Saturday, December 28, 2013


The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation

September 30, 2013 | by Jarune Uwujaren

The Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation
Source: Elephant Journal

Cultural appropriation is a term that isn’t often heard in daily conversation, which means it’s inevitably misunderstood by those who feel attacked by feminists, sociologically-informed bloggers, and others who use the term.

Many a white person sporting dreadlocks or a bindi online has taken cultural appropriation to mean the policing of what white people can or can’t wear and enjoy.

Having considered their fashion choices a form of personal expression, some may feel unfairly targeted for simply dressing and acting in a way that feels comfortable for them.

The same can be said for those who find criticisms of the Harlem Shake meme and whatever it is Miley Cyrus did last month to be an obnoxious form of hipsterdom – just because something has origins in black culture, they say, doesn’t mean white artists can’t emulate and enjoy it.

And then there are people who believe that everything is cultural appropriation – from the passing around of gun powder to the worldwide popularity of tea.

They’re tired of certain forms of cultural appropriation – like models in Native American headdresses – being labeled as problematic while many of us are gorging on Chipotle burritos, doing yoga, and popping sushi into our mouths with chopsticks.

They have a point.

Where do we draw the line between “appropriate” forms of cultural exchange and more damaging patterns of cultural appropriation?

To be honest, I don’t know that there is a thin, straight line between them.

But even if the line between exchange and appropriation bends, twists, and loop-de-loops in ways it would take decades of academic thought to unpack, it has a definite starting point: Respect.

What Cultural Exchange Is Not

One of the reasons that cultural appropriation is a hard concept to grasp for so many is that Westerners are used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.

We tend to think of this as cultural exchange when really, it’s no more an exchange than pressuring your neighbors to adopt your ideals while stealing their family heirlooms.

True cultural exchange is not the process of “Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours” that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual.

Just because Indian Americans wear business suits doesn’t mean all Americans own bindis and saris. Just because some black Americans straighten their hair doesn’t mean all Americans own dreadlocks.

The fact is, Western culture invites and, at times, demands assimilation. Not every culture has chosen to open itself up to being adopted by outsiders in the same way.

And there’s good reason for that.

“Ethnic” clothes and hairstyles are still stigmatized as unprofessional, “cultural” foods are treated as exotic past times, and the vernacular of people of color is ridiculed and demeaned.

So there is an unequal exchange between Western culture – an all-consuming mishmash of over-simplified and sellable foreign influences with a dash each of Coke and Pepsi – and marginalized cultures.

People of all cultures wear business suits and collared shirts to survive. But when one is of the dominant culture, adopting the clothing, food, or slang of other cultures has nothing to do with survival.

So as free as people should be to wear whatever hair and clothing they enjoy, using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege.

Because for those of us who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave, and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is consistently treated as lesser than Standard English, but people whitewash black slang and use expressions they barely understand as punch lines, or to make themselves seem cool.

People shirk “ethnic” clothes in corporate culture, but wear bastardized versions of them on Halloween.

There is no exchange, understanding, or respect in such cases – only taking.

What Cultural Exchange Can Look Like

That doesn’t mean that cultural exchange never happens, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.

I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.

Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.

If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.

But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.

That’s what cultural exchange can look like – engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest, invitation only.

Don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t pretend to be a part of the household. Don’t make yourself out to be an honored guest whom the householders should be grateful to entertain and educate for hours on end.

Don’t ask a bunch of personal questions or make light of something that’s clearly a sore spot. Just act like any polite house guest would by being attentive and knowing your boundaries.

If, instead, you try to approach another culture as a mooch, busybody, or interloper, you will be shown the door. It’s that simple.

Well, maybe not as simple when you move beyond the metaphor and into the real world. If you’re from a so-called melting pot nation, you know what’s it’s like to be a perpetual couch surfer moving through the domains of many cultures.

Where Defining Cultural Appropriation Gets Messy

Is the Asian fusion takeout I order every week culturally appropriative? Even though I’m Black, is wearing dreadlocks appropriating forms of religious expression that really don’t belong to me?

Is meditating cultural appropriation? Is Western yoga appropriation? Is eating a burrito, cosplaying, being truly fascinated by another culture, decorating with Shoji screens, or wearing a headscarf cultural appropriation?

There are so many things that have been chopped up, recolored, and tossed together to make up Western culture that even when we know things are appropriative in some way, we find them hard to let go of.

