On the appropriateness of cultural appropriation. Dialogue

Tuija: A friend brought me a red, yellow, and orange antelope cloth as a souvenir from Kenya, which I hung up on the wall of my office. I also bought several salwar kameezes and a sari when I visited India. The salwar kameezes I have worn on their own, and the sari I turned into a skirt to use in my oriental dance class. The recent, at times heated, debate on cultural appropriation has made me think about how wrong I have been to use these items that are typical of specific cultures. Have I been guilty of cultural misappropriation and contributed to the abuse of these minority cultures and therefore to reinforcing my own Western dominance?

Koko: I have also been given beautiful souvenirs from different countries, and I have also bought some myself. I often wear jewellery with direct references to the Afro-American hip hop culture, and I have bought Middle Eastern jewellery, which is not directly linked to my own culture. I do not see this as a problem in itself, as my money often goes directly to where it belongs when I shop in bazaars. The problem lies in the bigger power structures. If a black American woman wears large, chunky earrings, she may be taken for a poor and uneducated suburbanite, and she may struggle to find work because of her appearance. If I wear the same kind of jewellery (which H&M has probably produced using brown child labour), I am streetwise and cool, and I do not have to carry historical burdens or oppression on my conscience. Fashion is a good example of cultural appropriation, and the same mechanism applies, for example, to the hairstyles of black people and prints of various indigenous peoples. Who makes a profit when daily structural discrimination continues?

Tuija: The debate on cultural appropriation has been bubbling under the surface in Finland, especially among anti-racist organisations and at least gender researchers, for some time. It was the debate on Laura Lindstedt’s Finlandia Prize winning book Oneiron that brought it to the attention of the general public.

For me, the most refreshing thing about that book was specifically the fact that it did not dwell on the existential angst of the white Finnish man. The main characters were women, and from different parts of the world as well! However, Koko, you wrote in your blog that you considered the book a prime example of cultural appropriation in the context of literature.

Koko: Cultural appropriation is a fact and a major, important sociological issue in all areas of culture. There is no need to argue on whether it exists or not. It does, and it is defined by the people of each appropriated culture, not by representatives of the majority. The question I asked in my blog was what counts as cultural appropriation in Finnish literature, which completely lacks the voice of racialized characters. I used my own background to demonstrate what it feels like to read the fantasies of a white author, who has nothing to do with my culture, on what it is like to be a Jewish woman with an eating disorder – and what it feels like when that author uses my language to make her art more interesting in ways that are not credible to those who know the language but have not had the right to use it freely.

Tuija: A lot has been written about Oneiron and cultural appropriation or misappropriation since then. At the crux of the debate is the question of who is allowed to talk and about whom. This question has been deliberated a lot in the context of academic feminism. The standpoint theory is based on the premise that the quality of the knowledge that a person has is defined by their (social) status – the more marginalised they are, the more “authentic” is the information they can produce. This has occasionally led people to conclude that, for example, only women can study women, only lesbians can study lesbians, and only black people can study black people.

Although the theory was originally about challenging gendered power structures, the premise has also been used to bolster positions of dominance. Two researchers, Lene Myong and Mathias Danbolt, are studying Henning Bech and Mehmet Ümit Necef’s book Er danskerne racister? Indvandrerforskningens problemer [Are the Danes racist? Problems of immigration research], which has caused a stir in Denmark by rejecting the claim that the Danes are racist, and instead accusing anti-racist researchers of racism. The claims have been repeated in the media, and they have largely gone unchallenged. One reason for this could be that one of the authors is a racialized Dane who is, therefore, believed to have personal experience of racism – or, in this case, of the absence of racism.

Koko: The fact that an author is racialized obviously does not guarantee anything. Personally, I think that, in order for the debate on racism and the recognition of cultural appropriation to move forward, we need to start seeing whiteness and white supremacy as norms that need to be broken down. We must understand that whiteness is an ethnicity just like any other and not an invisible thing that has no significance in social constructions. Just as we acknowledge the concept of a “male gaze”, we also need to acknowledge the concept of a “white gaze”.

I do not personally agree with the idea that only a woman can write about women, a lesbian about lesbians, and a Jew about Jews – especially in art. Art is all about freedom. However, every one of us, including artists with that freedom, need to think about the implications of what we do. What does it mean if I am a white author who writes about black and brown characters? Why do I feel the need to do that? What do those characters and bodies give me that I cannot get from white characters and bodies, and why? What are the historical relationships between white artists and racialized muses/characters? How can I ensure that I do not reproduce stereotypes and the processes of racialisation, which are aspects of real-life discrimination?

Tuija: I find problematic the premise that an author must have personal experience of what they write about. Maybe that is also why my knee-jerk reaction to accusations of cultural appropriation is that they are unfair – at least in the context of fiction. However, I am saying this from the perspective of a white, privileged woman, based on the experiences given to me by my supremacy.

Perhaps the condition of having personal experience of a subject or the validation that it gives bothers me because I also study migration and racialisation myself, even though I am not a racialized immigrant. On the other hand, I also study anti-feminism and hate speech specifically as a feminist.

Koko: Exactly. In terms of cultural appropriation, you have the privilege of deciding that you do not like the concept. I do not have that privilege. You, as a researcher, can choose whether you want to study migration and racialisation, or something else. Migration and racialisation, and anti-feminism and hate speech, are my everyday life – and I also write about them. When you leave work at the end of the day, no-one stares at you. When I leave my house, I become a target. I think it is high time for people like me also to start taking part in this debate – both in the context of literature and other areas of society. And if we do take part, it would be nice for people to give us credence. I would also like to point out that the fact that our personal experience makes us experts in this respect does not mean that we do not also have other expertise and theoretical knowledge.

Tuija: A very illustrative example of the privileged status of white people. Just explaining my own conflicting views on how I see myself proves the complexity of these issues. Maybe it is not possible to reduce the problems of cultural appropriation to a simple right or wrong debate, although the comments to articles about the subject on the internet are full of accusations of “excessive political correctness” having eliminated the freedom of speech, or at least that a white straight man is not allowed to have an opinion.

Koko: I agree. The question comes down to acknowledging privileges and understanding that freedom of speech does not apply to everyone in situations when one person is using the voice of others in the name of culture.

Tuija: Personally, I think that it is not simply ethnicity or skin colour, or gender or social class for that matter, that defines the status of a person in power structures, and that instead these things are what guide and motivate us. Everyone is a racialized, gendered being in different ways, and our status in a given structure also depends on factors such as education and physical capabilities.

Koko: Yes, it is about intersections.

Tuija: I am aware that I am privileged in many ways. However, engaging in these kinds of debates helps me to recognise and acknowledge the areas in which I am blind to my own privileged position and may end up abusing my power and privileges. This is why a debate on cultural appropriation is a good wake-up call for me, a middle-class, middle-aged white, academic woman. A debate is successful when the parties let down their guard and open themselves up to listening, learning, and widening their own viewpoint, even if no full consensus can be reached.

Koko: I am also privileged in innumerable ways. Being a Western, physically and mentally healthy, financially secure, light-skinned, straight-haired, cisgender straight woman, I have ample opportunity to appropriate cultures and abuse the plight of other ethnic groups both in my daily life and in my work as a writer. What matters is what I do with this knowledge and the uncomfortable feelings that this awareness gives me.