Cultural Appreciation

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.

The Landscape of War

On Memorial Day, Monday, May 31, we will commemorate all those who have died in military service to their country.

Some 15 or so years ago, the members of a women’s chat group in which I participated were berated by a young woman whose spouse was serving in a combat zone. She first shamed us for being unable to identify, on a blank world map that she forwarded, the country where he was stationed. She then took issue with another participant’s remark that, due to advancing technology, we were all under the impression that most of those in the military no longer had to rely only on handwritten letters, but had the occasional availability of e-mail or text or even the rare international phone call. I sprang to the defense of the member whom she berated for making this last comment by pointing out that I’d just responded to a charitable plea requesting funds that would provide international phone minutes to those in the military.

The young woman replied to our remarks by verbally chewing us up and spitting us out. We were part of the problem, she sniped—people who knew nothing about what military spouses and families endured. We didn’t even know where the battles were raging. We hadn’t a clue.

Since this woman was perhaps 30 years my junior, I took a deep breath and counted to about 110 before addressing her comments. Then I calmly referenced the unmarked world atlas page she’d forwarded to us when pressing her point. I suggested she place her finger on Vietnam or Korea, or even France.

She could just about manage France.

So I explained that it had been in France that my uncle, serving in WWII, had hidden in a chicken coop to avoid discovery by a German patrol, thereby contracting the histoplasmosis that destroyed his lungs and shortened his life.

I showed her the spot in Vietnam where my brother-in-law, the man I would never know, had died. I recounted my mother-in-law’s description of her anguish on that afternoon when she, playing cards with girlfriends, received the terrible news of his death–the death that had occurred weeks prior. I then marked Korea, where another uncle served, and survived, and from where he sent me, his toddler niece, a beautiful doll dressed in a red silk kimono.

I told her about a friend’s classmate who was forced to repeat her senior year of high school, having not attended classes for months after receiving word that her boyfriend had died at Phnom Phen. Ten of his handwritten letters arrived just the day after she learned of his death, I explained. She lay on her bed for days, dry-eyed, not eating or sleeping, until her despairing parents had her involuntarily committed for a brief time, fearing she might suicide.

I described the stories told me by war survivors of letters that didn’t reach them for four, six, even eight weeks, only to drop into their laps in a giant bunch, the envelopes helpfully numbered by their parents and girlfriends and spouses so that they could be opened in the correct order. No texts, no e-mails, no FaceTime or Skype or Zoom. No international phone calls. Just hand-written letters, sometimes enclosing a photo. A rare reel-to-reel tape, which they might not even be able to play.

I reminded her that all these service members were draftees, not volunteers. That they, drafted as young as age 18, could not, at that time, even vote for the very leaders who were sending them off to fight and die, many in wars that were not even declared.

Don’t shame us, I told her, that we cannot identify current combat zones. For some of us, the landscape of war is as old and weary as we are. The memories, though—the memories, despite their age, are fresh and new. The memories, the pain and wondering, the anguish—those will never fade.

There is nothing straightforward or easy about sending a loved one off to a combat zone. It is sheer, unmitigated hell, all too often ending in the greatest of sorrow. I empathized in every bone and nerve fiber for what that young woman was enduring. None of us belittled what she was experiencing. But we had, all of us, endured our own combat zones and separation and agonizing uncertainty, in a landscape of war that did not even hold out a faint hope of occasionally hearing the voices of or seeing the faces of our loved ones. For that reason alone, mutual respect was needed, I concluded sternly; respect for each group that had endured a different and perhaps even multiple theaters of war.

Not long after this discussion (although for other reasons), I ended my membership with that online group, so I’ve never really known if the young woman took my words to heart.

But I’ve always hoped she did.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Judge Not…Sort of”,
which you can locate in the Archives from March 23, 2018, or the more recent “The Big Ice Storm”, which published on February 10, 2021.