decolonization / kuttura

Cultural appropriation

. . . at the same time as the white settlers were “indigenising themselves” by dressing up and playing native, they/we were also engaged in comprehensive programmes to strip cultural difference from indigenous peoples themselves — to make them effectively into people who might have a different skin colour but were otherwise “just like us” in terms of culture, values, way of life and so on.

One of the most insidious aspects of this was the privatisation of Maori land, making it available for sale to settlers and forcing Maori to leave the land and become wage labourers. Maori children have also, for generations, been educated in English rather than their own language, with all the impacts of cultural transmission that goes with that.

The massive success of these assimilation programmes is evident in the struggle for survival of te reo Maori and other indigenous languages, to point to one obvious element of the attrition of indigenous cultures and ways of being.

So cultural appropriation, from an indigenous perspective, continues both these colonising acts – in the act of adorning and enriching the white culture it strips away the meaning and place of the artefact or practice for the indigenous people it belongs to. Which means it’s not just a bit of fun and decoration.

Dr Avril Bell, University of Auckland

What is cultural respect?  Let’s say, as a white expatriate in a Pacific island, how does one show respect for the culture(s) encountered there?

I don’t know if I have all the answers.  I’ve been grateful to have had discussions with colleagues, friends, and my partner on the topic.

It’s difficult, because of historic intersectional oppression.  If I don’t fit the mold of the apolitical (or racist!) white professor, my students — some of them, at least — seem to be confused and even displeased.  If I don’t fit the mold of some apolitical blonde tourist or military spouse . . . (Fortunately I get hit on less in public by men I don’t know, however, and I no longer have to worry about my dark roots irrepressibly declaring the truth of their existence, so it’s a little hard to miss the monthly dyeing rituals).

I’m a woman.  I understand sexism.  I learned standpoint theory.  I’ve lived enough to know not to stereotype people.  I am grateful for male allies, but I’m also wary because many men haven’t examined their privilege in society and are very harsh toward feminists.

AND!  Many women haven’t examined their own internalized oppression and are very harsh toward feminists as well.  Many women attack and degrade other women.  Gotgot . . . dinagi . . . achakma’ . . . Women betray themselves every day.

So I feel like I understand . . . insofar as anyone can understand another . . . what it’s like to both see the value of allies and be resistant to accepting them.

I work with people who ask me to.  I focus on my family here and my community here — the relationships I naturally have or that naturally come.  I help out in the ways that I’m asked to (as I’m able).

I believe respectful cultural interaction and exchange is possible, even in our racist society.

I definitely feel like I’m walking on eggshells at times.  Is it appropriate or appropriation for me to learn and use the Chamorro language? to co-author an article on Chamorro legends? to wear traditional jewelry from my partner and give him alahas? to teach about Pacific literature in my Introduction to Literature class? to fund and work in a project collecting Fino’ Chamoru oral narratives from Chamorro elders? to date a Chamorro person? to study WW2 lives on Guam as a scholar?

And then you think to yourself . . . Is that how all those white men excused dominating the field of Chamorro studies themselves for all that time, to the exclusion of Pacific voices?  Destiny’s Landfall again and again . . .

All of this has to be set in the proper historical (and continuing) context of white settler appropriation of authority and culture to the exclusion of indigenous Pacific Islanders.  Acknowledgement of empire, acknowledgement of history.  I’ve wanted to be involved with my Chamorro colleagues’ projects to support them and prevent the domination of Eurocentric visions . . . but to what extent does someone like me get involved?

For the most part, I’ve left that up to being a mutual decision with emphasis on indigenous agency (i.e., not me!).  If a Chamorro colleague asks to work with me on a project, we probably do collaborate; if not, we definitely don’t . . . I’m grateful to have been included in several projects.

It’s such a bizarre balancing act because some of my (white, male) colleagues seem to be very persuasively pressuring our students to be apolitical and erase their Pacific identities in their work . . . to be as Americanized and homogenized as possible.  Our lit-major graduates (and our creative-writing students!) may not recognize the name of Peter Onedera, but hey!  At least they know whatever white man, dead or alive!

What are these so-compelling narratives of American homogeneity?  Today, it’s the Kardashian complex: consumerism, classism, materialism (honestly, the minute I see someone with a “Louis Vuitton” bag . . . ), gossip, cliques, self-involvement.  Procrustean Barbie bed.  Obsession with body size, dieting, medication, self-mutilation.  Two sides of the same coin.  American diseases of depression and anxiety.  This emphasis on the individual.  This clanging concern over who one is dating or who broke up with one or who’s cheating and running around . . . This Azealia Banks amazing inability to apologize or even acknowledge wrongdoing.

This is what is sold to us.  Especially class status.  I’m reflecting on that now . . . how often the privileges of higher class were almost invisible to those of us in struggling families.  Now, with reality TV, you can glimpse the almost unimaginable worlds that richer people inhabit.  The stability of those couches and coaches.  There is no ideal, there is no authentic activist or revolutionary, there is no icon — only the movement — yes — but.  Camel, eye of a needle.  I do believe that.  I have indescribable contempt for anyone who hoards wealth in this world.  If you’ve never known what it’s like to be without healthcare or money to buy food, take several seats . . .

It’s not about individual truth: it has to be about structural realities.  Empire, indigeneity, dispossession, solidarity (as possible?), structural oppression and domination and privilege.

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