Cultural Appropriation

Much fuss has been made in the past few weeks, both pro and con, over a young woman’s prom dress choice.  A girl in Utah chose a traditional Chinese dress as her prom dress, and after posting pictures online was accused of cultural appropriation, igniting a storm (well, a brief storm) of controversy over whether a non-Chinese person can wear a Chinese dress, which is really just a small scale discussion over whether anyone can utilize anything that is not from their own culture.  It sounds insane, I know.  But people apparently have a lot of time on their hands and they peruse it on their smart phones while they walk and buy groceries, looking for things to be outraged by.  Major news outlets picked up the story, so it must be important, right?

There are, admittedly, some terrible prom dresses out there.  Don’t just take my word for it.  But realize that you can’t unsee some of these things.

It got me thinking about the issue of cultural appropriation, something that has clunked around the back of my brain for decades now, courtesy of one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury.

I’ve written before of his ability to foresee issues that evolved well after the time of his writing.  Brighter readers than myself agree.  But the story that came to the forefront of my mind in regards to this prom dress debacle is one of his more obscure short fiction stories written in 1953 called Sun and Shadow.  I’m not sure if this is a legal online reprint or not, but you can read the story here.

I prefer Bradbury’s treatment of the topic to the Twitter storm associated with the prom dress.  There are related themes but he takes the time to flesh them out a bit, driving the point home solidly in the closing paragraphs.  How easy is it for us to turn locations and people and fashions into backdrops for our own enjoyment?  Very.  So easy, in fact, that I’m not sure it can be avoided.  History is one long cultural appropriation.  From one group to another.  One nation to another.  One continent to another.  And back again.  We are forever taking ideas from other people and other places.  Sometimes it can be done well and beautifully and sometimes it is merely exploitative and tawdry.  But it goes on constantly.

Is it possible in any given instance to give full appreciation to the sources, the founts from which we draw our spur-of-the-moment decisions in fashion or photography or even literature?  I strongly doubt it.  I can hope that it is done well rather than poorly, but beyond that there is no clear way to limit a dress or a photograph.  Movies are rebooting themselves at a dizzying rate.  Everything we do or say is impacted to some degree by everything and everyone we’ve seen or read.

We can get past the potential anger at such appropriation by remembering that the whims of fashion and culture are not purely our own devices, but rather are made possible by so many factors that all ultimately find their anchor in a common Creator.  A Creator who endowed us with great creativity of our own that matches – in an appropriate lesser degree – his own creativity.   I can appreciate a palm tree as well as a fruit tree, a hedgehog as well as a kangaroo.  When I see these as gifts of the Creator rather than some kind of cultural heritage for me to protect from everyone else in the world, it reduces my angst quite a bit.  Likewise, if we can appreciate fashion from China as well as from Mexico, it should be something that elevates and makes all of us better, drawing us closer together rather than providing a point for further dissension and disagreement.  Finally, if I can see even my cultural heritage as a gift rather than as a commodity, this should free me from seeing it as something in need of protection.

As a Christian, should we find it wrong to sing an African spiritual hymn if we’re predominantly a congregation of Western Europeans?  Is it likewise wrong to teach a traditional German hymn to a group of recently baptized Syrian refugees?  Or should we be able to celebrate the creativity of God expressed through a still-very-much-at-work Holy Spirit?  Should we not join hands in repentance as we continue to learn to see God from one another’s perspectives as guided by the Biblical witness?  If this is our goal and methodology, is it possible for us to still see other cultures, other histories, other fashions, other architecture as simply something to exploit for our own benefit or enjoyment or profit?

I think not.


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