I read with appreciation Chimdi Igwe’s response to my article on cultural appropriation, but take slight to his saying my article was satirical at best. It was meant to be entirely satirical, from head to toe.
The reason I disagree with the notion of cultural appropriation is due to my experience growing up in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious melting pot of Malaysia. In addition to the three largest population groups – the Malays, Chinese and Indians – we have dozens of indigenous ethnic groups: the Orang Asal (aborigines) of Peninsular Malaysia; the Iban, Melanau, Kelabit and Bidayuh of Sarawak; the Kadazan, Dusun, Murut, Bajau of Sabah; and many more. Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus live side-by-side, mostly in harmony. On a daily basis, people wear clothes from other ethnicities, adopt their customs and cultural norms , and make music with traditional instruments, while traditional Iban tattoo artists, whose designs are ancient and sacred, serve anyone of any ethnicity. Even army units with few if any Iban soldiers perform Iban traditional war dances. And no one, not even the most racist and narrow-minded bigot, has any problem with this.
Even though the same power dynamics at the societal level apply, with ethnic tensions, state-sanctioned discrimination, and economic inequality, while Chinese grumble about mistreatment from the Malay-dominated government, while Malays complain about the control of the economy by the Chinese, and while entire generations of Indians and indigenous people groups live in isolation from mainstream society due to discrimination and neglect, no one raises the spectre of cultural appropriation. I had never even heard of this concept until I came to the UK, and my experience growing up led me to doubt it.
Chimdi raised the point that wearing Western clothing in Western countries is assimilation, yet this does not apply to the vast majority of the world’s population not living in the West and not ruled by white people. Even though you could raise the legacy of colonisation, and that most of these countries were indeed former colonies, including Malaysia, the fact remains that colonisation has long ended –me and my fellow countrymen have since moved on, holding no hostility for the descendants of our colonisers. This is despite Britain’s great betrayal of the Malaysian people by failing to defend us against the Japanese in World War II and despite Britain creating generations of drug-addled people by forcing the sale and use of opium in China. We believe that building a better future for ourselves is more important than dwelling on past injustices, and I fail to draw a link between colonisation and a white girl wearing a cheongsam.
Chimdi criticised me for writing about an article for which I don’t really care about – though he himself admitted that he doesn’t really care for this whole issue – but missed my point completely. I was outraged at the uncalled-for harassment of a teenage girl over the crime of wearing a dress, by thousands of people claiming to be in defence of Chinese culture while few, if any, Chinese people had any problem with what she wore. This is in addition to the multiple claims of cultural appropriation against American movies based in Japan and on Japanese culture, which Japanese people have no issue with, and the criticism heaped on Justin Trudeau and his family for culturally appropriating Indian culture when they went to India sporting multiple, matching sets of Indian clothing. Indian people had no issue with that, instead simply laughing at how ridiculous they looked. You call me juvenile for making fun of people raising a stink about an issue I don’t care about, who were supposedly doing it to defend my culture while absolutely disregarding the opinions of the people they are supposedly defending, but who is the juvenile one here? Me, or them?
In a world where every cultural practice is a result of centuries of inter-cultural pollination, and in which the campaigners against cultural appropriation show little care for the cultures they supposedly defend, instead simply hectoring white people for supposed disrespect, it is clear that cultural appropriation is merely a tool in the exercise for power. Let me type this in bold because if you take nothing else from this article, understand this. Cultural appropriation is a tool in the victimhood narrative, defining and policing the boundaries of human identity in a world where identity politics reigns supreme. It tells people what not to do, say, write, wear, or even think, and I firmly oppose this in the name of freedom of expression and a right to do as one wishes.
Before I arrived in the UK, I was led to believe that the West had moved on from race and gender, that people would be judged solely on their abilities and talents. Instead, I have encountered a world where skin colour, gender and sexual orientation are the defining markers of a person, where people are lumped into homogenous ethnic and sexual groups, into ‘victim’ and ‘oppressor’ categories, ignoring the diversity of thought (the most important form of diversity) within said groups; a world where white people are collectively punished for the crimes of their ancestors, even though the vast majority of their ancestors were also victims of imperialism and oppression, and even though they are not responsible for those crimes.
Cultural exchange and intermixing is inevitable, especially in a shrinking, interconnected world. It represents the true beauty of multiculturalism and diversity, that the barriers standing between us are slowly eroding away, allowing us to understand each other better. Though Chimdi rightfully points out the many insensitive and offensive examples of people taking and misrepresenting aspects of other cultures, the criticism should be directed at the terrible behaviour behind their actions, not against the act of cultural exchange itself. While Chimdi mentioned the sociological background and initial meaning of cultural appropriation, that is not what we are seeing now. Cultural appropriation has been used instead to persecute and attack people for taking part in the natural act of cultural exchange, ironically limiting the diversity they claim to celebrate while ostracising people from one another. A world in which we do not share and exchange ideas, fashion, food, music, and art between ourselves, a world where we don’t get along, would be a sad one indeed. As a liberation officer, I’m sure Chimdi understands that.