We are publishing the work of all the winners and runners-up this week, and you can find them here as they post. Excerpts from some will also be in the special Learning print section on Sunday, June 9.
“Cultural Appropriation” Is Critical to Human Progress
A skirt on Zara. A Dior campaign. Keziah Daum’s prom dress. What do all of these things have in common? They are the latest victims of America’s politically correct crusaders.
In today’s “cancel” culture, people are quick to attack others for behaving in a way they deem socially unacceptable. Central to many of these accusations is the idea of cultural appropriation: the adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one society by a member of another.
The fashion industry in particular has come under severe scrutiny in the past year for “stealing” traditions. As Vanessa Friedman writes in “Fashion’s Year in Cultural Don’ts”, the aforementioned skirt was too similar to an Indian lungi, the Dior campaign drew too much inspiration from the Mexican escaramuzas, and Keziah Daum’s qipao was too Asian for her.
These fashion statements were clearly not designed to offend or degrade the cultures that influenced them. However, that is not to say that everyone who draws inspiration from different cultures is doing it with the right intentions. Issues arise when imitation is based on a shallow and offensive stereotype, which is just blatant racism.
Cultural appropriation is not a modern concept; it has existed as long as culture itself. From a historical perspective, the term that is typically used to describe the adoption of certain practices from one culture to the next is syncretism. Without syncretism, human progress would be next to impossible.
Often referred to throughout history as a “melting pot,” America is a perfect example of the importance of syncretism. Immigrants from diverse backgrounds can all come together under a common American nationality. Pizza, hot dogs, and soft drinks are often considered characteristically American, but they were originally Italian, German, and Swedish, respectively. Is this cultural appropriation? Even Democracy, the very basis of American society, was first seen in ancient Greece. Is it time to “cancel” America?
Obviously not. But what makes drinking a carbonated beverage so different from wearing a Chinese-inspired prom dress? Cultural appropriation is just the modern term for a concept that has aided in the development of human society for centuries. Those who perpetuate “cancel” culture ignore this. And that has dangerous implications for the future.
Limiting oneself to dressing and acting as one’s heritage determines is dangerously close to a “separate but equal” mentality. As George Chesterton writes for GQ, “If we can only exist in and guard the cultures we emerged from, from those we resemble, we will shrink into the superficiality of newly contrived tribes.” Without embracing and building upon the ideas of other cultures, humanity remains static. History has proven that “cultural appropriation” is critical for human progress, and without it the future is bleak.
Chesterton, George. “Cultural Appropriation: Everything Is Culture and It’s All Appropriated.” GQ, 15 Jan. 2019.
Friedman, Vanessa. “Fashion’s Year in Cultural Don’ts.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2018.