Cultural Appropriation at the 2015 Met Gala

Met Gala 2015 Redcarpet

Cultural appropriation, as defined by Richard Rogers (2006), is “the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture,” usually without their consent (p.474). For example, Caribbean voodoo dolls was used to tie people’s bodies and souls together. Read More »

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Blog Post #2: Cultural Appropriation and Zinour Fathoullin

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.

References

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

Oudshoorn, K. (2015). ‘Cultural appropriation:’ Inuit react to Calgary man’s drum dance. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/cultural-appropriation-inuit-react-to-calgary-man-s-drum-dance-1.3129515

Note: The video of their actual Olympic performance was unavailable. This is the same routine performed at a different competition.

Articles:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/21/AR2010022104563.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/iceskating/7044990/Australians-angry-over-Russian-ice-skaters-Aboriginal-routine.html

Part 1

Cultural appropriation occurs when members of one culture use the symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies of another culture, “regardless of intent, ethics, function, or outcome” (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476). When two or more cultures come in contact, Rogers believes cultural appropriation is “inescapable” (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476). Because of its immense prominence in society, it is necessary to be aware of cultural appropriation or better yet, understand its nuances and learn how to recognize it. Rogers’ essay provides a useful examination of the term, and how it should be understood in modern society.

In his essay, Rogers wishes to “(re) conceptualize” cultural appropriation, not only for purposes of his own critical analysis, but also to enhance “intercultural communication theory and pedagogy” (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476). To further break down the term, Rogers divides it into 4 distinct categories: exchange, dominance, exploitation, and transculturation (Rogers, 2006, pp. 476).

There is a difference between ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘culture exchange’. The former is the broader term used loosely by society to describe cultural incorporation; the latter is a specific category of culture appropriation that Rogers has invented to describe the kind of appropriation that occurs when two cultures of equal power come together and exchange their cultural artifacts.

Part 2

Washington Post article, “Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin aboriginal costumes are right to draw criticism” and Telegraph article, “Australians angry over Russian ice skaters’ Aboriginal routine”, both refer to the controversial costumes and choreography of a Russian ice dance team competing at the 2010 Olympics. The event represents cultural appropriation because it involves the use of a culture’s symbols (costumes) and rituals (dance choreography) by those of another culture. Using Rogers’ terms, many would argue that the Russian ice dance team’s performance was cultural exploitation, because a dominant culture was using the submissive culture’s traditional symbols and rituals for their own benefit – i.e. to attract attention and win favor from the judges.

The “Original Dance”, the 2nd of 3 judged events in the ice dance competition, is always given a theme for the year’s competitions. For the 2010 Olympic season, the International Skating Union decided that the theme would be “Country/Folk Dance”. In following of this theme, Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin selected an Australian aboriginal routine and performed it at the 2010 Olympics where it caught the attention of the press. Many considered their costumes and choreography offensive to the Australian aboriginal community. Aboriginal leaders, as the Washington Post reported, accused the Russians of “offensive cultural theft”. They criticized their costumes and called some of their steps unauthentic. (Hamilton, 2010).

Bonnie Malkin of the Telegraph, stated her opinion at the end of her article. She felt that the routine “[bared] little resemblance to a traditional Aboriginal ceremony”. “Domnina and Shabalin glide across the ice, waving their arms, jerking their bodies and stomping intermittently”, she describes (Malkin, 2010).

Despite earlier requests from Aboriginal leaders to change their original dance, Domnina and Shabalin retained they’re routine for the Olympics, arguing that they meant no disrespect by it, and did extensive research on aboriginal dance before choreographing it. Yet Hamilton argues, “When you’ve been told by the very people you’re allegedly trying to portray, even honor, that you are in fact offensive, it would be a good idea to listen” (Hamilton, 2010).

It is clear both journalists do not approve of the Russian ice dance team’s theme selection. As a former competitive figure skater, I can understand the position of Domnia and Shabalin. Although I competed in pairs, I am very familiar with the ice dance competition, its requirements, and how it is judged. In a very competitive field, Domnia and Shabalin needed to select a theme for their Original Dance that would help them stand out against their Russian teammates. The Australian aboriginal music and choreography inspired by traditional aboriginal dance, certainly made for a memorable performance.

From a spectator’s point of view however, I recognize what Hamilton and Malkin are suggesting. Both the costumes and choreography accentuate the stereotypical image/understanding of the aboriginal people, and therefore are inappropriate to present in front of an Olympic audience. The Olympics is a special opportunity for figure skaters because it is the one competition that is watched by not only skating fans, but also millions of other spectators – many of who are not familiar with the sport. For this reason, Domnia and Shabalin probably should have chosen a more recognizable, or commonly understood, folk dance for their Olympic Original Dance.

