Contemplating Cultural Appropriation

Many of us, as much as we hate to admit it, are not exactly sure what cultural appropriation means.  Had it come up in a conversation, we might have made a mental note to “google it” later.  Its most basic definition?  The unacknowledged and/or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another (typically more dominant) people or society.

When members of a dominant culture appropriate from a disadvantaged minority culture, controversy sometimes ensues (as it did when Katy Perry performed at the 2013 American Music Awards dressed up as a geisha).  Cultural appropriation manifests in numerous ways here in the U.S., from movies to fashion to holiday traditions, and often appears to be rooted in a lack of awareness.

It shows up repeatedly in our movies in the form of whitewashing: white Hollywood actors playing characters of another ethnicity.  Johnny Depp as a Native American in the Lone Ranger, Robert Downey Jr. as a black man in Tropic Thunder, Jack Black as a Hispanic in Nacho Libre; the list goes on and on, dating back to 1961’s The Outsider, wherein Tony Curtis was cast as Native American.

Most of us don’t live with a direct connection to the past suffering of an oppressed people.  If we did, Disney would probably not have gone anywhere near Pocahontas.  (She was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman, and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at age 21 – Disney might as well have romanticized the Trail of Tears, or Anne Frank’s diary.)  To quote James Allen in The Atlantic: “the Disney movie itself might have been okay, I guess, and the commenters saying it was made with good intentions may be correct. But the actual story of Pocahontas was grim and brutal. Turning a story like that into something fluffy and empowering is just uncomfortable.”

We have desensitized ourselves with our own media and entertainment industry, and we stand ready to consume whatever it puts in front of us, even allowing it to “educate” us.  Imagine if Disney made a movie about Anne Frank and gave it a happy ending.  Now imagine the movie becoming mainstream German culture’s most widely-known reference for the Holocaust!  Talk about creating a subculture of misinformation and going down the rabbit-hole of how insidious our consumerism has the potential to become (a subject for another article, perhaps).

Hollywood seems to possess a severe shortage of ethics, and so its power is often poorly wielded; somewhere beneath its downy-comforter top layer is a bottom sheet that hasn’t been washed in several decades, where the industry goes to bed with U.S. politics (i.e. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Trump.  Creepy, isn’t it?  Makes me want to move to Canada.)

Hollywood also serves up a double-standard with whitewashing: it claims to honor the culture even as it misrepresents it, perpetuating racial stereotypes and adding to the problem of trying to think for one’s self.  Though general awareness seems to be gradually increasing in the U.S. (I am bereft of any concrete facts to support this statement – it’s merely a feeling), we largely seem to remain surprisingly undisturbed by victimization stories.

Another example of cultural appropriation can be found in our Halloween costume choices.  People dress up as racial stereotypes without even realizing it.  Mothers dress up their daughters as Pocahontas, trivializing violent historical oppression without even being aware that they are doing so.  People often think they’re showing love or appreciation of a culture, but they’re actually stoking the fire of oppression.  This is usually unintentional, not done out of prejudice.  (You go to the Halloween party thinking your costume is awesome, you know?)

It’s not about saying you’re a bad person if you unintentionally participate in appropriation, it’s about cultivating an awareness of whether or not you might be engaging in something that perpetuates oppression and racial stereotypes.  It’s about making a psychological paradigm shift, undergoing a transformation of consciousness, thinking outside the box of your cultural myths.

“It goes deeper than what you’re dressed like,” says Henu Josephine Tarrant of the Hopi tribe in an interview with NPR.  “When you really look at it and you really study these tropes and stereotypes and what they mean and how they affect us as Native people, you know they’re all rooted in a historically violent past.”

In so many examples of cultural appropriation, what usually seems to bubble to the surface is either a lack of awareness or a desire for entertainment, not outright prejudice or intended disrespect.  Truly a “gray area” in every sense, this topic’s complexities and controversies are dictated by people’s preferences and value systems.  What is deeply offensive to one person is “just having a little fun” to someone else.  It’s personal.  Who’s to say where a line should be drawn between cultural sensitivity and freedom of expression?

One can’t help but wonder when our schools will designate it as required curriculum.  You’d sure think it would be, here in America, where multi-ethnic groups of people coexist in virtually every corner.

 

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

                                                               Nelson Mandela

 

  1. Huffington Post, 2014, Whitewashing Was One of Hollywood’s Worst Habits, So Why is it Still Happening?, Amanda Scherker.
  2. The Atlantic, 2015, Does Disney’s Pocahontas Do More Harm Than Good?, Chris Bodenner.
  3. NPR, npr.org, 2019, Cultural Appropriation: A Perennial Issue on Halloween, Leila Fadel.

