By Casey Lartigue, Jr.
My Korean friends often ask me what Americans think about various topics or about what they like to do. I used to respond, “How would I know? There are almost 320 million people in the U.S.A.” This did not satisfy my friendly Korean inquisitors, so I embraced being the nation’s unelected spokesman: “Americans love reading, writing, talking, and singing and dancing to Prince, New Edition and swing music.”
Although some concluded that these are things I like to do, I prefer speaking at an individual level; not explaining the preferences of more than 300 million people. I initially assumed my Korean contacts were asking innocently, but after understanding the concept of cultural appropriation, I am more suspicious.
Cultural appropriation is the notion that some cultural items, practices or styles can be adopted (read: stolen) by a different culture. Pop stars, tourists and drunken college students have been strongly criticized for certain mannerisms, like “twerking”, that violate social “copyrights” owned by black folks on street corners, clubs and music studios. Critics of cultural appropriation believe there is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation (one is sharing, the other is stealing). But not all of this is busybody nonsense. Many blacks have indeed felt disconcerted as white or Asian faces become associated with a music style or cultural tradition close to them.
Those taking from other cultures often don’t understand or respect the history behind a cultural product or tradition. Many particularly despise the commodification of culture. The complaint in Korea, since at least the 1990s when I first encountered it, is that Koreans accept “black” culture (hip hop dance moves, music styles, even hand gestures from inner-city gangs) but not black people. Next, if not already, Korean youngsters may have their pants hanging off their butts, like American inner-city youngsters and “wiggers” (whites who identify with black culture).
I accept the points from those I have spoken with, to ask two questions: One, what is the obligation of an individual to avoid engaging in cultural appropriation? The critics discuss one culture “stealing” from another culture, but as I tell my Korean friends, I’m an individual, not 300 million Americans.
Secondly, what are the restrictions that critics of cultural appropriation put on themselves? Cultural appropriation critics say there is a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, yet they don’t draw lines around themselves. They fail to mention things in which people of their own cultures should stop engaging.
But then, perhaps they have already drawn lines around themselves and are extending the crackdown globally. Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates has said that, “Black students are worried about somebody black jumping in their face” and saying, “You’re not black enough. You’re a Harvard kid, a turncoat, you speak standard English, you get straight A’s ― those are all white things.” Yet Gates tells black freshmen at Harvard each year, “You can like Mozart and ice hockey and Picasso and still be as black as the ace of spades.” Then he drives the point home: “There are 35 million black people in this country and there are 35 million ways to be black.”
That is it. There are, similarly, 300 million ways to be American and 7 billion ways to be an individual. While I’m looking at the issues as an individual, my anti-cultural appropriation friends talk about group responsibility.
An idea is not responsible for who believes in it. The same is true of products or traditions. If someone of a certain race or culture came up with or identified an idea, activity or product either long ago or recently, it doesn’t mean some Johnny-come-latelies can’t enhance or enjoy it because they have a different blood line.
Nonetheless, I am thankful to the cultural appropriation critics. For years, I have rejected the concept of having a “bucket list” of things to do before I die. I confess to a simple goal: To live as a free man. Life is short; if I want to wear a Korean hanbok or shave my head, I will. Now, I have a bucket list: Products and activities off-limits, according to critics of cultural appropriation. The critics are putting “no trespassing” and “don’t buy” signs on culture, but many of my fellow 300 million Americans are asking, “Is the sign for sale too?”
Globalization will win. With technology spreading information and choices, critics of cultural appropriation will be a lone soldier overrun by a curious global army. Travellers and pop artists will not ignore trends, no matter how inspiring anti-cultural appropriation may sound in a blog post or YouTube video.
The writer is the director for international relations at Freedom Factory Co. in Seoul. He can be reached at: CJL@post.harvard.edu.