Cultural Appropriation Continued…

So after publishing my article yesterday, I have had some really constructive feedback from some other activists online. I wanted to address a few of the points raised out of the discussion and make a few amendments. Firstly one of my friends challenged the idea that the ‘Mohawk’ is a direct cultural appropriation:

“I agree that the name is more-than-problematic, but in terms of the actual cut I’m not so certain. the Mohawk/Mi’kmaq woman you cited says that she thinks that white people can wear a ‘non-traditional mohawk hairstyles (the ones you see at punk concerts)’ its obviously complicated cos the hollywood depiction of Mohawks had the ‘modern’ mohawk, which actual Kanien’kehá:ka Iroquois don’t wear themselves.”

Totally agree here, the haircut that we see at concerts has been incorrectly named, the hair of the Mohawk people is traditionally plucked leaving a patch on the back of the head. I think it is useful to make a distinction between actual appropriated culture – i.e. dressing up as a Native American for a costume party – and appropriated language – the use of the Mohawk name to describe a hair cut that is not actually part of any Mohawk tradition. Therefore I think it would be fair to accept that whilst the punk “Mohawk” is not a direct appropriation, that giving it the name “Mohawk” is problematic. Suggestions for a new name anyone?

Another example of a linguistic appropriation was pointed out to me here:

“Take the ‘Navajo wrapped drinking flask’ from Urban Outfitters. Some people were arguing that using that kind of pattern (usually and problematically labelled things like ‘Navajo’, ‘Native American’ ‘Indian’ ‘ethnic’ or ‘Aztec’) is a form of cultural appropriation. Now i think if these kind of patterns were labelled ‘geometric’ instead of ‘ethnic’/whatever racist tinged name’ then it would be a stretch to say “that’s a cultural appropriation” because more-often-than-not these prints and patterns are very very different from any original Native design and the connection to said-appropriated culture would probably disappear if the name wasn’t there, otherwise you are saying that this neon dress with triangles and diamonds ‘looks Native American to me so therefore its cultural appropriation’ – you end up repeating the same kind of problematic stereotypes really.

I think that there are two separate arguments at play here:

1. That direct cultural appropriations are problematic.

2. That the labelling of something that is culturally non-Native American as ethnic, Native American, Navajo, Mohawk, Aztec (etc) is problematic.

This means that whilst we should not appropriate Native American culture, we should also cease to use names that misrepresent and stereotype Native American people. So maybe the punk hair cut might come back soon people!

Another point that has been raised is that we live in a multicultural society, which is a blend of cultures:

“I was just interested to ask though where you think cultural appropriation lies in relation to multiculturalism? I ask because to me it seems that a multicultural society relies upon the breaking down of all artificial divisions between people of the same class, created by capitalism – and in that sort of society I can imagine people of all different cultures learning from and embracing elements of each others view points, dress sense, forms of art and music etc etc, and in doing so it seems likely that blends between these cultures will occur. 

“I think this can have great positive effects too. A good example is during the 1970s, when the National Front were trying to manipulate working class people into dividing against black communities, and bands emerged such as the Specials, who created a fusion of Jamacian music with punk by working with musicians from that culture. This was a very good example for a generation of young people, as it encouraged people to welcome different cultural backgrounds, and create fusions between different cultures. The Specials music became an anthem for the Anti facist struggles and the National Front hated it.”

Again, I agree that multiculturalism, and the blending of cultures helps to undermine racism – racism loses its power if we cannot be categorised and divided off into distinct racialised groups. However, prevailing white supremacy within colonialism and capitalism has left many non-white cultures devastated. As Native Americans have seen their culture nearly wiped out, part of their struggle is bringing back together the culture that was once taken away from them by white colonialists and capitalists – when it comes to challenging cultural appropriation and building a multicultural society, I don’t think that one necessarily hinders the other, in fact I think it builds a better more respectful multiculturalism.

It is important to respect that Native American people would not want to see their culture appropriated, as it is very closely tied in with their fight for liberation – Native American people wish to fight against racism and/or capitalism, but also must protect their separate and distinct cultures from being erased again. However, I don’t think all cultures have undergone the same process of “whitewashing” as Native American cultures, so it may be fair to say that Native American Liberation is distinct in the fact that it is both marked with a desire to break down the system that oppresses Native American people, whilst also defending the distinct cultures that colonialism/capitalism has tried so hard to erase. But it is important to remember that we have a real struggle on our hands, and it takes unity to fight for liberation – as one activist put it to me, we should be wary not to come full circle and repeat the racist mantra “east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet”.

Another example of possible appropriation was suggested in reference to the keffiyeh worn by many white activists to signify solidarity with the Palestinian struggle:

I found it particularly powerful when during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2009, more and more people started to take to the streets wearing one. It seemed to be a clear sign of solidarity with the struggles of the people in Gaza, even if a lot of people were wearing it partly (or mostly) because it looked good. I’ve spoken to a few friends from the middle east about this too – and they think it’s a great thing that the keffiyeh has become a fashion statement in the west – as even if only in a small way, it still opens up a potential gateway for people to find out about the oppression they are facing, and the struggles they are undergoing against Zionism.”

I think that the keffiyeh above all is an excellent show of solidarity to Palestine; I own one which I wear often to show my solidarity to Palestinian struggle. Their struggle has been marked on the one hand with an ideological struggle against racist Zionism, and on the other hand with war, genocide, rape, torture and ultimately the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homeland. However, I think it is fair to say that after a surge in the Palestinian solidarity movement in recent years, we have also seen lots of fashion outlets selling not just keffiyehs, but also new ‘fashionable’ takes on them. Many white people would end up buying one, without any knowledge of Palestinian struggle, or even any sense of being part of the movement for liberation. I think it is Lowkey who actually challenges this appropriation in one of his songs, challenging listeners to find out what the scarf round their neck means.

So I think cultural appropriation is still relevant to the anti-racist movement. In challenging our appropriations we are building understanding and trust with Native American people, in respecting their identities and how they are misrepresented in wider (often commercial) capitalist society. I also think it is very important to talk about the way capitalism markets cultural appropriations in order to open discussions about anti-capitalism and revolution. From all of the blogs and accounts I have read I think the biggest change that white people should undertake is looking critically at cultural misrepresentations and damaging appropriations – its more about a change in attitude than a road to liberation, because ultimately it takes us all on the streets, regardless of colour to bring down racism. Though we are looking to build our multicultural societies, we must respect that Native American cultures are being preserved for a reason, and that it is incumbent on white people to show respect for Native American cultures and build trust enough so that we can fight together against racism, colonialism and capitalism.

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5 Comments

  1. I stumbled across this while I was trying to research the exact same question that your friend had and I really appreciated the insight, so thanks!

    As for your call for new hairstyle name, what if we started calling the modern mohawk “shaved sides,” or something more descriptive along those lines? It removes the inaccurate connection to the Iroquois without being too obviously “PC” that it’ll incur the wrath of people who don’t get why the original name is offensive. What do you think?

  2. Pingback: Hairvolution #82 « Hairvolutions

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