Is this cultural appropriation?
August 1, 2019 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Having seen a recent ask on cultural appropriation, I'm now wondering whether some of the items decorating my home could be considered offensive?

The items I'm wondering about are:

1. A friend gave me a small bronze statue of a dancing Shiva and a djembe drum when he left the country. I am not Buddhist although my friend is, and I don't play the drums.
2. My sister collects kimonos and gave me one. She's never been to Japan.
3. I bought a silver mirror with fake jewels on it in a souk in Morocco.
4. I bought a painted paper mache plate at a craft market in Guatemala.

I have these various items displayed in my home. They are meaningful to me in that they remind me of loved ones or trips I took when I was younger. But now I wonder whether these items could be considered cultural appropriation. I'd hate to get rid of them but would do so if they are offensive. Please can I ask for your views?
posted by hazyjane to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I know this isn't always a perfect metric, but I would say that as long as none of the items are of sacred significance (and prescribed for very specific uses only) per their cultural origin, you're not being disrespectful by simply having them and enjoying them in your home.

E.g., it would definitely be Not Ok to wear a headdress of ceremonial feathers meant to be used only in specific activities of a particular Native American tribe, but buying and wearing a pair of moccasins made by Native craftspeople would be more than okay (especially as you would be supporting their work).
posted by aecorwin at 11:39 AM on August 1, 2019 [18 favorites]

Agreeing with aecorwin with regard to the sacred significance, but wanted to add that if you bought these things from the people that made them in that country it is not cultural appropriation. Those people made them for you to buy. You are supporting their trades with your purchase and I can't imagine people selling you things they don't want you to have.
posted by NoraCharles at 11:44 AM on August 1, 2019 [52 favorites]

NoraCharles' point notwithstanding, the "decorating your home with exotic ornaments collected on your travels" can definitely be problematic. Obviously theres a lot of room between "went one place, purchased handicrafts" and "live in a mock up of an anthropology museum"
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:46 AM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

Here are two articles that might be of use to you as you explore this issue (and particularly about kimono):

Learning and Unlearning: an interview with Emi Ito on cultural appropriation

posted by mcduff at 11:47 AM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

They are meaningful to me in that they remind me of loved ones or trips I took when I was younger.

Yes, this. As long as they have a meaningful story and call forth authentic experiences and special relationships, they are a part of your personal "culture." You are not using these objects as symbols to project an inauthentic self image, but as "sacramentals" to re-present the people, places, and experiences that contribute to who you are.
posted by cross_impact at 11:52 AM on August 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

[If you're not sure what cultural appropriation is, especially if you are a white person who has never had experience with your culture being appropriated, this is not a good thread for you to chime in on.]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 11:57 AM on August 1, 2019 [31 favorites]

I disagree that it can't be cultural appropriation if the items were bought in the country from the people that made them. Seems totally possible to pay a fair price directly to an artist for an item and then take it home and use it/wear it/display it in a way that other people consider to be cultural appropriation.
posted by soundscreen at 12:26 PM on August 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

"I bought it there so it can't be cultural appropriation" is not valid, or rather, it's way more complicated than that. What people in a country feels vs. what the diasporadic community where you live feels is different.

For example, people in Japan might think it's cute to have white people wear kimonos in Japan. However, East Asian people in predominantly white, western countries might probably consider it a form of appropriation and othering if white people wore kimonos around.

That is, cultural appropriation is a social and contextual one, so it depends on the social context.


A good rule of thumb, although not an airtight one, to tell if you're displaying these things because they're 'other':
How would you display something analogous from cultures you're more familiar with?

(I see you're in the UK, so these are tailored to your context):

For example
- You're not Christian, but your Christian friend gifted you a statue of the Virgin Mary, would you display it in your home?
- Your friend collects Texan cowboy hats and gave you one (she's never been to Texas)
- You bought a silver mirror with fake jewels on it in a market in NYC
- You bought a painted paper mache plate at a craft market in Dublin
posted by many more sunsets at 12:38 PM on August 1, 2019 [10 favorites]

My thoughts, a friend gifting you part of their religion or culture is not cultural appropriation. It's a connection to a culture, which is an important part of life, and no one is discouraging knowledge, respect and connection. When someone from a culture gifts you something, they are chosing to represent themselves in that object, that's why cultural items and cultural appropriation are such important topics to be treated with respect. They represent people.

