As technology makes it easier to communicate, so does being able to stay updated with distinct cultural elements. However, at the same time, our society runs the risk of abusing that luxury. While it is important to be culturally aware, it can also cause harm if that knowledge turns into cultural appropriation and the abuse of power.
Richard A. Rogers (2006) discusses the concept of cultural appropriation and its implications within cross-cultural relationships. He defines cultural appropriation as “the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture…” (Rogers, 2006, p. 474) In this way, cultural appropriation has played a powerful role in particular contexts within history as issues of race have developed through time. Rogers (2006) also discusses how cultural appropriation typically occurs when the dominant culture exploits aspects of an inferior culture for personal gains. Differently, cultural exchange, a type of cultural appropriation, occurs when two cultures mutually exchange aspects of their culture with one another, creating a balance of power (Rogers, 2006, p. 477). However, this idea of cultural exchange as a type of cultural appropriation still represents a potential spectrum of inequality and a continued cycle of racial profiling.
Within popular culture, there are continuously developing incidents of culture appropriation. Recently, in late June of 2015, a Calgary man, Zinour Fathoullin, sparked a debate at Aboriginal Awareness Week when he was filmed wearing Inuit sealskin clothing and demonstrating a distinct cultural Inuit dance. One local Canadian news station, CBC News, highlights this performance’s damaging implications on cultural appropriations. Kieran Oudshoorn (2015) of CBC News writes that this performance has been deemed as cultural appropriation as Fathoullin represents himself as an ambassador of the Inuit culture and inevitably takes aspects of their culture and recreates them for profitable exploitation. Oudshoorn includes the testimonies of native members of the Inuk culture and their reaction to the performance. One individual in particular, Arnaquq-Baril, an Inuk filmmaker in Iqaluit, finds personal harm with this performance, as he believes it symbolizes the Inuk culture as dying or irrelevant. However, in response, Fathoullin’s wife responded to the backlash “we never claim to be Inuit and never have.” This performance and the specific conversation surrounding its implications represent cultural appropriation as its shows a non-native, dominant white man, abusing elements of an inferior culture in order to network his own brand. Furthermore, Fathoullin does not understand the power of his actions and the harm that it creates, a typical element of cultural appropriation. Instead, he believes that his performance is appropriate since he defines his performance as a different modern interpretation.
Kerry McCluskey (1999), a reporter for Northern News Services, interviewed Fathoullin in his early years as a dance performer. McCluskey asks, “Are you Inuk?” and Fathoullin responds, “No, I’m a Native of Siberia, but people always think I’m an Inuk.” Even years prior to this specific performance, there were elements of cultural appropriation relevant, as Fathoullin considered his identity as a representation of the Inuk culture to be valid. In this case, Fathoullin backs up his performance and image as someone who is actively taking one’s own of another culture’s elements. He believes that his experience dancing with natives gives him authority and the right to construct a personal interpretation. However, at the same time, the preservation of these cultural practices is threatened and the value of the native elements is cultural degraded from Fathoullin’s representation.
It is vital that society recognizes when cultural appropriation occurs. Moreover, it is necessary to be aware of specific examples of culture appropriation in order to understand their impact on current social issues. There must be substantial communication in order to understand the cultural divide and hierarchy of power within our country. The inability to recognize cultural appropriation is a major concern to its continuous cycle, as individuals are unable to identify and understand the power of their actions. Fathoullin specifically represents himself as an aficionado of Inuik culture, but he fails to recognize his personal actions as a threat to the culture’s traditions. I believe that this cycle will continuously devalue cultural tradition, and that the beauty of its roots will be forgotten as the defined dominant culture continues to exploit the more marginalized cultures.
Richard A Rogers, “A Review and Reconceptualization of Cultural Appropriation,” Communication Theory 16 (2006): 474-503.
McCluskey, K. (1999). A morning with Zinour: The many projects of a Russian dancer and artist. Retrieved from http://www.nnsl.com/frames/newspapers/1999-02/feb22_99dance.html