One of the side-effects of destroying old power structures is that people no longer have a set-in-stone way to feel superior to others. So they go looking for a way to feel superior, often by finding some terrible injustice and railing against it. If the injustice is committed by people they identify with it allows them to pretend to be humble while feeling morally superior. This can be quite useful, of course, since ending injustice is a great thing to do no matter the motivation. However, once the main work is done, people often see the result and jump on the bandwagon, and the problem that the main work is done is easily overcome by extending the notion to ridiculous ends.
This process is exemplified by cultural appropriation, and there’s a solid argument in the Washington Post against taking it too far. People complaining that someone referencing Russian culture in a novel isn’t a “real Russian” and therefore shouldn’t write about it, complaints against the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about allowing visitors to try on a kimono. It has reached the point where drawing any kind of inspiration from a culture other than your own, or referencing another culture in any way, or eating another culture’s cuisine, is denounced as “cultural appropriation”.
these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively. A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.
There are some very obvious issues with this. The idea that westerners should avoid anything from another culture has overtones of racial and cultural puritanism; in order to be a “good Westerner” you have to eschew anything that’s not “Western”, preferably from your own country, preferably from your own racial background, preferably from your own neighbourhood. It’s insulating and isolating, and has a negative effect on empathy and understanding of other cultures. As Cathy Young (the WP author) wrote: “When we attack people for stepping outside their own cultural experiences, we hinder our ability to develop empathy and cross-cultural understanding.”
These attacks are overwhelmingly made by Americans – it’s rare to hear someone from the country whose culture is being “appropriated” complain. Indeed, in the example of the kimono protest described in the article, the number of protesters was tiny, while “many [Japanese Americans] actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate”. In fact: “The kimonos, which are replicas of the garment in the painting, were commissioned by the Japanese broadcaster NHK to accompany “La Japonaise” for the recent traveling exhibit “Looking East”; visitors to museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and the MFA’s sister museum in Nagoya could try them on as part of the exhibit.”
I’ve showed a lot of Mexicans pictures of white people in “Mexican costumes” and have failed to see any ire at all. The most I ever got was “eso es un sombrero de mariachi, no se usa con jorongos”. (That’s a mariachi hat, it doesn’t go with a poncho.) Mexican Americans may get upset*, but the key word there is American. They might claim it’s offensive to them, but to claim that it is offensive to México or Mexicans is not only an unsupported stretch, it means they’re speaking for an entire country and culture they don’t belong to – a far more egregious case of cultural appropriation.
Mexicans actually get annoyed by exactly the opposite – cultural invasion. They don’t care if someone wears a sombrero to a Halloween party, they care that American companies are buying up Mexican companies and then pushing commercialised Halloween trinkets onto them, replacing Día del Muerto with the American holiday**. That they’re pushing Santa Claus gimcrack everywhere to replace Los Reyes Magos. That they’re trying to turn México into South Texas because they’ve already got the supply chains set up. That’s what really shits any Mexican who gives more than a passing thought to culture.
*I’ve seen people online complain, but I have no idea of their ethnicity. Maybe they’re not even Mexican American.
** I’m looking at you, Walmart. There’s been Halloween baubles on sale for a month or more.