Because of the above looking at your second example is most important. Your sister collecting Kimonos in and of itself is likely cultural appropriation , she's taking a ceremonial clothing of another culture and then gifting it as her own. It's just not. It doesn't represent her or personal experiences outside of that she has purposefully spent time in collecting this particular type of object. It could be any other object and still have the same meaning about her. She collects a thing. It reduces the culture to an action of the outsider, and not to the hundreds or thousands of interactions that the clothing should represent.

I'm White, have significant interest in Japanese culture, language ect. I am working on increasing my access to native material through language learning. But I don't own any kimono or other important objects. I have been gifted those items by well meaning white people because of my interest in that culture, but it is not an appropriate gift to give me. In some ways kimono are marketed towards forgieners, but there is an important part of that work lost when one is just provided the pieces of clothes. I don't have access to that meaning.

Now, of my Japanese professor gifted me a kimino, that would be a honor because she would be gifting an intimate part of herself and her experience to me by choice. I would keep that. But that hasn't happened. It likely won't happen because we don't have that kind of relationship.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:50 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

The kimono is problematic.

I aim to be conscious when I travel and support the genuinely local economy. That Moroccan mirror is not locally made nor is it a handmade artisan good but it supports the souk seller, and it supports the local wholesaler who sells to these vendors off the back of his literal donkey. I'm willing to hear about why that isn't a fair assessment to make, but in the current evolution of my position, I'm okay with those types of purchases. In general, I'd rather buy less but more costly stuff from for example, local artisan cooperatives or argan oil cooperatives, but either way, tourism and items made for tourists support local economies in travel destinations.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:51 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

You're not Christian, but your Christian friend gifted you a statue of the Virgin Mary, would you display it in your home?

Depends entirely on the relationship and the reason for the gift. If it serves as an icon that brings to mind a beloved friend and the circumstances under which the gift was given, absolutely.

I know cultural items have an original context that demand proper understanding, respect, and usage. But the act of making a loving gift of such an object creates another, more immediate context that should also be honored.

So, it's the thought that counts? Sort of, yes.
posted by cross_impact at 12:58 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I agree that the kimono is particularly problematic in these four scenarios.

When I was living in China, my best friend there was Indian. She had a good time playing dress-up-doll with me with her saris, and when I left the country, she gifted one to me. I don't wear it, because in this country, I'd be a white girl wearing a sari and that's a very glaring no, but the object itself is something that I keep (packed away) as a gift from a close friend. But if some white friend with no connection to India gave me a sari? That's weird.

As noted above, you can probably surmise that I also have a bunch of stuff from China. A lot of it are items given to me by my Chinese friends. I have calligraphy that is framed and displayed that was given to me by a friend and made by her boyfriend. I bought stuff from artisans in a few markets, and for the most part they are objects that are not of special cultural or religious significance, but useful things from every day life (that more often than not I bought because I needed to use them in my own every day life). A blanket, a teapot, a book. Not Hell Money or figurines of Chinese folk deities. And those items I still use now in the US as they were meant to be used. My teapot is still a teapot, because it's a teapot, for making tea. But, if you buy art from an artist, it's purpose is to be displayed as art, I guess.

You're not Christian, but your Christian friend gifted you a statue of the Virgin Mary, would you display it in your home?

I'm extremely not Christian (and never have been) but my MIL and SIL are both fairly religious. If they gave me something like that out of a desire for me to have something significant to them to remember them by, I would accept it in the spirit it was given and treat it appropriately.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:10 PM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

- Your friend collects Texan cowboy hats and gave you one (she's never been to Texas)

This is sort of the problem with reasoning about appropriation by analogy, in that it requires at least a certain knowledge about the cultures that may be lacking.

And, like, Japanese and Japanese diaspora people should correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that a key point in the argument that kimonos as appropriation is that many Westerners don't grasp the variation or particular significance of kimonos in Japanese culture. They get flattened out into "a piece of clothing with some cultural context" like cowboy hats, when there are many, many kinds of kimono with varying levels of formality and importance, but virtually all of which are now associated with Big Important Life Events, with the embroidery/fabric/cut all being freighted with meaning.

Some also point to how during WWII, some Japanese-American families burned their kimonos and family treasures in a (likely) futile effort to keep from being interned, and how the internment camp staff tried to prevent people from wearing their kimonos.

And that's setting aside the whole "made for tourists versus bought in a second-hand shop" and "Japanese versus disapora" fight.

So what I'm trying to say is that cultural appropriation is tricky, and displaying kimonos can be a particularly tricky and sensitive topic. Have you talked with your sister about the kimono, and tried to understand more about it? (Is it actually a kimono? What kind of kimono is it? Is it something she bought in a second-hand shop, or which was made for the tourist market? What is shown on it, and what do they symbolize? When would a kimono like this have been worn?). That way, you can make a more informed decision about whether to keep it up, and whether it crosses into appropriation.

And if you do decide to keep it up, you can talk about it, at least as an object, and it's a little less "using something meaningful from someone else's culture as pure decoration."
posted by joyceanmachine at 1:15 PM on August 1, 2019 [12 favorites]

This is sort of the problem with reasoning about appropriation by analogy, in that it requires at least a certain knowledge about the cultures that may be lacking.

Yes, thank you for your comment, joyceanmachine. I'm regretting the frame of my comment, because you're right, I can't use analogy; these things are historically contingent.

Depends entirely on the relationship and the reason for the gift. If it serves as an icon that brings to mind a beloved friend and the circumstances under which the gift was given, absolutely.

So, it's the thought that counts? Sort of, yes.

I don't disagree, but I think there's more.

I also think intention isn't everything. People might come in and assume that the white person with a Shiva statue has some cultural appropriation going on, even if the statue has intense personal significance.

Is that unfair? Maybe, but you have to understand that the assumption is grounded in real experience. I have seen way too many objects or words from my culture being displayed as "cool" or "exotic", especially when the owner had no real personal significance to that culture. This has probably happened at least a few thousand times over my lifetime, no joke (since I might casually see this once or twice a week). And yes, there are many times in which the owner had personal significance to the word or object, but it would probably be about 5% ~ 10% of the time (let's say, a few hundred times).

So, if for me, there's about a 90% to 95% chance that someone displaying your culture in their home is pure cultural appropriation. Consider that.

Now, I would love to be entirely charitable to everyone, and I try to. But I hope you understand that, with my historical context, the intention isn't everything.

For those who display something with good intentions: I hope that it makes complete sense to you that people would initially assume that it's cultural appropriation, whether it is or not.
posted by many more sunsets at 1:22 PM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

My comment was deleted in the other thread but from my understanding of it, as others have noted, is that it’s a neutral term that contextually becomes negative. A white person in America who isn’t Scandinavinan wearing a Thor hammer to a metal concert isn’t going to be as contextually problematic as a white person in America wearing a Navajo headdress at a concert and dancing around like an idiot. This is because the latter is fundamentally disrespectful due to the historical dominance and genocide of Native Americans by Europeans settlers. It’s just one more instance of domination. So if you’re donning a kimono everyday or you have a tattoo with some Kanji then it’s cultural appropriation but the level of how problematic it is greatly depends on the history between your culture and the culture your appropriating from. So while people in India can (and do) appropriate British culture it is way worse for a British person to walk around wearing a sari. In my opinion, if a friend from India gave you the sari then yeah it’s fine for you to have it but wearing it would still probably be problematic because the bond between you doesn’t eradicate colonialism and its impact on Indian culture.

