What Cultural Appropriation?

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There are many things that have become taboo in our culture; if not taboo, a powerful tool to judge, segregate and discriminate yet more people. Incredibly, I’ve seen this happening more and more among groups of peoples who see themselves as deeply human, open minded, compassionate and caring.

I’ve seen what I may call as “self-discrimination”: individuals or groups insisting in separating themselves from others, or keeping others “out” as if this would give them back what they have been robbed or lost and rejecting those who may want to transcend the borders of culture and look into our common humanity, even beyond that, into our common reality of biological beings who are part of this world.

Risking controversy and being judged and discriminated myself, I will say what I feel about all the ongoing conversation around cultural appropriation, being white and/or privileged…

No human being chooses the time and place where she will be born. There’s no choice of family or community either and much less of colour of skin, the genes and the burden of cultural grief or harm she inherits.

Being in a certain place and time, age and ability, among other things, give each one of us different levels of privilege: privilege is nothing you can choose or opt out either, and the best we can do is to acknowledge and use it to dismantle the structures and systemic stories that have made some humans (and beings) more privilege than others…even doing so, we will always find ourselves with different levels of privilege and that doesn’t need to offend or shame us: privilege is an opportunity to do things for others who can’t, not as a patron or a rightful self-nominated leader, but as someone who carries something other may not: a young and able person has the great gift to support and service an older and/or disable one. The older or disable one may give something back that may or may not be tangible, and both benefit.  Parents have the privilege to guide and introduce their children to the culture they belong to. Friends have the privilege to hug and kiss their friends without being judged by society. Cooperatives offer their members the privilege to enjoy work and benefits not available to those out of the group. There is no power struggle, hierarchy or oppressor/victim relationship in any of those situations.

Privilege only becomes a problem when it is created by oppressive structures or relationships, when it gives a person a “right” (usually not formally or officially written) to be, do and access opportunities just because of where this person or group was born in a certain place, of a certain skin colour, or comes from certain culture, etc.

The deer doesn’t choose to be born deer nor the environment, the food and the challenges it will experiment and so happens to the cougar. In nature, however, both the deer and the cougar “know” that in every occasion, there will be only one deer down and then peace will reign again. The cougar hunts when is hungry and not because it’s mad or wants to take all the deer.  Both species know their limits and live in harmony because of this. Neither the cougar dreams to become deer (or make deer become cougar) nor the deer dreams becoming cougar or make all the cougar disappear…taking any of them from the ecosystem would put the entire ecosystem in danger. Nature, with few evolutionary exceptions, likes to work slowly… even when dinosaurs went extinct, this didn’t happen overnight. It took 165 million of years! Only people who deeply ignore ecology would think that getting rid of all cougars (or lions, or flies or mosquitoes or any other predator or animals who may be considered “dangerous” or “annoying” or “useless for humans”) or making all animals the same would make this a better world to live in…

Humans, however, behave in the world as if they have the “right” to decide who lives and who dies, who is important and who is not, whether this means throwing yet another pipeline to transport more fossil fuels and risk the lives of other humans and ecosystems because they have decide this type of energy is “needed”. Whether the pipeline will live for ~50 years and the ecological and cultural disasters will be there for millennia to come is not in their minds.

Some groups of humans behave in this way more than others, and these groups have been not only taking all what’s in the world, they have insidiously sown a seed of discord so they keep all the little groups segregated from each other…and even keep their own dissidents away from mingling with them by what I call “reverse discrimination”.

Humans, believe it or not, are a single species. The rest is cultural: whatever you think you are, feel, believe or think is the product of the culture you were born in and the accumulation of the trauma and/or created privilege your ancestors gave to you, including stories so insidious that it would take a life for you to untangle.

