Being a teenager is weird and obnoxious for many reasons, but it does provide the prime opportunity to observe changes in popular culture. For instance, I’m becoming thoroughly acquainted with the concept of hipsterdom (so much so that I’ll probably do a whole ‘nother entry on it), and I’ve noticed that hipsters are getting called out more and more frequently on glamorizing things like Native American feathers and headdresses. And you know what that means: it’s time to talk about cultural appropriation!
The way I understand it (in a way, I understand it not at all, so don’t quote me on this), cultural appropriation is the practice of one culture, generally the dominant one, adopting insignia or traditions (which can mean rituals, foods, etc., but most often garments) of another, usually subjugated, culture. People see this as a problem when it cheapens the original meaning of whatever is being appropriated, or reduces the culture to the object. This view is completely understandable. As an American, it’s weird to see my entire heritage (which is ridiculously multifaceted, especially for having evolved over only a few hundred years) neatly compartmentalized into a cowboy or a corrupt banker or a backwards Southern racist. So it’s a given: stereotypes based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, or related identities are damaging. Got it.
But isn’t there a point at which the appropriation isn’t meant to be a caricature, but an homage? A lot of the Moroccan students I met this last summer were obsessed with Japan. Already practically fluent in Darija, MSA, French, and English, they were taking courses in Japanese, listening to Japanese music, and exploring Japanese traditions (mainly through Bridges. That school is so cool.). So is it cultural appropriation when a Moroccan kid writes in kanji on her friend’s FaceBook page, or tries making sushi, or is photographed wearing a kimono? Is that inherently wrong because she’s Moroccan? I have a problem when complaints of cultural appropriation are taken to that point, because it seems to become reverse-racism (I know, I know, there are millions of people around the Interblag who can spew their rebuttals of that point at me before you can say “white privilege,” but still).
I was reading a lot of articles about this phenomenon in relation to hipsters (I cringe every time I type that word because there’s so much still to be discussed with regards to it), and I realized that I’m a little out of my depths. But then something occurred to me, and I began to grasp the implications of cultural appropriation a little bit more. Ready?
I’m a victim of it. That’s right, I’m a white, middle-class, Protestant, English-speaking victim of cultural borrowing. You know what the dominant culture has stolen from me? My identity as a nerd. Internet culture especially has had a huge hand in making nerdiness cool (the Vlogbrothers, Doctor Who, xkcd), and I’m sure you’ve heard many a geeky girl complain about double standards with respect to nerdiness and gender. But what made me relate to people who complain about cultural appropriation was the realization that when people are trying to impersonate nerds, they wear glasses just like mine.
Spirit Week always includes Nerd Day, and this year I was kind of taken aback when I saw a bunch of people milling around with big, plastic eyeglass frames in an attempt to emulate geeks. Every once in a while, someone would call out “Nice glasses!” in a sarcastic tone, not realizing that my frames are an unironic choice. Looking around a room full of horn-rimmed, suspendered teens, one teacher even inadvertently remarked, “Wow, look at all these ugly glasses!” Ouch.
I’m not even that strongly attached to nerd culture; I identify as such because of my academic interests, mannerisms, and certain pop culture associations. And it certainly isn’t ethnic heritage the way Native American culture is. But I somehow felt like the very peers who’d distanced themselves from me because I was “the smart kid” were unfairly channeling my childhood alienation.
This twinge of annoyance is nothing compared to what indigenous people experience when their cultures are clumsily and ignorantly mimicked by current or former oppressors. It’s completely possible to honor other culture’s practices by emulating them, but it’s got to be done with sensitivity and awareness. In other words, don’t be this chick: