While the impulse to defend minority cultures from theft and exploitation is a noble and important pursuit, compassion should never be made the justification of light thinking and heavy condemnation. The concept ‘cultural appropriation’ itself is a term so dependent on this impulse that it fails to have a coherent definition. This is evident from how it is employed, and how it is essentially different from similar but more important concepts.
First of all, it is clearly distinct from cultural theft, as this is the physical taking of an aspect of culture so as to leave the owners without it. This is most obvious in the rather more tangible field of archaeology. When Lord Elgin took carving tools to fracture and steal part of the Parthenon in Athens, he fragmented a cultural and aesthetic whole. What the British took, the Greeks no longer had. This is not the case with the use of a foreign culture’s ideas or identity.
Instead, people who use the term cultural appropriation are identifying something more akin to a fabrication or misrepresentation. However, appropriation is also distinct from cultural fabrication or misrepresentation, as well as cultural exploitation, sexualisation, or monetisation, as these can be done by members of the culture in question. Any member of a culture is able to disrespect their own society by any of the means stated above. Cultural appropriation’s only unique and distinct characteristic from these other terms is the identity of the perpetrator. It does not matter how accurately the culture was copied, or how good the intentions were – the real offence is to be of a different culture. It is impossible for someone from a society to appropriate their own culture, and therefore this offence is based not on an act, but on the identity of the individual.
In Canterbury, Tokyo Tea Rooms has been an easy target for this perceived offence. One critic justified their accusation with the fact that “a bunch of white girls” were being put in “yellow-face”, referring to the use of heavy white makeup in the style of the Japanese geisha. Such an evocation of “black-face” does injustice by analogy, as the use of heavy white makeup was not to represent the skin tone—or any other unalterable physical attribute— of a particular ethnic group, but a mimicking of the practice of wearing such makeup as done by the geisha themselves. Another complaint made by a Japanese alumni of UKC, Corine Shimazu, who stated that the club was “sexualising and fetishising our culture”. Leaving aside the necessary distinction between sexualisation and cultural appropriation, one must not neglect the historic role of geisha.
Geisha in their history were partly sexual figures. They were defined by some amalgamation of an education in “femininity”, entertainers directed towards an audience of men, and prostitutes. There is much to the character of the geisha, but one undeniable aspect originating out of Japanese history is the sexual. Tokyo Tea Rooms can hardly be guilty of sexualising the role of a geisha when it had already been sexualised throughout Japan’s own history.
Behind much of the cultural appropriation charges made are a guilty conscience. An inherent aspect of this is the identification of a power differential, normally from a colonial occupation. One critic of Tokyo Tea Rooms said “white people dress up as whoever they want to and get away with it. After colonisation, it’s just further insult.” Given that Japan was never colonised by any western power (unlike some other Asian countries whom the person may be confusing with Japan) it appears the more important phrase in the sentence is not “colonisation” but instead “white people”. Again cultural appropriation is not defined by the act but by the actor.
UKC’s Vice President of Welfare Omolade Adedepo commented on the club by saying it was an example of the “fetishization and mockery of Asian culture”. Mockery is an act with malicious intent. To deem the Tokyo Tea Rooms mockery is to attribute to the owner a malicious motive without inquiring at all into their intentions. Nor is mockery a necessary condition for the offence of cultural appropriation. Children who dress up as cultural figures that they celebrate or admire for Halloween are not malicious in their intent, but are still deemed guilty of cultural appropriation.
Therefore, it is not essential to the charge of cultural appropriation how accurate a cultural representation is; it is not necessary to hold a malicious intention; and it is not fundamental whether it is exploitative. All that there is left that can matter is the identity of the actor. To define an offence on the identity of the individual is to punish them based on uncontrollable aspects about themselves. Society is at its best when individuals are judged by their actions and content of their character. Leaving intact the separate and essential ideas of cultural theft, exploitation, essentialisation, sexualisation and misrepresentation, we can do away with cultural appropriation as a useless term.