And then there are the things that have been freely shared by other cultures – Buddhism for example – that have been both respected and bastardized at different turns in the process of exchange.

At times, well-meaning people who struggle with their own appropriative behavior turn to textbooks, online comment boards, Google, and Tumblr ask boxes in search of a clear cut answer to the question, “Is this [insert pop culture thing, hairstyle, tattoo, or personal behavior here] cultural appropriation?”

That’s a question we have to educate ourselves enough to, if not answer, think critically about.

We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.

So if you’re reading this and you’re tired of people giving white women wearing bindis crap for appropriating because “freedom of speech,” recognize that pointing out cultural appropriation is not personal.

This isn’t a matter of telling people what to wear. It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.

It’s also not a matter of ignoring “real” issues in favor of criticizing the missteps of a few hipsters, fashion magazines, or baseball teams.

Cultural appropriation is itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers.

Regardless, this is not an article asking you to over-analyze everything you do and wrack yourself with guilt.

Because honestly, no one cares about your guilt, no one cares about your hurt feelings, and no one cares about your clothes or hair when they’re pointing out cultural appropriation.

When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil.

It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures.

The intentions of the inadvertent appropriator are irrelevant in this context.

Therefore, what this article is asking you to do is educate yourself, listen, and be open to reexamining the symbols you use without thinking, the cultures you engage with without understanding, and the historical and social climate we all need to be seeing.

Want to discuss this further? Login to our online forum and start a post! If you’re not already registered as a forum user, please register first here.

Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Nigerian-American recent graduate who’s stumbling towards a career in writing, Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi

Friday, December 20, 2013


Thursday, December 12, 2013

hope her internet address comes through . we're still having computer issues . YOY.

First they came for the Roma: is history repeating itself for the forgotten victims of the Holocaust?

´Gypsy scum. Thieving tinkers. Workshy beggars. Child stealers´. A worrying program of ethnic cleansing is being carried out by governments across Europe. But while six centuries of negative stereotyping persists, who will defend Roma from further persecution?
Roma women and their babies are escorted from their camp by a policeman in France
Roma women and their babies are escorted from their camp by a policeman in France

In what looks increasingly like a pre-planned ´clean-up operation´, thousands of European Roma – usually referred to by the derogatory ´gypsies´- are being subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of the state, not to mention many vigilante mobs. But with so many deeply-entrenched negative feelings about this ethnic minority in the collective European mind, most people don´t care very much.

In Italy, violent evictions of Roma camps have been taking place since 2008, despite a ruling by Italy’s high court that these government crackdowns are unlawful. In France, Roma camp evictions began last year.70% of camps were razed in 2012, displacing over 12,000 Roma, and in one city locals took matters into their own hands and set fire to a settlement.

Thousands more Roma families have been displaced this year, and the trend looks set to continue- even French media are printing headlines about a ´Roma overdose´, and a facebook page called ´adopt a gypsy´ was at the center of another row about Roma rights in August, with one blogger speaking of ´eliminating´ the ethnic minority.
A Romany girl after a French camp eviction
A Romany girl after a French camp eviction

In October, French students took to the streets to demand the return of a 15 year-old Romany schoolgirl who was detained and deported during a school trip. Leonarda Dibrani, of Kosovan heritage, had been studying in France while her family awaited news of their asylum claim It was rejected, so police stormed Leonarda´s school bus on a field trip, forcibly removing and arresting her. The handling of the case caused unnecessary public humiliation and trauma for everyone involved – even Leonarda´s teachers were distressed and crying.

The incident, and subsequent violent clashes on the streets between police and students (video) came after one French politician said that most of France´s 20,000 Roma do not want to integrate, and should go home.
Students protest against Dibrani´s deportation
Students protest against deportation

But how can they integrate when they are hated- and where is home anyway? As Leonarda told a Kosovan news agency (in French) after deportation: “I’m frightened, I don’t speak Albanian. My life is in France. I don’t want to go to school here because I don’t speak any of the local languages.”

The European financial crisis has fuelled racism and given rise to neo-fascism across the continent, providing governments with a convenient reason (amid widespread public support) for the toughening-up of immigration laws. Roma are an easy first target: by many, they are feared (and therefore hated). As a result, too many people lack the empathy and understanding to recognize how unjust the current wave of anti-Roma policies really are- or to ask themselves why Roma are living in camps in the first place.

