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The Road to Cultural Appropriation is Paved With Good Intentions.

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My first essay for 'Alphabet of Other', a collection of essays tackling the specific prejudices and unique experiences faced by people of colour from my experiences as a biracial, East Asian woman. It explores what it feels like to be a minority or biracial person who often ticks 'other' than black or white. 'Othering' is a term that not only refers to racism (but ofcourse includes it) but bias, xenophobia, stereotypes, micro-aggressions, propaganda and anything otherwise considered innocuous that is actually extremely harmful and just shy of full-blown hate. The difference with 'othering' is that, unlike racism, it is perpetuated by and between people of colour too.

'C' is For Cultural Appropriation

In 2007 Gwen Stefani dropped her solo album and blew the minds of teens and adults around the world. Her What You Waiting For single was an insightful song on the pressure of becoming a solo artist, of imposter syndrome, and of being a woman in an aesthetic and age-obsessed industry. Lines like ‘Your moment will run out 'cause of your sex chromosome. I know it's so messed up how our society all thinks‘ resonate now as much as it did back then, even if they went over our heads as tweens. Gwen teamed up with Akon in her next album The Sweet Escape and created the eponymous single that cemented her as a lyrical genius.

BEAR WITH ME. I’m getting to my point.

When you think of Gwen these might be the things that come to mind. That or: scantily-clad (for lack of less fun adjectives), giggling, school-uniformed, grown Japanese women being manipulated as puppets, dancing on ships and behind gold prison cell bars, being dressed up like dolls…Oef. If that imagery isn’t stressful enough, perhaps you remember Gwen’s Luxurious music video which featured her similarly ‘appreciating’ latino culture. Or in Hollaback Girl, ‘appreciating’ African American culture. For arguments’ sake I will stick to addressing her appreciation of Japanese culture (because I am of East Asian descent, and because she was particularly fond of it).

"Way too often stereotypical, harmful acts of appropriation are covered up with the innocuous excuse of ‘appreciation’"

In an interview Gwen was called out on her clear cultural appropriation throughout her career. Her response was a tepid, “We learn from each other, we share from each other, we grow from each other. And all these rules are just dividing us more and more”. She continued to tell Paper Magazine, “I think that we grew up in a time where we didn’t have so many rules. We didn’t have to follow a narrative that was being edited for us through social media, we just had so much more freedom.”

Gwen’s underwhelming response seemed to be enough for us to go back to what we were doing before, but it’s an incredibly problematic and common mentality. Way too often insensitive, stereotypical, harmful acts of appropriation are covered up with the innocuous excuse of ‘appreciation’. Gwen’s logic is that she had always been obsessed with Japanese culture, particularly the fashion of the Harajuku district where her backup dancers originated from. That’s why she continued to release a Harajuku Lovers perfume line and name her solo album in the honour of dancers Love, Angel, Music and Baby. With this in mind, many could argue that Gwen genuinely appreciated the culture. The problem with that claim is that it misses the basic definition of appreciation. That is two-faceted (according to the Oxford dictionary) as 1. recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something (synonyms include: respect and valuing) and 2. a full understanding of a situation (synonyms include awareness, acknowledgement and consciousness).

"No, Gwen is not the only one, or the last one"

For Gwen’s appreciation to qualify as that it would have to demonstrate an awareness and acknowledgement of how the singer unconsciously perpetuated racist and harmful stereotypes of the very Asian women and culture she aimed to respect and value. Her appreciation would include, in hindsight, research into what these stereotypes encourage in current society. A prime example of consequence would be the mass shooting of a massage parlour in Florida last year (2021) which sparked conversation on the sexualisation and dehumanization of asian women in western media. Something Gwen was undeniably part of. Yes, she put kawaii culture on the map. She also u-turned when the heat turned up and hasn’t since spoken up for Asian people at all in the wake of the shootings, or COVID-fuelled asian hate crimes.

In short: Appropriation happens when appreciation is limited to the profitability or relevancy of an aspect of culture.

Appropriation is defined as: from late Latin appropriatio(n- ), from appropriare ‘make one's own’.

It occurs when there is a clear lack of understanding of the culture behind the facet being exploited or used - whether it be a concept, a top with Japanese writing, an ancient practice, a name, a cuisine, etc. If the focus is only on that facet without any other knowledge of the culture at large, as well as engagement and acknowledgement of the issues faced by the ethnic people (aka the people who don’t get to opt out of it when it's inconvenient) it is appropriation. Especially when one is profiting from it, or holding harmful beliefs towards that culture simultaneously.

No, Gwen is not the only one, or the last one. In fact, unsurprisingly it's not even the last time. Her latest collab with Sean Paul features her wearing dreadlocks in their Light My Fire music video. *cringe* Examples of this in music are rampant, and not only amongst white female artists (we are still trying to erase Miley Cyrus' twerking days from our collective memories). Rapper Nicki Minaj, and her Chun-Li ‘persona’ as well as her samurai-inspired Your Love music video, is another example. Singer Rihanna teamed up with Chris Martin to create the incredibly tone deaf and confusingly multi cultural ‘Chinese’ themed music video for their Princess of China hit. Cultural appropriation is rife between cultures, people of colour and across industries.

The truth is: it can happen to anyone, especially those with good intentions. That’s why we need to talk about it.


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