I use Japanese stuff and I have a primarily Japanese diet but I wouldn’t wear a kimono or anything traditionally sacred as a white person in America . This contributes to the subtle yet undeniable eradication of said culture. Some people say this is just how globalization works BUT in the past many cultures uh didn’t have a choice to have their cultures whitewashed.
posted by Young Kullervo at 1:38 PM on August 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

I can only tell you what I did. When I was much younger, I bought a [sculpture that is not quite a religious icon but is definitely a sculpture of a religious figure] from an art dealer I knew who was of the culture and religion in question. I bought it because we were on friendly terms and because it was exceptionally beautiful. It isn't the type of statue which is required by tradition to be veiled/treated a very particular way/etc.

So anyway, I wouldn't buy such a thing now.

It's not the kind of thing you toss out or give to Goodwill (where it would very likely be treated as kitsch or possibly a picker would take it and sell it on eBay since it's a lovely thing), I don't know any practicing members of this faith and my only close friend from this region is an atheist with a complicated relationship to their family's culture. It's not something of the kind of artistic significance where giving it to a museum would be possible.

I keep it on a high shelf in my room with other small important objects. It's not from my faith tradition and I don't try to mock up some kind of cod-religious setting for it, but I treat it carefully as a serious object - it's not in a place where it will be handled by guests or get knocked on the ground or damaged by heat/light/damp. It's not in a place where I'm "showing it off" or making a statement with it. I know that (hopefully in the remote future) when I die, family members will either treat it with similar care or, if the circumstances ever arise, give it to an appropriate person.
posted by Frowner at 1:41 PM on August 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

White guy here, and I'm interested to read and reflect on the views of others on this issue.

My spouse and I travel with our son, and it's part of the trip for us to bring some something home. Part of the reason for this is as a reminder of the trip and memories. But we also want to be modelling respect and appreciation for other cultures. Bringing home a rug from Morocco, or a small sculpture from Puerto Rico, and displaying it in our home seems like a good way to do that. (But perhaps it isn't! Maybe we should stay in our lane.)

In discussions about film or literature, the idea of cultural appropriation seems to involve not only the use of a piece of non-white culture by white people, but also the exclusion or erasure of those non-white people from the story. Taking a story from another culture and setting it in New York with white actors is appropriation. How that relates to decor or objects in your home isn't straightforward, but Young Kullervo has some good thoughts above.
posted by thenormshow at 1:41 PM on August 1, 2019

A recently watched a video about attitudes towards foreigners wearing kimono. I suspect this is an area where typical attitudes of Japanese and Japanese-Americans may differ.
posted by serathen at 1:55 PM on August 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have a small "kimono" I inherited from my mother some time ago. I put the word "kimono" in quotes because I'm pretty sure it was made for the tourist market.

However, I don't have it because I believe it has any kind of authentic cultural significance. I have it because it's one of the handful of things that my mother received from my great-grandmother when she was just a girl, and my great-grandmother was going on all kinds of far-flung international travel and coming back with entire child's "traditional" outfits for my mother and my aunt. There's a picture of my other and my aunt as little girls in their matching tourist-market kimonos and each holding their own paper parasols and both of them grinning huge. And somehow my mother ended up with both her and my aunt's "Dutch girl" outfits from when great-grandma went to the Netherlands and I can remember hours of playing "House in Amsterdam" with a childhood friend with us each in one of the big starchy bonnets and we would squabble over whose turn it was to wear the sole pair of wooden shoes that my mother had. It wasn't until I was grown up that I did the math and realized that my great-grandmother was somehow doing global travel on this scale in the 50s, which cements for me that my Nana - who i only have very dim memories of - was a freakin' badass.

