Sunday, 22 October 2017

Cultural appropriation and the need for social justice.

I read a very interesting article on cultural appropriation the other day, by writer Andrea Smith.  Smith spoke to all those women who were once indians, or to New Age spiritualists, who were promoting indigenous values and possibly even using them to run businesses, without actually looking at the social injustices which still exist because of colonialism, and colonialist practices.

I love Andrea Smith's work.  Her article on 'the problem with privilege' (which can be found online) addresses the need to work for systemic change, rather than placing people on a new and uncomfortable hierarchy.  She speaks about how social injustice is about power imbalance, and focusing on individual privileges, and even on awareness of what privilege brings, is sometimes not enough if it doesn't mean working towards systemic justice.

Sytemic justice is the focus of all Andrea Smith's work.  She focuses on how the past has shaped the present, with all of the messiness and discomfort this brings.  And she tries to raise consciousness. In her work on cultural appropriation, Smith appeals to all feminists who 'used to be Indians' (or who Identify with Indian belief systems) and asks them to reflect on what it means to be a western woman first and foremost.

Much western history has a focus on land as sacred.  Pagan beliefs shape western history.  And in mythology, Prometheus shaped man out of mud, and Athena breathed life into this clay figure.  No wonder then that huma, or soil, and humanity, have the same routes.  Even science, the religion of the modern era, will share that the human body is simply a set of minerals.  We are earthly beings, and western history does contain stories or myths which acknowledge this. 

Within the western world, it is unclear why people separated off from nature.  Some writers look at how farming or agriculture separated people from land.  David Abram looks at how the printed word took the imagination away from place based knowledge and onto the page.  Some look at the spread of capitalism, or the colonialist scramble for new worlds, which caused displacement, and a loss of traditions. 

Andrea Smith argues that with western history rich with myth, there is no need to take on Native American customs such as sweat lodges or spiritual quests.  In fact, this might actually take away the opportunity for a Native American person to have either a business or a voice.  It might also misrepresent traditions, silencing them in the way that colonialist values once did.

However, if western women strongly identify with native values, then they might work towards upholding those values by working towards justice for Native American communities, looking at the past, the messes and the struggles, and finding a way to work towards a deeper sense of humanity. 

This working towards social justice is the opposite of cultural appropriation.  Although the images or practices of 'others' may be inspiring, and may even enrich our lives, Andrea Smith argues that there is no reason to leave it there.  A sweatlodge or ceremony is just an introduction.  Learning the value of alternate beliefs doesn't mean this is enough.  Instead, it is a stepping stone to truly valuing others.  Social justice is a response - able may of expressing this.

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