this is, in part, what motivates my work to eradicate the underlying Eurocentrism of our systems of cultural funding. It also forms my interest in developing art that is relevant to the Canadian context. Having a sense that my “source” cultures follow their own paths, that the cultural forms of China and Trinidad can and will accommodate, appropriate, repel and resist the pressures of western cultural imperialism in their own ways, means that for me (here in the Diaspora) it makes no sense to freeze Chinese or West Indian cultural expression according to some nostalgic idea of what it was “truly” like. For one thing, these forms were always changing even as I experienced them in my childhood, and further, this effort to fix and fossilize “other” cultures, in opposition to the continuously developing modern and now postmodern culture of the West is, after all, the central and most insidious trope of multiculturalism.

There is, however, a special urgency to the preservation and autonomy of aboriginal cultural resources, which I think makes the issue qualitatively different from those of diasporic people of colour. As Tuscarora artist Jolene Rickard said recently at a conference I attended, “this is all there is; if this goes, that’s the end!” Aboriginal cultures are cultures deprived of a state; by definition they exist as “minority” cultures within a dominant national context—Thai culture in Thailand is not considered aboriginal, whereas the Dai (Thai speaking) culture of neighbouring China is. Given the systematic attempts by the Canadian state to destroy First Nations cultures, economies and social systems, the desire to preserve and reconstruct them cannot nonchalantly be dismissed according to mechanical and simplistic readings of the critiques of essentialism or authenticity. That is not to say that these ideas are invalid or unimportant. It must however be recognized that the anthropological gaze and the discourse of authenticity is not the only mode of othering Third World, indigenous and non-white peoples. This is accompanied by a total disregard for accuracy in the public images about these people. Further, the critique of cultural appropriation doesn’t necessarily require an essentialist understanding of identity.

–Richard Fung, Summer 1993, “Working Through Cultural Appropriation,” FUSE Magazine V. XVI n 5+6, 16-24, excerpted here to situate what is significant and specific to the indigenous “condition” of being historically subject to forcible alienability.

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Filed under FASHION-INDUSTRIAL-STATE COMPLEX, FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN, THEORY TO THINK WITH

Cruel (Tribal) Summer

This image from the most recent New York-based Pixie Market email features a thin, presumably white model with a hipster headdress and a "tribal" bathing suit called "The Eagle Has Landed," in a print dubbed "Tigerlily," I'm going to guess named after the British author J.M. Barrie's "Indian princess" from Peter Pan. The graphic patterns that surround her appear to reference ikat dyed or African wax print fabrics, which have their own transnational circuits of circulation and consumption under the shadow of colonialism.

This image from the most recent New York-based Pixie Market email features a thin, presumably white model with a hipster headdress and a "tribal" bathing suit called "The Eagle Has Landed," in a print dubbed "Tigerlily." The graphic patterns that surround her appear to reference ikat dyed or African wax print fabrics, which trace another transnational circuit of production and consumption under the shadow of colonialism. (Having originated in Indonesia, the material was exported to England and the Netherlands, then exported again to West Africa, in the shortest version of the story.)

Calling Native Appropriations and My Culture Is Not a Trend! It’s 2:30 a.m. and as I’m sleepily-anxiously editing a section of one of my chapters, I received this in my inbox. I’m going to come back to this later when I’m more coherent (I probably shouldn’t be editing my manuscript in this condition), but for now, let us again consider how the term “tribal” is both referentially empty (there is no “there,” no truth to be found in this collage and its lumping together of distinct peoples under the “tribal”) and at the same time overflowing with multiple forms of alienation that often forcibly estrange a people from themselves, from history, from life. To be made “tribal” via these forms of alienation is far too often to be “out of time,”* uncivilized, antimodern, backwards, dead or might-as-well-be-dead.

What does it mean to take note of these “minor” events –a presumably white girl in a most certainly kitschy headdress, for instance– that normalize these histories of estrangement, these forms of alienation? It is not simply to refuse contact or cultural and monetary exchange (though sometimes it is important to do so), but instead, to recall that these histories and forms, as well as their effects, are still alive, and still devastating.

* Having looked at the Pixie Market site this morning, only to discover that the description for the bathing suit names the print “Tigerlily,” the notion that “Indians” are understood as “out of time” is particularly resonant. Peter Pan‘s British author J.M. Barrie located his “Indian princess,” Tiger Lily, in Never Never Land, a no-zone of both temporal distance and arguably infantile stasis. (Though I’m working with my vague memory of the Disney animated film here!) As a commenter pointed out, this combination of “tribal” elements would appear unique to “America,” but it is also a “transnational America,” implicating interconnected webs of unequal exchange.

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Filed under FASHIONING RACE, FASHIONING THE HUMAN