I say all this to say that if you have a story that specific and personal, you may be okay.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:07 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Shiva is Hindu fwiw

As a Buddhist I find it quaint when people have statues in their house; I figure it’s better to have a token Buddha there than none at all! I know they ultimately don’t know what it represents other than generic peacefulness. I don’t care for it much but I don’t feel disrespected. (But those ceramic child-like garden Buddhas are cheeseballs)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:41 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh it would bother me if someone was disrespectful to the statues, like using them as a spatula holder or something, and I might make mention of respect for the enlightened ones but ultimately not my house nor my karma.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:50 PM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

A relative has two very religious items from my faith that they keep as art pieces in their house, knowing that they are religious items for me. Every time I see the two art pieces, it's like seeing something deliberately pulled out of context to insult the faith because I know this relative is very, very aware of the faith context.

I have another relative who does the same with similar objects but treats them as both religious objects and art - this relative's collection and display is WAY less offensive. They're respectful to the pieces' cultural context.

You get expat homes where they decorate with Asian Things bought for the aesthetic, and then you get people's homes where they have things they've collected over living in lots of different countries and everything has a personal story and a context.

Are you wearing the kimono at home or out? Is it framed or hung as a beautiful textile? How you treat it and contextualise it, makes a big difference. Wearing a kimono in public is very different from hanging it as a beautiful textile treasure.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:51 PM on August 1, 2019

Depends how you use it. 1 and 2 are dicey, especially if your friend was not from either of the cultures of their gifts. It'd be weird if you displayed the statue prominently or wore the kimono but if they're just in your house in the "someone gave me this" box/corner I wouldn't be bothered.

Re: the differences in opinion between Asians and Asian-Americans on traditional costumes, as someone who's been both I've always taken it as a context thing. If you're wearing a traditional kimono in Kyoto, you're most likely supporting local artisans and in a context where kimono use is encouraged (the city of Kyoto has a kimono passport where you get discounts if wearing kimono, Seoul has a similar thing if you're wearing hanbok). If you're wearing it in Seattle, you're wearing it in a context where it could offend and upset people. Modern fashion from Asian designers riffing on their own culture (see: Shiatzy Chen, Mando shirts) depend on context but mostly fall in the "fine if you're not weird about it" category.

If it's not significant religiously or culturally and just a cool object you bought and liked... just don't be weird about it. There's a difference between using stuff to flex about how cultured/traveled you are or like, holding it up to your Mexican friend and saying "I got this from Mexico," significant glance and just having stuff because you saw it and liked it. I really don't like the idea that Western/white people's art should be universal and non-Western art is only for the "ooh, it's ~cultural~" value. The main thing is to not be fetishizing about it and to listen to people from that culture if they tell you're interacting with those objects in a weird, racist way.
posted by storytam at 5:58 PM on August 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Thanks all, I feel like I understand cultural appropriation a lot better now (though still very imperfectly). I'll put the kimono away but keep the rest out, although I'll be more sensitive to the issues surrounding Shiva.
posted by hazyjane at 9:23 PM on August 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Three (very) general guidelines I use are:

1. Who is making money off of this?
- for example I do not feel bad about the many West African print clothes I had made by local tailors in West Africa. I don't like to buy West African prints in the US until I know who is making the money off them and if the answer is "probably white people" then that's a definite "no".
2. Is this a religious or sacred object and am I allowed it and respecting it as such?
- In this instance they are not. They are everyday wear items.
3. What is the context of the item where it is being displayed?
- I am a white woman in America. I rarely wear the West African prints for a variety of reasons. One common print is the typical "dashiki" print seen in the USA as loose shirts. While it would have been very acceptable for me to wear this type of top in West Africa, there is a different context in the USA and so I don't wear them. I did have the fabric from the clothes made into a quilt for my bed which wraps me in the memories of the people and events associated with those fabrics.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:28 PM on August 2, 2019

I am a white American who works as a Spanish professor and when I travel I do buy items as teaching tools or authentic materials. I display them in my office. If I didn’t have an office I probably wouldn’t display these things (in fact, when I was between jobs I remember purchasing trinkets and thinking, “Boy, I hope I have an office next year to put this in.”

So I feel very strongly that cultural objects should be used as learning objects by those outside their cultures.
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:05 PM on August 2, 2019

« Older Is there such a thing as too much (LED) light in a...   |   Adult children at home without work or school Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments