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Cultural Appropriation

Copyright © 2018-2019 by David E. Ross

In recent months, the issue of cultural appropriation has become more common in the news media. Given the criticism directed against those accused of this, perhaps the term cultural misappropriation might be more appropriate. I do not think so.

A few examples of how this issue recently arose are necessary before I deal with how I feel about it.

I believe these attacks against supposed cultural appropriation are wrong.

After all, Eddie Redmayne played a transgendered woman to great acclaim in The Danish Girl and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his role. Why then was Johansson not appropriate to play a similar role?

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The sport of lacrosse was created by Native Americans (U.S.) and First Nations (Canada) long before the voyages of Columbus. It was played only by men and had elements of religious ritual. Should those who are not Native Americans or First Nations be stopped from playing lacrosse? Should women be banned from the game? After all, is it not cultural appropriation when Caucasians, Africans, and Asians play lacrosse?

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I was told that it is wrong when an ethnic group has its identifying culture used by those not part of that group. However, Jewish Leonard Bernstein composed a Christian Misa Brevis, which has had some actual use in church liturgy. Protestant Max Bruch arranged a version of the prayer Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra that has been adopted — definitely not condemned — by many Jewish synagogues for Yom Kippur (the holiest day in the Jewish calendar). Why then was SLĀV suppressed?

Was it wrong for Giuseppe Verdi to include "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" in his opera Nabucco, which is sung in Italian and not Hebrew? Was it wrong for Verdi to appropriate the Jewish Book of Jeremiah for the plot of Nabucco? Is it wrong when the role of Cio-Cio-san in Verdi's Madama Butterfly is sung by a soprano who is not Japanese?

The opera Porgy and Bess is about the lives of African-Americans in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It was composed by George Gershwin (a white Jewish-American from New York) with libretto and lyrics by DuBose Heyward (also white, from South Carolina) and Ira Gershwin (George Gershwin's brother). Initially condemned as both racist and a cultural misappropriation, it was later seen as a vehicle that launched the careers of several African-American opera singers. Even some of those African-Americans who initially condemned the opera, reversed their positions and praised it.

My wife, grand-daughter, and I ate in a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant. Was it wrong that the chef at our table-grill was Vietnamese and not Japanese?

If it was so wrong for Miss Daum to wear her cheongsam at her prom — or anywhere else in public — why was she allowed to buy it? Why was it in a used-clothing store frequented by non-Chinese? Fortunately, Miss Daum received not only criticism but also praise for showing the world a beautiful example of Chinese culture, praise from individuals who identified themselves as Chinese.

Koroliuk said his Kaleidoscope dance suite was intended to be a tribute to multiculturalism in Canada and the nation's history. When someone suggested he should have consulted with First Nations leaders, he replied that he would then have been required to consult with Scottish, French, and other cultural leaders.

The plays of William Shakespeare are among the most important works of English culture.

Above, I give noteworthy examples of cultural appropriation that seem to have escaped condemnation. Why is it that these are often hailed as excellent works of musical and theatrical art despite the fact that their creators most likely failed to consult with authorities of the cultures that were appropriated? Why then was Koroliuk condemned for not consulting with First Nations authorities, and why was he given a "pass" regarding consultation with French, Scottish, and other non-indigenous authorities?

Just think of all the fusion restaurants that combine the cuisines of two or more cultures. Must the chefs be from both of those cultures? My own garden reflects the concept of an English perennial garden, carefully planned to look unplanned but with a subtle theme. Neither the landscaper who designed it nor I are English. Have we abused English culture?

My only conclusion is that cultural appropriation is not misappropriation to be condemned. Instead, it should be celebrated for exposing us to the art, music, dance, food, literature, and dress — the cultures — of others. In that way, we can learn to appreciate those who are different from us. By thus enriching the lives of persons of all cultures, we can conquer bigotry.

21 August 2018
Updated 7 December 2019

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