What makes cultural appropriation?

Image Source: New York Times

By Faye Couros | @CourosFaye

There has been heated debate over the subject of cultural appropriation.

However, in Japan, its Lowrider and Chicana subcultures unearth a new perspective: if someone is ‘appropriating’ with a level of respect, a valuable cultural exchange can exist.

These Japanese Lowriders and Chicanas wear head bandanas, paint their eyeliner on thick, have oversized hoop earrings and adorn their cars with Mexican crucifixes.

Famous figures from this subculture include MoNa a.k.a Sad Girl, Shinovi Panchita Ayaka and Junichi Shimodaira.

By just scrolling through their Instagram pages it is clear how embedded this aesthetic is in their lives: MoNa is a rapper (she uses Japanese, English and Spanish lyrics) and Mr Shimodaira is part of the Pharaohs Car Club for low-rider cars pimped out like they are in the States.

Their social media feeds prove that a lot of effort and thought is put into their looks, a perfected homage to their Californian counterparts.

In a Refinery29 interview, MoNa was asked if her Chicana style is appropriation, and her response emphasises a unique opinion.

“I always love seeing how people overseas are fond of Japanese culture. Like tourists with samurai t-shirts, I feel proud, so I try to give that same appreciation and respect to the Chicano culture that I love,” MoNa said.

But what is cultural appropriation?

Dr Shameem Black, Deputy Director of the South Asia Research Institute at the Australian National University, describes it as “deploying elements of culture that is not considered ‘one’s own’ in ways that benefit the appropriator more than the culture being appropriated”.

There are many ways one can approach this topic, and Dr Black points out the negative and positive responses most commonly applied.

“The less helpful approach tends to be one of cultural policing.

“This style can be helpful in socialising outsiders into respectful practices … but it can also be quite limited in suggesting that cultures don’t change or that certain classes of people have authority over it,” Dr Black said.

Dr Black believes the better approach is when there is an exchange between cultures that is guided through a critical lens to preserve the right to have cultural equality.

The salient detail to consider is that it’s problematic when a culture’s practices and aesthetics are valued more than its people.

Dr Black said that it is equally problematic to vilify those appropriating when the focus should explore a “broader structural understanding”.

“We don’t need to make people feel like ‘bad people’ for wanting to participate in other cultures,” said Dr Black.

Midori Nakao is a Japanese exchange student in Adelaide, and her view on cultural appropriation is similar to MoNa’s.

“I feel glad and appreciate when I see people like our culture and using it, but it’s only when I can see their respect … if someone is wearing Japanese clothing because they think it’s ‘sexy’, I just feel that our culture is diminished,” Ms Nakao said.

Ms Nakao said that there can be a “misuse of the culture” that “might result in spoiling the original”, as it has with sushi, noting that there is a difference between sushi in the West and nigiri sushi in Japan.

In Australia, we fill sushi with ingredients that stray far from its origins, such as meat, avocado and mayo, making it wrong to even call it Japanese food.

However, Ms Nakao points out how cultural appropriation, or rather appreciation of cuisine and aesthetic, can be constructive.

“It is good as it helps encourage worldwide recognition to Japan … it seems that it contributes to the growth of the Japanese economy,” Ms Nakao said.

In this instance, Japan benefits economically from appropriation by the West: even our love of Westernised sushi can inspire a desire to visit the country.

Therefore, as a majority in their own country, Japanese people feel a sense of pride when other people interact with their culture.

However, there is another side to appropriation that supports the importance of vilifying its practice.

In some cases, a minority culture’s people are treated with less respect than their art, music, and literature.

Indigenous Australian culture has suffered because of appropriation for decades, through the sale of sham first nation artefacts, tacky tourist souvenirs (often imported) and fake artwork.

Sandra Bayet, a descendant of the Githabul Tribe and Bundjalung Nations of NSW, said: “For me personally, it feels disrespectful, disempowering and oppressive. Sometimes when I see it happening, I feel sad and angry.

“It makes me think: Why are Aboriginal people not being engaged with to provide these items that have been appropriated?”

The difference between wearing a samurai t-shirt and one with Aboriginal art on it relies on context.

However, at face value, it is hard to discern what someone’s intentions and understandings are when connecting with either culture.

The message coming from Japanese lowriders and Chicanas is that with respect and care, appropriation can inspire a wealth of unique cultural exchanges.

Perhaps iterations of appropriation should be consciously self-policed, to protect minority cultures from exploitation.

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