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?
There is SO VERY MUCH to this. And I can’t help but think that a lot of these dynamics are connected to POWER and BELONGING. I also can’t help but think that it’s messy and unclear – but that’s precisely the reason why we need to be talking more about it. Dress? Food? Cultural traditions? On one hand, we can’t have a diverse culture without mixing things together. But there’s (as you say it), an “I know it when I see it” quality that has to do with power and dominant culture, with watering-down or erasure. As for me, I can only hope to keep learning…
Your post made me think a lot. I agree with Lainie in that we do need to talk about it. Conversations help unwrap someone’s intentions, but good conversations are hard to hold, and a lot can still be hidden if both parties do not seek first to understand. I love how you included all of those resources in the piece i.e., the two videos and NPR link. I also have a new appreciation for No Doubt.
What a thought-provoking post. I am impressed with your book club, actually wrestling with the question of appreciation versus appropriation. I appreciate your honesty and frankness, especially “This has been a challenging question for me for so long. I still don’t have a clear idea.” – I struggle with this discernment. Thank you for this post!
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this! I’ve wondered a lot about this. Recently, my mother-in-law gave my daughter a dream catcher that she’s held on to since she herself was a teenager. My mother-in-law is not indigenous/Native, but the dream catcher is old and very beautiful. I think she got it on a trip to Arizona to visit her grandmother, who lived there for many years in the 60’s and 70’s. It hung in my mother-in-law’s bedroom as a kid and clearly means a lot to her, and I just don’t have the heart to toss it out. But I also feel uncomfortable putting it on display.
We all make little decisions like this every day, and maybe the best we can hope for is to simply keep learning, do the best we can, and make a change when we learn more?
Thank you for writing this. I also have trouble distinguishing the two and I think you made a dent in my understanding(s). I think the Mulan birthday party is an excellent example. I’ll keep thinking about this post, thanks for saying it “out loud.” 🙂
You make a excellent point. There is a fine line here as you say. It is hard to know what one’s intention is even if they tell you. As so many others have said, learning is the key. Having conversations need to be ongoing.
So much to think about! I heard about the mahjong thing on Twitter awhile ago and it seemed so obvious, and yet there are so many examples, like your dress, that seem a lot more unclear when it’s something that you love, enjoy, and may have a personal connection to you. Like what if one of those white people had fond memories of playing mahjong with a beloved Chinese neighbor? I get how it gets harder to decide when it’s you, and easier to judge from the outside. So many of us are trying to do better, and that’s important (and also still not enough). Thank you for sharing your thinking!
Another instance of me standing back, watching, learning, and hoping that I can do better. This post, the responses, all of this is really making me think about the things I do and the experiences I’ve had.
Thank you for this thoughtful post.
I appreciate the openness you always express in your comments, Darin.