Comment threads on Roma-related articles show that most Europeans do not see any misplaced racism and prejudice. Non-Roma complain how ´gypsies´never work, how they are dirty and unhygienic, how their camps ruin the countryside and how their children never go to school. They complain that most Roma are drug dealers and pick-pockets without considering that with 90% of all Roma living below the poverty line, crime could be seen as a logical consequence of exclusion and desperation. Roma are also criticized for their tendency to live in very closed communities, their hostile attitudes towards the rest of society, and their unwillingness to integrate.

But Roma have been imprisoned, enslaved, murdered, and denied basic human rights for more than six centuries in Europe, so how can we expect them to show us any respect?
Roma are thought to descend from the Banjara people of Northern India
Roma are thought to descend from the Banjara people of Northern India

Historians believe this colorful tribe migrated slowly to Europe from Northern India, as refugees fleeing a Muslim invasion in the eleventh century. It is thought that the Roma might trace their ancestry back to the Banjara tribe of Rajasthan- a people known as ´The Gypsies of India´. Seeing their dark eyes and hair, native Europeans first assumed they were Egyptian and variations of this led to the word Gypsy. For 200 years they were reasonably well received, with a reputation for being highly skilled and very creative- traditionally many Roma were musicians, metalworkers and craftsmen.

But within a couple of centuries, laws were passed prohibiting marriage between Roma and non-Roma, and so began a horrific campaign of hatred against them which continues to this day. For 500 years Roma were sold into slavery, and in various countries Roma women were often forcibly sterilized (in the Czech republic this happened as recently as the 1970s). Millions of Roma were deported, their language and culture was criminalized, and they were hanged or otherwise executed in countries all over Europe, including the UK. Like the Jews, the Roma were implicated in Jesus´s crucifixion and accused of cannibalism. The myth that Roma like to kidnap white children began in the middle ages as a smear campaign and is perpetuated to this day through ongoing ignorance and segregation.

The Roma were also the forgotten victims of the Holocaust, with an estimated 500,000 gassed in Hitler´s concentration camps. Millions more were exiled, beaten and starved, with at least one case of a heavily pregnant Romany woman shot dead with her child still kicking inside her. At Buchenwald, 250 Roma children were used as guinea-pigs to test Zyklon-B. Historians estimate that two million Roma (between 25% and 70% of the entire population in Europe at that time) were murdered during World War 2.
The European Roma population was decimated during the Holocaust
The European Roma population was decimated during the Holocaust

Sometimes the darkest periods of human history serve as crucial lessons for future generations, helping us to build a more tolerant and progressive society. The horrific fate of Jews during the Holocaust is a case in point, and thankfully it is now impossible to imagine how widespread antisemitism could lead to the genocide of millions.

But for the Roma- whose Holocaust memorial was only opened in October this year- little has changed. And while the German chancellor Angela Merkel waxed lyrical about the horrors Roma had suffered at Hitler´s hands, local German governments were working hard to prevent Roma immigration and thousands of Roma children were being made homeless all over Europe. Not only that, but there were even some worrying cases of government-organized child abduction.

Child snatching by the state

A fair-haired little girl called Maria hit headlines around the globe when she was seized from another organized raid at a Roma camp in Greece, also in October. Her dark-skinned parents insisted they had adopted her- but with no papers to prove it, Maria was assumed to be a victim of kidnapping. She was removed from their care, and a worldwide hunt for her real parents was launched. Extensive media coverage of the event, in which Maria was dubbed ´the blonde angel´, exposed a deep and widespread mistrust, ignorance and stereotyping of Roma people across Europe- if not in the articles themselves, then certainly in the comment threads below.

But the Greek family were telling the truth- a Bulgarian Romany woman´s DNA tests proved that she was Maria´s biological mother. She explained how she had given her baby to the Greek couple because she was too poor to raise a child. Despite the fact nobody has any evidence to suggest little Maria wasn´t perfectly happy and settled before the raid, and despite the fact informal adoption is perfectly normal in Roma culture, Maria was never returned to the care of her adoptive parents. Instead she was taken- terrified and alone, only able to understand Roma- to a ´crisis centre´ to await adoption (with a white family, no doubt). Meanwhile, Maria´s adoptive Greek Roma parents have been charged with child abduction and are in prison awaiting their trial.
Maria, the ´blonde angel´taken from her adoptive Roma parents

In Ireland, also in October, ministers were embarrassed after ordering similar raids on Roma camps and seizing two blonde- haired children who they also assumed had been kidnapped. But in these cases, DNA tests showed the Roma parents were in fact biological. This led to a much-needed debate about blatant racism – would the same wild assumptions have been made if a dark-skinned child had been found living with a white family? Pavee Point, an advocacy group for Irish Roma, referred to the incidents as a clear case of ´state abduction´.

