My Thoughts On Cultural Appropriation
…In the context of the recent Coldplay music video “Hymn for the Weekend” featuring Bayonce:
This video has sparked controversy in the beautiful and as always judgement-free Web sphere, with people on one side accusing it of appropriating Indian culture, while others hailing it instead as cultural appreciation.
I have read a few articles describing the fiery Twitter wars, but couldn’t find any analysis of the issue until I stumbled upon “Coldplay: only the latest pop stars to misrepresent India as an exotic playground”, a well written piece by Rashmee Kumar. Complementing it nicely is an article written by Maisha Z. Johnson with a click-baity title “What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm“.
Both articles delve (somehow) deep into the complex and intricate issue which is cultural appropriation, focusing on power structures stemming from the history of colonialism and oppression, which shape today’s relations between dominant and marginalised cultures. Both articles try to explain why cultural appropriation is wrong. Most importantly, both articles stress how important context becomes when defining cultural appropriation, one of the only points I would agree on.
Yup, I think both Kumar and Johnson wrote a great explanation of how damaging cultural appropriation can be, however I do not think it applies to the “Hymn for the Weekend”.
Let’s start with the most basic definition of cultural appropriation I found on Wikipedia, which describes it as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture”. In this case Kumar used a similar definition and stated that
If cultural appropriation means that a privileged group adopts the symbols and practices of a marginalized one for profit or social capital, then yes, Coldplay’s video is committing cultural appropriation
But is Beyonce or Coldplay adopting Indian culture? The video specifically looks at India from a point of view of a white male tourist. We are looking through his eyes at what seems to be an exotic paradise, full of rich colours, customs, and traditions (all of them quite stereotypical, but I’ll get to that in two sentences). It does not seem to be an issue of adopting culture, since Beyonce and Coldplay are not making Indian culture part of their own, instead, they are representing it. Or rather, MISREPRESENTING it. Kumar even pointed out how important the video is, because it is a “system of representation that shapes how the west understands and engages with the world” and specifically “this idealized India obscures the realities of a complex nation in favor of reductive tropes originally intended to preserve western hegemony”. Both very true and important arguments.
Still, representation does not equal adoption. Me eating Indian curry is adoption, a form cultural appropriation. I have taken that curry and made it part of my diet, my life. I can’t live without it (I know I’m being over dramatic). Beyonce putting on traditional desi clothes is however meant to (mis)represent Indian culture and not make it part of her own culture.
The reason why I am distinguishing between misrepresentation of a culture and cultural appropriation is because not all appropriation is inherently bad. As Johnson points out, context matters. However, she also argues that “cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic”. However, if cultural exchange is defined by the lack of “systemic power dynamic” then cultural exchange doesn’t exist or would be very hard to find, since most, if any type of exchange is usually based on some kind of power dynamic.
Let me illustrate my point with one well known globalising power: MacDonald’s. It has made its way to most countries around world, seemingly all-powerful and unstoppable. Yet, it is not. Its power is curbed by what consumers want in any given nation and culture. MacDonald had to tailor its menu in places like Japan, so it could appeal to its customers. In this instance, the customers are the ones who hold the power. In a case of reverse cultural flow (often ignored by mainstream media) sushi made its way into everyday lives of western citizens and became extremely popular. Its power lied in the exotic, oriental image it conjured, drawing people into the unknown world of chopsticks and raw fish. However, while sushi needed to be exotic and oriental, it also needed to appeal to the western consumer’s palate, otherwise it would not sell. This is the reason why sushi in the western world is often quite different compared to what you would find in Japan.
On the surface the MacDonald’s-Sushi reciprocation seems like a nice example of cultural exchange, and yet clearly the power dynamics are still there. Does it mean it’s instead an example of cultural appropriation? What shall we do about it?
Nothing really. We will keep enjoying sushi, while Japanese people will keep enjoying MacDonald’s. Cultural appropriation can be damaging (I do recommend that article by Johnson), but it can also be good. People have sometimes a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that one thing can have two contradictory meanings, like boobs being both sexual and non-sexual (though I should probably deal with that another time).
The most important thing is to not be ignorant of the context in which a cultural artifact is appropriated. And when it comes to Coldplay’s video, ignorance is thriving at its best. While it has stunning imagery, we can all agree that the misrepresentation of a whole nation and culture is quite the cultural faux pas.
Anyways, have a nice day filled with awesome things like sushi, fries, and boobs.