Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Exchange?

An Examination of Cultural Authenticity in Transpacific Culture

White model wearing pastel dreadlocks in Marc Jacob’s spring 2017 collection

The writer Tom Bissell said “there would be fewer wars if more novelists allowed themselves to imagine themselves into other cultures”. However, despite the benefits of cultural exchange and boom of creative third world culture, cultural appropriation is simultaneously becoming a hot topic. Why are countless acts called out as cultural appropriation, and what criticisms are said about them? What are the boundaries between offensive and beneficial transpacific culture?

Even with the purest of intentions, creatives in fields such as fashion, cuisine and music are susceptible to committing cultural appropriation. I agree when Amandla Stenberg, a young actress known for her leading role in the movie Hunger Games, acknowledges the non-binary relationship between cultural appropriation and third world culture created through cultural exchange.

The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is always going to be blurred.

However, there are key characteristics that differentiate cultural exchange from cultural appropriation. This page is an attempt to draw the boundaries between culturally appropriative acts and third world culture created through cultural exchange.

Third World Culture: The Taiko Boom

Kumi-daiko (組太鼓 “set of drums”), a completely new form of Taiko

A great example of third world culture in Transpacific culture is Kumi-daiko which caused the Taiko Boom in the US and internationally. The development of Taiko as a globally popular art form reveals the strengths that cultural exchange can bring.

Traditionally, Taiko was a relatively niche Japanese musical performance. However, a jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi, transformed Taiko by breaking the traditional single performer and assembled a taiko drum ensemble. A completely new iteration of taiko known as Kumi-daiko was created, and this new taiko became widely popular in the 1970’s, thus starting the Taiko Boom in the USA.

By incorporating his alternative knowledge of American Jazz to create an alternative vision of Taiko, Oguchi was successful in creating a culturally influential and popular phenomenon that is accessible to be enjoyed by an exponentially larger public. Not completely different from the way that greater genetic diversity creates more genetic fitness, the mixing of different cultural practices brings significant strengths to a cultural phenomenon. In the case of Taiko, cultural exchange was used to develop a new more popular form of art that was able to reach a greater mass audience.

 

Cultural Appropriation: Dreadlocks on White People

Models wearing pastel dreadlocks in Marc Jacob’s spring 2017 collection

An example of cultural appropriation in current Transpacific culture is the use of black dreadlocks by the white population which was the point of great controversy in Marc Jacob’s spring 2017 collection at New York Fashion Week. The controversy was spurred when Marc Jacob casted “predominantly white models to walk down the runway wearing dreadlocks made of wool.” Marc Jacobs was met with plenty of of criticism that accused his collection of cultural appropriation.

The potential harm that cultural appropriation can inflict on minority cultures is made visible by this particular example of white people wearing dreads. As a white woman who previously wore dreads explains the issue in her own voice,

When white people in the US wear dreadlocks, the power of this symbolic resistance is reduced to an “exotic” fashion trend wherein the oppressor is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic other’ without acknowledging or experiencing any of the daily discriminations black folks have to face.

The focus here is the fact that white people can avoid the discriminations that black people face daily: While dreadlocks on black people were penalized and inflicted violence towards them as a minority ethnic group, the white woman who wore dreadlocks “was still considered employable and trustworthy.” She quotes on her personal experience: “I was often given positions of authority over my co-workers of color… that can only be attributed to my whiteness.”

Comparing Cultural Exchange (Third World Culture) and Cultural Appropriation

Three major differences between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation can be found through examining kumi-daiko to white people wearing dreadlocks:

1. Third world culture is unique.

Third world culture, like kumi-daiko, has its own unique characteristics that differentiate it from traditional taiko. However, culturally appropriative acts do not incorporate the same amount of innovation that differentiates it from its source. In this way, cultural appropriation can be understood as exploitation. Susan Scafidi, a professor, author and expert of appropriation and authenticity in American law, elaborates: Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.

In the instance of the appropriation in Marc Jacob’s collection, the dreads are not unique, nor are they different. It’s white people wearing the same exact hairstyle of black people.

2. Third world culture is respectful and informed.

While third world culture is rooted in a deep respect and an encompassing understanding of the culture in which they are borrowing from, culturally appropriative acts substantially lack this. Kumi-daiko was developed through Oguchi’s deep understanding of both Taiko and Jazz practices, and his creative intuition to combine elements of the two together. Comparatively, white people wearing dreads largely lack an understanding of the significance of dreadlocks to the struggle for black empowerment and equity in America.

3. Third world culture does not harm a minority culture.

An important basic characteristic when considering the harmful effects of CA, is to remember that it is not the majority that is offended, but the minority. As author and philosopher James O. Young examines in his investigation of the moral issues regarding cultural appropriation, cultural appropriation is determined by “whether cultural appropriation is freely tolerated [by] the minority culture.” Young emphasizes the importance of the minority culture’s experience in determining if an act is benign or harmful. The existence of an unequal power dynamic through a dominant culture group, and a less privileged group is a key ingredient in culturally appropriative art forms. In the example of dreadlocks, this unequal power dynamic results in a group of pioneering minorities, and the whites that ultimately receive credit for it:

When the dominant group appropriates, they are deemed innovative and edgy, while the disadvantage group they borrowed from continued to face negative stereotypes that imply that they lacking in intelligence and creativity.

Through understanding the distinctions between culturally appropriative acts and third world culture, we can continue to confidently create new culture that is enriched by the intellectual property of those who came before us. The ability to discern between the two murky categories will help the maximization of beneficial cultural exchange by minimizing unintentional acts of cultural appropriation.

Bibliography

Anti-Palindrome, Annah. “This White Feminist Loved Her Dreadlocks – Here’s Why She Cut Them Off.”Everyday Feminism. N.p., 05 Apr. 2016. Web. 06 April 2017.

Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “What Is Cultural Appropriation and Why Is It Wrong?” ThoughtCo. N.p., 7 Feb. 2017. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

Scafidi, Susan. Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2005. Print.

Sehgal, Parul. “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong.” The New York Times Magazine. N.p., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2017.

Takata, Takeshi. “The Thundering World of the Taiko.” Look Japan. N.p., Jan. 1998. Web.

Young, James O. “Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63.2 (2005): 135-46. Web.