Who owns culture?: The authority of offense

In the past 10 years, the American population has begun to tiptoe around social relations to avoid the O word: offense. The beginning of a celebrity’s downfall is rarely when he or she drives under the influence, maybe even causing vehicular manslaughter, but rather when the person says something offensive. Calling people out has become so natural, and the outrage can break a person’s reputation.  And while the outrage and arguments made have good intentions and are protective in nature, it’s important to step back and ask ourselves if our indignation is appropriate in various contexts.

Cultural appropriation and racism are terms that are used not interchangeably but often in conjunction in media. Some settings are absolute petri dishes for appropriation, the two most well-known being fashion shows and music festivals. At Coachella, the style most people don offensively is Native American – each year, Twitter timelines display headdresses and face paint galore, with statements from native groups displaying disappointment. And while I agree with these major groups and wholeheartedly support the reasons behind their decisions, comments online from Native Americans apathetic about this issue make me wonder why this is so controversial, and if we are putting the right amount of emphasis on this issue. Isn’t it entirely possible that other problems pose more of a risk to society? With exploitation and major losses of land threatening the millions of Native Americans in America, why are so many Internet activists focusing on other people’s wardrobes over weighty matters like unemployment and mass incarceration?

I bring this up not in attempts to pull a Stacy Dash but to emphasize how nuanced this issue is. Isn’t it entirely plausible that our outrage, though well-meant, is just a front? And an even more complicated issue—isn’t culture meant to be fluid and shared? I began thinking about this when I saw a picture of a little Caucasian girl wearing a kimono on the Internet. A major comment that caused a lot of conversation was that she should take it off, because it is offensive and appropriating. A reply said that a Japanese family friend had brought it back after visiting Japan. It was meant to be respectful and cute, not a distasteful symbol of colonization.

This situation makes me ask myself so many questions. I question who matters more—the gift-giver or the recipient—and the importance of intention. Not to mention, who can rightfully give cultural presents? If based on nationality (and not necessarily race), how long does a person (or their ancestors) have had to live somewhere to deem this situation non-offensive? For instance, what about American navy children who live outside of the United States, or countries like Peru with a substantial Japanese population? Furthermore, we rarely acknowledge this, but what about people of color committing these acts of offense on others?

Who has the authority here? Is it a question of percentage of descent, or something much harder to calculate, like how invested you actually are in a culture? I ask this because I could be much more stereotypically Chinese – a friend of mine recently told me I was the most American Chinese person he knew. I thought this description was funny at first, but I realized there is so much I don’t know about heritage that maybe I should. I didn’t know the name of traditional clothing, and my Mandarin could definitely improve, but do those shortcomings define me as a Chinese person, or impact my “authority?”

These thoughts contrast to my normal stance on things. I’m not saying that I don’t believe in the danger of cultural appropriation – I fully understand how harmful it is to groups of people, and the injustice it does to them every single day. I describe myself as a passionate liberal, but I also feel that it’s a topic that should be brought up and reflected on, because so much can be lost in translation and between races and ethnicities. It’s very plausible that I am completely wrong, but I feel that cultural appropriation itself can be detrimental if we make generalizations and rules. Culture is meant to be shared (to a currently undetermined extent) and simplifications never take into account the various circumstances we as a human society face.