Author Daniel Quinn (Ishmael, The Story of B and My Ishmael, among other books) says there are basically two stories for humankind:  the story of “the leavers” (“non-civilized” cultures, both from the past and current) enact a story that says that “man belong to the world” and they “leave” things in the gods’ hands: they accept the law of life as it is (that the deer needs to die in order for the cougar to be fed, and that the cougar will eventually die so the soil and the scavengers will also have their food, that neither the cougar nor the deer are more important for the world to continue); they also accept that they need to restrain their growth and their appetite and even if they like elderberry a lot, if today is not the time for elderberry, they would eat something else. They don’t think their way of living in the world is better or “right” and therefore it should be imposed to other peoples, animals or plants. They think their way of living is the one that works for them, and that others’ ways of lives may be as good as long as it works for them too (and as long as they don’t try to impose it to others and the world)

The “takers”, on the other hand (still, according to Daniel Quinn), have been enacting a very different story, one that started about 10,000-12,000 years ago: this story says that “the world belongs to man” and that it was made for him to conquer. This story says the gods are flawed and whimsical, so instead of accepting the law of life, the takers decided to “eat from the Tree of Knowledge” and since then, they profess knowing “what is right” and have tried to convince others of their rightfulness, using whatever tools they have (from ideologies to propaganda to weapons). Because the premise is that the world was created for man and is his to conquer, man has been appropriating every inch of land, water and even air (space) he has been able to reach and has destroyed the livelihood and food sources of anything which is not his, including that which belongs to his fellow human beings. When a “taker” likes a fruit (let’s say mango), he wants it now and here even if this means destroying other peoples and species lives in the way to produce it and transport it. Unable to accept that his life has always been in the gods’ hands, he is quickly destroying all what supports it and his destiny is to end it all, including himself.

Neither you nor I chose in which of the above stories we were born. Most “leavers” have been decimated and whatever is left of them has been thoroughly contaminated with the story of the takers (this last is my view, not Daniel Quinn’s).

Even worse: the story of the takers make the leavers feel shameful and discriminated and make them feel they should defend their own against any other leaver or taker culture. This is an insidious trick to keep all the leavers disempowered and segregated from each other.

Life has no preferences. Human beings are not the end of evolution. While evolution can be seen as an increase towards complexity and consciousness/self-awareness, this is still a human-centered perception: more complex doesn’t necessarily mean “better” or “right” and consciousness/self-awareness doesn’t mean any of that either…”leaver” cultures, however, have managed to survive for millennia without changing their environment to the point of mass and self-extinction. “Taker” cultures have proven a very different story…

My point here is that whether you think Daniel Quinn is “right” or “wrong” about these two stories, the reality shows entire groups who have decimated, discriminated and disempowered other groups. But if you look into these groups, you’ll see many individuals who didn’t buy whatever story they were socialized with. Those are the ones who are actively looking to co-create an enact a very different story: one where the human species belongs to the world and where peoples from different places take what works well for them as their standard, without any of these groups trying to define what’s “right” for everyone nor trying to blame or shame any individual for what they couldn’t choose (the story they were born in).

Cultural appropriation

Professor Susan Scafidi, the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defined cultural appropriation as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

With mass migrations and ecological and social issues impacting us beyond our faiths, skin colours and beliefs about our place in the world, I tend to see this definition not as something intended to protect us, but as a tricky way to separate us even further…”divide and conquer” was the motto of the oppressors. They have been using it in different and insidious ways…

My problem here is where are we emphasizing the issues and whether by doing so, we are digging the hole even deeper for ourselves and the rest of the world to which we all belong.

I wonder, again, if that is the way to build a new world.

The need to build a new world has nothing to do with what culture, religion, social class, sexual orientation group or colour you are from. It has to be with the law of life.

We better understand that and soon…we are running out of time.

My journey is not to point fingers to who is right and who has been wronged. My job is to include and embrace all those who believe something needs to change and that a new world is not only needed, but also possible.

If we become too preoccupied with whether the cougar should be called cougar or whether it has a “right” to be on the same land of the deer, both the cougar and the deer will become extinct.

At the end of the journey, the gods won’t ask whether we were born white or brown, carried an ancient story of the ancestors or reinvented ourselves because the story didn’t work well. What they will ask is how we lived our lives, and how we allowed others to live theirs.

 

But we’re not humanity, we’re just one culture – one culture out of hundreds of thousands that have lived their vision on this planet and sung their song. If it were humanity that needed changing, then we’d be out of luck. But it isn’t humanity that needs changing, it’s just…us.” ~ Daniel Quinn

 

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