 

A Tribute to the Ashokan Farewell

Of a Particular Piece of North American Music

                      (Ashokan Farewell, Jay Ungar, 1982)

Listen to the Ashokan Farewell

 

Its first       utterances     stir me,

open, display, flatten      me,

as if            I were a ship’s mast.

Then           the others

begin their phrasing,    accompaniment,

expanding            the single voice

into       a conversation.

It’s as if a beating heart

found                   lungs, blood,

and I am a rocky bluff,

a green field strewn with stone,

a wooden fence along a dirt road

graced by a spray of tiny flowers.

Then, the swell          of repetition,

the deliberate climb

to            the overlook

high        on a mountainside,

and my soul is laid bare,

and I am gone

as gone could ever be,

riding the wind.

Solid gone.

C.M. Rivers

Bobcats and Big Sur

Reckoning appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Stonecoast Review (University of Southern Maine).  This poem came about as an amalgam of a few different things that came together in my mind to create a snapshot of a character.

The first was from a visit to Yosemite National Park, when three friends and I were walking near the village and saw a bobcat.  This wasn’t a “sighting”, it was realizing a bobcat stood six feet away.  It behaved just as I’ve described it in the poem, having almost no reaction to its close proximity with us, affording us a great close-up look before it walked away.

The second came out of camping in Big Sur and experiencing the infamous stretch of highway there.  This combined with my affection for big moustaches, heroes and villains both fictional and real, pirates, desperados, bikers, hippies, unknown legends and lovers who sweep through town with a devil-may-care attitude.  This combined even further with a contemplation of the connection that exists between the Big Sur/Monterey area, American literature (Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Robert Louis Stevenson), poetry (Robinson Jeffers) and the Beats (Kerouac).

The final image in the poem is “the temple of well-fed lions”.  It’s become a recurring phrase in my poetry; I’ve used it three or four times, and now it threatens over-use, so I should probably leave it alone for a good long while.  It came about one morning after a solid night of sound sleep, when I felt so deeply rested I thought about how lions look, lazing about after a feast and sleeping away the majority of the hours in a 24-hour time cycle.  That same morning I happened to be looking at Maxfield Parrish’s “Daybreak”, and the temple image merged with the sleeping lion image in a moment of inspiration.

Reckoning

Picking my way along a path

passing through mountains,

I suddenly came upon a bobcat.

It yawned, barely acknowledged me,

sauntered past, six feet away.

As I watched it evaporate into the forest,

moving as if to say the world is mine,

I was struck by an overwhelming desire

to grow a hedgerow moustache,

covering the expanse of my upper lip

like Mark Twain, Sam Elliot,

or a rugged musclebound hippie biker

who wears a rolled-up yoga mat

slung across his back

where you’d think

a double-barreled shotgun would be,

hugging the curves

of Highway One through Big Sur

on his sweet, sweet chopper,

all at once a sage, recluse,

iconoclast, beatnik, mountain man,

swashbuckling heart-throb

and unknown legend,

inviting you to join him

at the temple of well-fed lions

in order to empty your spleen

of accumulated dreams.

C.M. Rivers

Fritter in the Bookshop

Just because we’re sentimental about a household object that used to belong to a grandparent, doesn’t mean the dog won’t eat it while left at home alone all day.  To him, a coaster with the Notre-Dame cathedral painted on it is – while not the preferred afternoon snack – quite suitable to chew on.

“To think of all the grand plans you once had”, he says, smiling up at me one day as we walked through the park, with an expression indicating that he is at once a wise sage and a mischevious trickster.  “You were trying to be more than you are.” 

He’s right of course.  I am only a wanderer, like the kind you see sketched on a Chinese scroll, small and off to one side.  I am the reader in a chair, in the corner of the bookshop with tea and an apple fritter.

There’s just something about a hot cup of tea and a warm apple fritter, when you’re perched on the shore of the Milky Way, fiddling with the margins that exist only in your mind.

 

 

Discovering The Healing Power Of Yoga

Here’s a link to my recent article on Sivana East, for anyone interested:

How yoga helped a chef heal his body and change his mind

 

Winter Light

In whirlwind of winter night,

a heart keeps warm and glowing bright.

Who holds this light, I ask of you?

That traveled on and greater grew,

in amber-white and silver-blue?

I ask of you: who holds this light,

in whirlwind of frosty night,

however dim, however bright.

Who holds this light, nobody knows…

only that it stronger grows.

Yet weak or strong, the smallest flame

can light the darkness just the same.

 

What the Seagull Said

You think you had a bad day? the seagull said.  Try walking a mile on these feet with an injured wing.

While you get to have a sandwich and busy yourself with your life of a million unimportant things, I have to stand in the wind and watch the coastline, listening to the endless silence of my own hunger.  All I know is survival, how to stand guard against death, and capture what small pleasures I can, when I can.

The poets can make their lofty comparisons all day long, but we are not the same.