Is the Cultural-Appropriation Debate Really Pointless?

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On June 7, 2014, Asian American studies researcher Minh-Ha T. Pham posted a link to her article about cultural appropriation on her fashion blog Threadbared. Titled “Fashion’s Cultural-Appropriation Debate: Pointless,” the Atlantic article discusses cultural appropriation controversies in and outside of the fashion industry, as well as Pham’s cynical attitude toward the debate. She wrote that by claiming cultural appropriation as if there are only two places — “Western capitalist institution” and “slum”–  in the world, many critics end up reaffirming the power relations they try to critique. While I find this statement very true, I do not agree that the cultural-appropriation debate is completely pointless; it is just that the binary view of high and low cultures needs to be changed.

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Pham used the “‘Chinatown bag’ plaid” as an example to explain the cultural-appropriation phenomenon and flaws in the critics’ arguments. She said the design originated from cheap bags manufactured and sold in China and are often carried by poor migrants around the world. She then said that when appeared in luxury brand collections, the design received mixed reviews: most fashion bloggers loved it while cultural critics attacked it for objectifying and exploiting Asian culture. Pham considered the criticisms flawed because they were based on the assumption of an existing cultural hierarchy. “None of the critics leveling charges of appropriation, though, questioned the basic premise that the collections exemplified a high-low cultural fusion — high culture being Euro-American fashion design, and low culture being Asian street culture,” she wrote.

In the article, she suggested critics engage in an “inappropriate” discourse to examine “the things that are not carried over when white Western creators swipe from elsewhere.” Yet I think the appropriation discourse has its own benefits, too, the main one being it helps individuals develop a critical mind about certain aspects of the material culture that may be associated with racialization and ethnicization and may offend particular racial and ethnic groups. Avril Lavign’s “Hello Kitty” music video is a fairly recent example of what may be labeled as cultural appropriation. Not only does the video include scenes of poker-faced Japanese dancers but the Japanese parts of the lyrics do not make much sense. The misrepresentation of Japanese girls and language made viewavrillavigneers, especially those from Japan, feel uncomfortable, which led to discourses about cultural appropriation. This type of scholarly discussion is necessary, for it brings attention to offensive portrayals of different cultures and helps the fashion and entertainment industries police the content they produce.

As Pham said, some subconsciously base their arguments about cultural appropriation on the idea that the East and West are different, and the former is inferior to the latter. However, if people become aware of this assumption, they would be able to avoid it and look at the issue from a broader angle. It is just like color-blind racism. Some like to say that they are not racist because they don’t see race, but making this statement itself proves that they are perfectly aware of race. The key is not to show ignorance, but to acknowledge the problem so that it can be examined and truly avoided.

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