Amer­i­can Life

Un­ter welchen Vo­raus­set­zun­gen ist es in Ord­nung, sich der Tra­di­tio­nen einer an­deren Kul­tur zu be­di­enen?

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Ginger Kuen­zel on bor­row­ing from other cul­tures

Adin­ner guest re­cently joked that I might be guilty of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion because I was serv­ing an Ital­ian din­ner. I had never heard of the term. Wikipedia de­fines it as “a con­cept deal­ing with the adop­tion of the el­e­ments of a mi­nor­ity cul­ture by mem­bers of the dom­i­nant cul­ture.” That left me scratch­ing my head, so I con­tin­ued my re­search. Af­ter lots of read­ing, I re­al­ized that un­der­stand­ing what cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is — and what it is not — is com­plex.

A fre­quently used ex­am­ple of this ex­pres­sion is when a white per­son dresses up with a Na­tive Amer­i­can head­dress. Because Na­tive Amer­i­cans are a mi­nor­ity cul­ture, the wear­ing of their head­dresses by whites is a clear ex­am­ple of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. Other cases are less clear. Ear­lier this year, Keziah Daum, a high-school stu­dent in Utah, drew crit­i­cism for wear­ing a tra­di­tional Chi­nese dress to her prom and post­ing a photo on­line. “My cul­ture is not your ... prom dress,” some­one tweeted, set­ting off a bar­rage of re­sponses. Keziah de­fended her choice, say­ing that she was show­ing how much she ad­mired Chi­nese cul­ture. Some peo­ple of Asian her­itage even sup­ported her, say­ing that they found noth­ing wrong with her choice.

Keziah’s de­ci­sion to wear a Chi­nese dress could be con­sid­ered cul­tural ex­change, a demon­stra­tion of her sense of ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Chi­nese cul­ture. Is there re­ally any­thing wrong with a young girl find­ing a Chi­nese dress beau­ti­ful and wear­ing it to her prom? Isn’t im­i­ta­tion a form of flat­tery? If some­one is mock­ing an­other cul­ture, how­ever, or ben­e­fit­ing from it com­mer­cially, that could be con­sid­ered to be “cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.”

It’s not just what peo­ple wear that falls un­der this head­ing, though. For ex­am­ple, whites sell­ing Mex­i­can food have been crit­i­cized, as have white mu­si­cians who use el­e­ments of an­other cul­ture in their mu­sic. Because these are cases in which whites ben­e­fit com­mer­cially from dif­fer­ent cul­tures, some feel this to be cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

Who decides, though, what is or isn’t cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion? That’s a hotly de­bated topic. If peo­ple liv­ing in China don’t have a prob­lem with Keziah’s dress, does it make sense for an eth­nic Chi­nese per­son who has lived in the US all his life to be trou­bled? And what if Keziah gave us a DNA sam­ple, and it was found that she is 22 per­cent Chi­nese? Could she then wear the dress with­out being crit­i­cized?

On the flip side, when mem­bers of a mi­nor­ity cul­ture adopt el­e­ments of the dom­i­nant cul­ture, that is con­sid­ered to be as­sim­i­la­tion, not ap­pro­pri­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, an African-amer­i­can woman who straight­ens her hair might just be trying to fit in.

It’s a com­plex topic. Af­ter much soul-search­ing, I’ve de­cided it’s still OK to hold our an­nual Ok­to­ber­fest and for me to wear my dirndl. Nei­ther Ger­man nor US cul­ture is con­sid­ered to be a mi­nor­ity cul­ture. It is, there­fore, not cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion.

GINGER KUEN­ZEL is a free­lance writer who lived in Mu­nich for 20 years. She now calls a small town in up­state New York home.

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