It was recently the 25th anniversary of No Doubt’s song “Don’t Speak” and in it’s honor a TikToker posted a series of videos calling out Gwen Stefani for her long history of cultural appropriation. In the video for this song and at other times, she can be seen wearing a bindi, a decorative mark with cultural and religious significance. That was just one instance when she has worn styles from other cultures and continues to do so. She has defended her choices as being appreciation. When is something appreciation and not appropriation? This has been a challenging question for me for so long. I still don’t have a clear idea.
I mean, I’ve read the academic definitions of cultural appropriation, but yet the lines still don’t seem clear to me. When asked by non-Asian friends, I just say, “I just know it when I see it.” Earlier this year, I found an example that seemed crystal clear to me. A group of white women in Texas decided to create their own mahjong set with nontraditional images. If you’re not familiar with mahjong, it’s a traditional game that dates back to the Qing Dynasty in China. It looks like this (but usually with more fun and less drama):
According to the original website description, one of the founders really enjoyed mahjong, but couldn’t find a set she found worthy of bringing to friends’ homes to play. What?! The traditional Chinese characters and symbols weren’t worthy? I was livid. I described this mahjong set to my book club and one member, who is a white woman, said, “I don’t get why this is a problem.” This wasn’t asked with malice, but genuine curiosity. That started a lively conversation about what is and what isn’t cultural appropriation. Is it the drunk, non-Asian guy wearing a “coolie” hat at the night market? Yes. What about the non-Asian little girl who wants to have a Mulan party? No. But why? As a group we discussed intentions as part of the criteria. Setting aside our understanding that impact is greater than intention, how could we even know what someone’s intentions are?
Am I guilty of cultural appropriation myself? I grew up in a neighborhood that is predominantly Latinx and worked in schools that are predominantly Latinx. From friends, neighbors, colleagues, students, I’ve learned a lot about different cultures of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Costa Rica and others. Through this community, I have developed a deep appreciation for so many aspects of these cultures. I have a huipile, a traditional Mexican dress, that I love because of the colors, the comfort, and the connection to many of the people I love. But I wonder, is it wrong for me as a non-Latinx person to wear this dress? I don’t know. I do know that I will continue to grapple with this question of appreciation versus appropriation and I hope I will always have a community willing to engage in this conversation with me.
P.S. The mahjong company apologized and changed their website. But if you ask me, it’s even worse–they reframed their story to focus on American Mahjong. Um, you know where American Mahjong comes from?