Thursday, December 12, 2013

Racism, Cultural Appropriation, and Poor Taste

Over the last few weeks, I've seen people crying "racism" and "cultural appropriation" incorrectly over certain fashion tempests. In most cases, these words were used incorrectly.

First, the use of another culture's clothing in fashion or entertainment is not necessarily racists, even if that clothing is used wrong or mushed together with another culture's clothing. What makes something racists? Racism is all about power. Racism pushes down one side. Racism is all about people being treated differently (better or worse) based on the color of their skin. So, blacks getting their own water fountains is racist, and so is whites getting their own water fountains. Better treatment due to race is racism just as mush as worse treatment.

In the case of fashion or entertainment, if there is no denigration, then I do not see their actions as racist. Does it get more complicated than that? Sure, of course it does. I'm not going to summarize racism perfectly in one paragraph.

Cultural appropriation is where you take something from another culture and make it your own. That is, you identify with the object or idea taken, and you make it part of yourself without the hard learning of actually acquiring the expertise of the foreign culture.

In the case of the entertainment and fashion industry, there was no attempt at saying, "we identify with this." Their only goal was to entertain us. If you dress up as Japanese and sing me a song, you are not saying, "I am Japanese," you are only dressing in the clothing. There is nothing special about the clothing. Anyone can order kimonos from the internet. You can even rent them.

In a second case, I saw a fashion designer put an Native American style headdress into a fashion show. Once again, there was no attempt to say, "This woman is an indian chief." If anything, the fashion show said, "This is beautiful and we want to show the world that this is beautiful."

Fortunately, there is a word that better describes what happened. That word is "poor taste" or "bad taste." They were in bad taste because ... some reason.

The Nutcracker has dancing ballerinas in Chinese costumes and this is in good taste. Meanwhile, a pop star has dancers in Chinese costumes and this is in bad taste because ... some reason.

The use of Native American headdresses in fashion is poor taste because those folks have had a really tough time for the last four hundred years, and for the most part they've lost control of their own symbols. We stay away from their most iconographic clothing as a matter of respect.

So, to summarize, racism separates, cultural appropriation self-identifies, and poor taste makes others unhappy. When it comes to fashion and entertainment, we usually see poor taste.