Mexico recently accused certain clothing manufacturers of cultural appropriation.
Undoubtedly, in a world where divisiveness and rage are accepted behavioral norms, someone will be furious at me for saying this, but I simply don’t comprehend the concept of cultural appropriation. All of us, we humans, have been borrowing on one another’s creations, discoveries, customs, culture, and traditions since the earliest rising of humanity. The current century, with its instantaneous transmission of information and knowledge, photos and videos, has simply made that sharing all the more rapid and simple.
Think on it: most of us in the Western world live in democratic societies—the political development of the ancient Greeks. Did we then culturally appropriate democracy?
Have you ever worn linen? Thank the prehistoric humans of 36,000 years ago who developed the process of extracting and weaving flax fibers, and the Babylonians who mastered the process, which was then taken over by the ancient Egyptians, who raised the activity to a high art form. The wearing and use of linen is already a cultural appropriation, millennia old and through multiple civilizations. Should it happen as well that you wore that linen cloth with embroidery upon it, remember that the oldest surviving examples of embroidery were found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, so embroidery, too, was appropriated from that ancient civilization.
Slightly closer to home, how many of those reading this have taken a yoga course? Have you not then culturally appropriated a religious practice of Indus-Sarasvati civilization in Northern India, one observed for over 5,000 years? Or were you just getting in some stretching and calming exercise, unconcerned about how and where the practice originated?
Have you ever put up a Christmas tree? How dare you appropriate a German holiday custom! Worn a plaid skirt or shirt or tie? You have culturally appropriated a traditional Celtic form of weaving– which is, by the way, actually called tartan, not plaid; it is a plaid only if you’ve slung it over your shoulder as a giant rectangular scarf. That, you probably haven’t done, so you may be excused from that precise form of cultural appropriation—but if you’ve worn a kilt, and are not of Celtic descent, then, shame on you!
Think back to studying poetry in elementary school. Were you instructed to write a haiku? It is shocking, shocking, that you have culturally appropriated a centuries old form of verse native to the Japanese.
Did you celebrate a national holiday by attending a fireworks show? You and others for all the long centuries since approximately the year 900 have stolen that custom from the Chinese Song dynasty. You are a cultural thief.
Perhaps you’ve strolled down the sidewalk satisfying your hunger by munching a hot dog purchased from a street vendor’s cart. Again, cultural appropriation from the Germans, who developed the frankfurter from which that hot dog was derived. Foods are themselves an entire classification of the supposed crime of cultural appropriation, so you might consider giving up your tacos and burritos unless you are of a Latinx nationality. Stop purchasing your Chinese and Thai takeout, ditto. Of course, anyone of Italian descent may well jib at giving up spaghetti, despite the fact that the long noodles themselves were unknown until Marco Polo returned from his travels in the far east. But at least Italian Americans can enjoy pizza, especially if their ancestry derives from ancient Naples.
Caftans come and go in popularity, but are owed to ancient Mesopotamia, not the fashion houses of New York. But you may be easily excused from an accusation of cultural appropriation for having braided your hair, which is a traditional form of hairstyle so ancient that the oldest statue ever found, the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, shows a female with braided hair. Various cultures from Africa to ancient America to Scandinavia may have developed different methods of braiding, from multiple thin beaded braids, to two plaits at each side of the face, but the hairstyle itself is basically so old that it might be best described as a cultural activity of all humanity, not any one national group.
And, considering hair, I hardly think anyone would deny a chemotherapy patient the right to a nicely-styled wig, despite the fact that it, too, is an Ancient Egyptian development, and therefore a cultural appropriation of an archaic African hairstyle.
Can music be culturally appropriated? If so, all current humans who haven’t been determined to show a few Neanderthal genes in that DNA swab they took should stop playing any music, for the oldest musical instrument known is a Neanderthal flute. Like a percentage of modern humans, I myself carry such genes, but, sadly, do not play any instrument. Nevertheless, bearing a few Scottish genes, I can still thrill to the skirl of the bagpipes; don’t you dare, unless you, too, carry Celtic DNA!
By now, I am sure you are shaking your head, or wryly twisting your lips, or perhaps even chuckling as you grasp, even if you do not concede, my point: there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. We humans have been borrowing from and improving upon one another’s customs and traditions and inventions and creations for the entirety of our history on this mangled little planet.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. There is and never has existed any such thing as cultural appropriation. It is all, as it has always been, cultural appreciation.
If you appreciated this essay, you might find “A Cultural Heritage”, from February 10, 2018, interesting. Or you might hate it! But scroll down to the Archives link to find it.