Whether we like to admit it or not, that´s exactly what they were. And other events (such as the attempted abduction of a blonde Romany boy in Serbia in 2002) add to the evidence that what we are witnessing now is simply an explosion of centuries-old, deep-seated collective racism and a sense of white superiority.

Roma children in schools for the mentally disabled

And so the prejudice continues, with the life expectancy of an average Romany 10 to 15 years lower than that of other Europeans. Eastern countries are traditionally home to most Roma communities, but discrimination there is even worse. In Serbia, city authorities have forced more than 1,000 Roma out of a settlement without giving a reason, moving many families into segregated metal containers scattered around the capital.

roma eastern eIn the Czech republic, 91% of citizens admitted to having negative feelings towards Roma. This widespread culture of discrimination could account for the fact that 75% of all Roma children there are sent to schools for children with learning difficulties. This problem- labelling Roma children as retarded simply because they speak another language and dress differently- is echoed throughout Eastern Europe, with Romania, the Czech republic, Hungary and Slovakia all accused of maltreatment of Roma children through both ethnic segregation (pupils are prevented from mixing with non-Roma children) and the tendency to give Roma children a sub-standard education in schools for the mentally impaired.

In Hungary, Roma families regularly suffer violence from vigilante mobs, but victims are unlikely to find sympathy from the Hungarian police because 54% of officers believe criminality to be a key part of Roma culture. This kind of institutional racism makes it acceptable for even politicians to make vile remarks. One mayor of a town in Slovakia reportedly said: “I am no racist … but some Gypsies you would have to shoot.”

Hatred of the other is born of fear and ignorance, and this kind of unhelpful comment is a huge barrier to mutual understanding and eventual integration. But while it´s true that many Roma don´t want to be part of our society, who can blame them considering the horrific things inflicted on them throughout their tragic history? Bearing that in mind, shouldn´t the responsibility to reach out and find common ground lie with the oppressor, not the oppressed?

gyps1So what´s the solution? Integration begins with acceptance, which over time can lead to eventual celebration of minority culture. Roma language could be taught in schools where Roma communities exist for example, in the same way Spanish taught in American schools can act as a bridge between Latino immigrants and the native population.

Spain´s mainstream Gitano culture: an example to the world

Spain is home to an estimated one million Roma, and is an excellent example of how integration is possible. In fact, the traditional image of Spain: soul stirring flamenco guitar, dark-skinned exotic dancers with long frilled skirts- is in reality Roma culture. Native Roma identify themselves as Gitanos (Spanish for gypsy, and not an offensive term in this case). Their native tongue is Spanish, and dating and marriage between Roma and non-Roma is perfectly normal. Nearly all Roma children in Spain finish primary school, and although in 1978 three-quarters of Spain’s Roma lived in substandard housing, today just 12% do.
In Spain, Roma culture is now mainstream, aiding integration and social acceptance. Credit:
In Spain, Roma culture is now mainstream, aiding integration and social acceptance. Credit:

Why? Because Gitano culture- largely through flamenco music- was accepted in mainstream Spanish society, to the point where Gitano culture became Spanish culture, particularly in Southern Spain (a region called Andalusia). In fact, celebrated Spanish (non-Roma) poet Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca once said: “The Roma is the most basic, most profound, the most aristocratic of my country, as representative of their way and whoever keeps the flame, blood, and the alphabet of the universal Andalusian truth.”

The unique situation in Spain should give us hope, not hatred. It demonstrates how acceptance and celebration of a different culture gives Roma pride and a sense of self-worth- resulting in high social achievement and natural inclusion.

Note: In this article I use Romany (singular) and Roma (plural), as these are the terms usually used to distinguish European Roma, but the terms Romanies or Romanis are also frequently used. This article was first published on True Activist here, with some comments kind of proving my point. If you want to comment here, please be thoughtful!