Welcome to CLFA member Erin Lale with her timely guest post on the SJW nonsense known as “cultural appropriation.”
Cultural appropriation is back in the news again because it’s a perennial topic near Halloween. Facebook users have resurrected a story from 2015 about an art museum in Boston and have been circulating it as news.
The Museum of Fine Arts yielded to pressure from Asian-American activists over Kimono Wednesdays. The activists wanted the interactive exhibit shut down. The Museum compromised by making the exhibit non-interactive. This pleased no side of the controversy.
Let’s talk about cultural appropriation, what it is, what it isn’t, and who is doing what to whom. First, some background on this news.
The Washington Post reported on this as follows in August of 2015: “[T]he Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been dogged by charges of cultural insensitivity and racism for its “Kimono Wednesdays.” At the event, visitors were invited to try on a replica of the kimono worn by Claude Monet’s wife, Camille, in the painting “La Japonaise.” The historically accurate kimonos were made in Japan for this very purpose. Still, Asian American activists and their supporters besieged the exhibit with signs like “Try on the kimono: Learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” Others railed against “Yellow-Face @ the MFA” on Facebook. The museum eventually apologized and changed the program so that the kimonos were available for viewing only. Still, activists complained that the display invited a “creepy Orientalist gaze.”
“…It is also far from clear that the appropriation police speak for the people and communities whose cultural honor they claim to defend. The kimono protest, for instance, found little support from Japanese Americans living in the Boston area; indeed, many actively backed the museum’s exhibit, as did the Japanese consulate.”
So, in this case, people supporting kimono-wearing by Americans include:
1. A private company in Japan that makes kimonos in the traditional way. (Which needs buyers to buy its kimonos so the trade will not die out and the skills will continue to be passed on to new generations of Japanese.)
2. Japanese-Americans in the local community in which the kimono-wearing was taking place.
3. The government of Japan, as represented by its consulate.
The people against it were:
1. Asian-American activists. Note: NOT Japanese-American activists. The article currently circulating on Facebook does not say so, but other news articles made it clear the protesters were mostly white people and people who identified as Asian-American but not as Japanese.
Who, in this story, is doing the cultural appropriating?
Let’s make it simpler. Who is doing the appropriating?
That is, who is TAKING something from someone else? Appropriating means taking. Who is taking something away from someone else?
Is it not the activists who are taking something away from others? They are taking an experience from the community, taking support from the museum, taking customers from the kimono maker, and attempting to take the authority to speak for Japan away from the Japanese government.
And now let’s consider the cultural angle:
Do the activists in this case have a right to speak for Japan, when Japan has clearly spoken for itself? The activists, who are not Japanese, are speaking over the voices of actual Japanese people.
What connection do they claim to Japan, that gives them more right to speak for Japan than the government of Japan and the traditional kimono crafters? They claim no connection to Japan– they claim to speak for the Asian race. Their criticism of the exhibit does not speak of cultural connection, but speaks of skin color. Is it OK for members of a large nationality to speak over, drown out, and determine policy for a smaller nationality on the basis of race? Purely on the one man one vote principle, China would always win over Japan on every issue if issues were to be determined by majority rule. Is majority rule a good way to handle issues that effect a minority? Many of the protesters who were called “Asian-American protesters” in the currently circulating article were actually Caucasian. Do they have the right to speak for Japan?
This museum and its exhibit are located in the USA, where the majority population is Caucasian. Are the voices of minorities to be heeded, or only the majority? Are the rights of minorities to be respected, or is majority rule to be unconstrained? This small issue, a seemingly trifling story about an art museum, touches on larger issues which go to the heart of what we as a society want our laws and culture to be like. From the beginning, the USA has not been a pure democracy, but has enshrined certain civil rights in our laws precisely to protect minorities of various kinds—ethnic minorities, religious minorities, political minorities, all kinds of minorities—from having their rights taken from them by the will of the majority.
And finally, what exactly is being taken when we talk about cultural appropriation? Ultimately we’re talking about intellectual property rights. National and international laws recognize the intellectual property rights of individual creators and of corporations who employ individual creators, with rights defined in copyright law, trademark law, and patent law. By definition, the common heritage of a culture cannot be copyrighted, trademarked, or patented because it was created by people who are no longer alive. The idea of cultural appropriation is based on recognizing a moral basis for intellectual property rights that have no legal basis.
If we care about the intellectual property rights of Japan to the products of its culture, shouldn’t we listen to the voices of actual Japanese people?
Please visit Erin at her author page.