Political Correctness Gone Mad? Cultural Appropriation Controversies

Beyonce, of all people, is the latest figure to come under fire for the crime of ‘cultural appropriation’. This oppressive act has begun cropping up more and more recently, as students, news outlets and certain institutions have led a crusade against cultural appropriation, whether it be Yoga teachers or famous pop stars dressed in traditional Indian garb.

Nishtha Chugh, writing for the Independent, sees Beyonce’s depiction of an Indian ‘avatar’ (as she describes it) as an extension of the Western portrayal of India. This portrayal, such as that demonstrated in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, she argues, is a kind of psychedelic fetishation of Western ideals of India. Nistha implores Western film makers to portray the real, Twenty-first Century India, the India that sent a mission to Mars, or shoot a video in one of India’s swanky 370 malls.

“Who wants to see Beyonce strutting through the Victoria Centre dressed in Adidas joggers?”

This, completely and utterly, misses the point. A music video is meant to be different, and if shot abroad, surely would showcase the kind of sights and vistas we don’t normally get to see in our mundane lives. Who wants to see Beyonce strutting through the Victoria Centre dressed in Adidas joggers? (I probably would but that’s beside the point). If portrayed faithfully, with an attempt to explore other cultures, rather than exploit them, then cultural appropriation does not necessarily have to be controversial or negative.

This is the latest in a long stream of cases highlighted in the media, including a protest at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts against the cultural appropriation of Japanese culture, during an event to celebrate an 1879 painting by French artist, Monet, titled La Japonaise. It invited visitors to try on a traditional Japanese kimono, along with a talk about French exoticism of Japanese culture.

Many viewed this as another example of Western fetishizing Oriental culture, and campaigned against the exhibit.  Ken Oye, copresident of the Japanese American Citizens League’s New England chapter, had his own take, noting that, “the painting is rooted in the idea of cultural borrowing, and understanding the debate requires acknowledging the painting’s complex context, including both French infatuation with Japan and the corresponding Japanese infatuation with French Impressionists”.

“The question really surrounds the honesty and intent with which a culture is portrayed, not whether it is portrayed at all”

To me, this seems like another storm in a teacup, where the negative connotation associated with word cultural appropriation seems to have enlivened emotions far past the actual context of the exhibit.

This, in itself, seems to be the underlying issue. Cultural appropriation now has such negative connotations that it is hard to distinguish between genuine cultural borrowing, which can contribute to increased cultural awareness and diversity, and outright cultural theft or malign stereotyping, which is something we should all get worked up about.

For many this dividing line is blurry, but in reality we should be able to distinguish between a gaggle of freshers dressed in cheap Indian garb costumes for Halloween, and the learning experience of trying on a traditional Japanese-made kimono in the educational context of a fine arts museum, or a music video creatively based upon Indian themes. There are clear differences. One is based on ignorance and is culturally offensive, the other, a genuine broadening of one’s cultural horizons, a chance to learn properly about another culture, or at least to highlight certain positive aspects of the culture. The question really surrounds the honesty and intent with which a culture is portrayed, not whether it is portrayed at all.

In this homogenous, westernised world we live in today, doesn’t a recognition and admiration for other cultures provide the dose of mind-opening medicine we need?

Luke Holland 

Image by Arian Zwegers on Flickr  

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6 Comments on this post.
  • Amrit Santos
    2 March 2016 at 18:39
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    Comparing the exhibit to Beyonce’s video is nonsensical – you fairly point out that the trying on of a kimono was executed in an appropriate context and physical space but Beyonce/Coldplay’s video certainly does NOT ‘contribute to increased cultural awareness’. In what way does it contribute to this when very tired tropes of Indian life – namely poverty and psychedelia in this instance – are capitalised on for a music video?
    You’ve really missed the point of Chugh’s criticism and yourself contribute to the maintenance of an exoticised vision of modern India – believe it or not, like it or not, India has highly developed areas also and just because that isn’t the India that interests you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be shown for all it’s diversity.
    Your bit about the video being created based on ‘Indian themes’ says it all! What exactly is an ‘Indian theme’ when it is a country where several religions are practised and literally dozens of officially recognised languages are spoken?
    This is really just a sad display of ignorance. If you want ‘mind-opening’ material, you should probably conduct some valid research of your own rather than rely on music videos to educate you about a country in the far away, exotic magical place of the East, smh.

    • “What exactly is an ‘Indian theme’?”
      3 March 2016 at 22:58
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      ‘Indian themes’ in the same way there could be ‘English themes’, one supposes. A Jane Austen novel or Guy Ritchie gangster film could both be said to based on ‘English themes’ – one doesn’t negate the other, and nations can hold plenty of contrary perspectives without a single responding artwork required to encompass all of them. That’s the wonder of pluralistic, democratic non-dictatorial art.

      (Disclaimer: I have zero interest in defending that Coldplay video, it was both misjudged and uninteresting)

      • Amrit Santos
        4 March 2016 at 12:15
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        Fair point, I understand what you mean – but whereas one could with ease like yourself identify the the diverse nature of said ‘English themes’ which are more or less universally recognised, I doubt that the same could be done for India, especially in this instance and especially from the author of this article.

  • Emily
    3 March 2016 at 11:19
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    This is a really ignorant response to the real and serious issue of cultural appropriation. As a white Western boy, you really do not have authority to designate when and how wearing a kimono is appropriate. Check your privilege

  • Claire Seah
    6 March 2016 at 18:23
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    Unfortunately, you seem to have confused the two concepts of cultural borrowing and cultural appropriation. The definition of cultural appropriation, while not ‘officially’ defined, i.e. it is not found in the majority of established dictionaries, refers to the act of adopting or taking elements from a culture one does not belong to but is meant to hold negative connotations. Thus, when it is used, it is mostly in relation to criticising the person who is meant to have appropriated the culture. Cultural borrowing on the other hand, as used in the statement by Ken Oye in your article, has a much more neutral connotation. I point this out as I believe you might have accidentally overlooked this seemingly arbitrary difference, which on the contrary, is likely to lead to a significant amount of confusion for the reader.

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