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The imperialist idea of “Give me your culture to make it better”

Photo: Afroditi Konstantopoulou

Cultural exchanges have existed since the ancient years. Silk routes, diasporic communities, travelers and trade were the key ways with which ancient civilizations interchanged elements, materials, food, languages and ideas. So, it is a natural corollary that countries and civilizations are culturally influenced by others. However, depending on the way that these cultures, behaviours and customs are used, the exchange can become more problematic rather than constructive.

The term “cultural appropriation” was introduced to academia when defining the times that borrowing became a way of exploitation and disrespect. It refers to power groups who use cultural and identity elements from marginalized communities without taking into consideration any historical background. These elements can be hairstyles, clothes, art influences such as music, dance or colors in painting as well as food or idiomatic expressions.

The American author, feminist and social activist, Bell Hooks, most known for her book All About Love: New Visions, describes cultural appropriation as:

“Acts of appropriation are part of the process by which we make ourselves. Appropriating - taking something for one’s own use - need not be synonymous with exploitation. This is especially true of cultural appropriation. The “use” one makes of what is appropriated is the crucial factor”

Dreadlock hairstyle, African food, music and dances as well as elements of other cultures such as the Indian food and yoga, the flamenco dance and music by Roma in Spain, or names, costumes, jewelries and even medicines of Native Americans are great examples of cultural appreciation that can turn into cultural appropriation.

All these cultural and identity elements have a strong historical significance which in many cases is even connected to the oppression of these civilizations during colonialism, wars or expansionist policies. Nevertheless, this historical background is not always mentioned nor taken into consideration.

Where and When Dreadlocks are accepted

Dreadlock hairstyle was highly connected to slavery. It is said that the name “dread”, which means “great fear”, was given by the Caucasians to slaves who were kept on ships during the 16th - 20th century transatlantic slave trade. Dreadlocks were the result of their capture for months where they were not allowed to wash or shave their hair. In the mid- 1900 this hairstyle started becoming more acceptable and many White people adopted it. However, although it gained more acceptance, this did not change many things for Black people in the Global North. While a White person can have this hairstyle and be totally included in the society, dreadlocks can be a reason or an excuse for Black people to be banned from a job, to face racism or to receive negative comments. This could demonstrate that society is not mostly against the hairstyle itself but more against the person who adopts it.

African dance has also become famous and many people perform it as a way of exercise or art. However, most African dances, especially the ones coming from sub- Saharan countries are highly connected to the culture, religion, traditions and specific mentalities that are not taught in the Western world.

Spaniards and Flamenco, the heritage of Roma

On the other hand, the Roma community in Spain is significantly marginalized from many parts of the society such as the employment sector. However, when it comes to music, their culture is very much appreciated on an international level; but does it happen in a politically correct way? Flamenco is much used by White Spanish people whose origins do not come from Andalusia. This is an example of a cultural heritage that became more famous and accepted by people who were not raised in this. But this is not the main issue. The problematic situation starts when White Spanish singers who sing and dance flamenco become famous, while Roma flamenco singers who were raised according to this culture are still marginalized and socially excluded. An example of “give me your culture to make it better and pleasant”.

Indian restaurants run by non -Indians

The same pattern can be found in Indian food across Europe. Although Indian food is much accepted and Indian restaurants became very famous, there is a specific concern regarding the conditions that these businesses work. In Indian restaurants run by non- Indians, it is more likely to hire Indian people to work in the kitchen, to prepare the food, clean and buy the products, but the one who has direct contact with the client is often a White person. It is odds-on that this discriminatory policy is supported by the idea that “Indian food smells bad or it is not clean” which leads to the stereotypical thought that Indians are good for cooking and preparing it but not for serving and promoting it.

Taking these examples, the concern is to what extent this exchange is able to create a solidarity environment or to marginalize these groups even more. Although cultural exchange can become very constructive, the way that sometimes it is perceived and translated is problematic.

Cultural appropriation reinforces stereotypes

Marginalized groups who follow their traditions might be excluded or even banned from many activities and opportunities, while when a privileged person does it, it becomes more acceptable. Societies came to a point where the food and the clothes are more acceptable than the people and although it is promoted as a way of inclusion, it is nothing like that. Hence, this paradox appears where the acceptance of a tradition depends on the person following it and consequently their skin colour, origin and racial profile. At a certain point it is expected by African people living in Europe to divest their cultural customs and traditions in order to be welcome. On the other hand, the acquisition of a marginalized group’s customs by a privileged person is wrongly translated as the automatic acceptance of the other culture. Actually, this tradition is acknowledged because the White person follows it but not because the actual civilization and people are accepted. It can be translated as “The culture of marginalized communities is nice but when it is adopted by privileged communities it can be nicer”. So it becomes more a matter of power - “the one who has the power can make things look differently” rather than an issue of exchange. This fact can transform cultural appropriation into cultural imperialism where a culture or an identity becomes more powerful than another one depending on who embraces it.

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