 

References:

Hamilton, T. (2010, February 22). Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin aboriginal costumes are right to draw criticism. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/21/AR2010022104563.html

Malkin, B. (2010, January 21). Australians angry over Russian ice skaters’ Aboriginal routine. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/iceskating/7044990/Australians-angry-over-Russian-ice-skaters-Aboriginal-routine.html

BLOG POST #2: Cultural Appropriation of Native American Headdresses

We live in a society where many think it may be trendy or hip to dress in so-called ‘exotic’ attires or change their hairstyle in order to look more like certain groups of people. This kind of behavior has been often reported in the news and has caused outrage among many, especially minorities, since they are often robbed from their cultural identity. Popular cases in the media include the occasion when Kylie Jenner posted a picture on Instagram of her wearing cornrow wig, causing a celebrity feud among her and Amandla Stenberg, and in general outrage about her act of cultural appropriation. But what exactly is cultural appropriation, and why is it that it can be so wrong and insulting?

According to Richard Rogers (2006), cultural appropriation is “the use of culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture” (p. 474), and it can be beneficial to society in some ways but extremely denigrating towards some groups in other ways. Rogers makes a distinction between what is cultural exchange and what are more negative types of cultural appropriation, such as cultural dominance and cultural exploitation. He describes cultural exchange as a “reciprocal exchange of symbols, artifacts, rituals, genres, and/or technologies between cultures with roughly equal levels of power” (p. 477); cultural exchange is an equal exchange between cultures, with no dominance or exploitation from neither part. This type of cultural exchange can be beneficial for both parties and is a natural part of our human nature. However, cultural dominance is a negative type of cultural appropriation, given that there is a dominant culture that imposes its culture among a subordinate culture (Rogers, 2006), thus replicating some sort of hierarchical dominance among cultures. A similar power-dominance situation happens in the case of cultural exploitation, where the dominant culture takes the culture of the subordinate culture without any type of permission or compensation for it (Rogers, 2006). Thus, while cultural exchange might be a positive type of cultural appropriation, the difference in power between different cultures makes cultural dominance and cultural exploitation a representation of inequality, abuse of power, and an imposing dominance from a particular group to another.

Native Americans are a minority group who has been constantly subject to the cultural exploitation from the dominant white American culture, reducing its culture to a series of artifacts that are nothing more than aesthetically pleasing. A popular Native American artifact that is often appropriated are their traditional headdresses. Not so recently, the subculture of white American hipsters started setting a trend of wearing Native American attire, as a signifier of hipness and coolness, a sensation that is mostly noticeable in music festivals such as Coachella. According to a blog post by Ruth Hopkins (n.d.), Coachella is now filled with white Americans who wear seemingly cheap headdresses as a fashion accessory, completely disregarding the sacred historical element that warbonnets actually have – traditionally worn by respected American Indians. The argument is not that it might or might not be done offensively, but that regardless of the intent, the commodification of such a traditional and sacred artifact is disrespectful to the culture, identity and heritage of Native Americans.

coachella

Furthermore, according to Adrienne Keene (2010), the cultural appropriation of headdresses promotes stereotypes, since it reduces the diversity of a culture into a single monolithic culture. Keene argues that wearing headdresses as a fashion statement is as bad as wearing blackface, because it is just as if you were playing Indian, something that just as the history of blackface is a symbol of racial denigration (2010).

The cultural appropriation of headdresses is a symbol of the continuing culture of power from the dominant culture that happened ever since the Native Americans were colonized (Keene, 2010). Given that this is still a minority, whose culture has less social power than the dominant white American, any cultural appropriation taken from them would be seen as Roger’s cultural exploitation (2006), and thus an abuse of power and a symbol of cultural inequality, that should be stopped.

References

Hopkins, R. (n.d.). WTF Coachella?! You’re a one stop cultural appropriation festival! Last real indians. Retrieved from http://lastrealindians.com/wtf-coachella-youre-a-one-stop-cultural-appropriation-festival-by-ruth-hopkins/.

Keene, A. (2010, April 27). But why can’t I wear a hipster headdress? Native appropriations. Retrieved from http://nativeappropriations.com/2010/04/but-why-cant-i-wear-a-hipster-headdress.html.

Rogers, R.A. (2006). A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation. Communication theory, 16, 474-503.

How Adorno & Horkheimer Might View Instagram

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Adorno and Horkheimer’s essay “The Culture Industry” (1993), discusses the culture industry as the convergence of industry and with the production of culture. They describe the “culture industry” as lacking authenticity and consumers as “cultural dupes” that blindly participate in the consumption of standardized products generated by the culture industry. They argue that in the culture industry “the notion of genuine style is seen to be the aesthetic equivalent of domination” (p. 37). Essentially, this symbolizes the fact that content and culture is driven by the masses and for the masses. As a result, there is a perception that one contains uniqueness, but in reality, this in actuality is a construction of “sameness.” This “sameness” creates the idea of a “pseudo individual” where a subject is no longer an individual; rather they are a product of what the culture industry has defined as acceptable and popular.

The growing popularity of Instagram as a social media platform provides an open space for the theory of culture as an industry. As a business supported by advertising, this platform provides the culture industry with the means of circulating content at excess. In essence, Instagram allows users to post images through a “filter,” which results in an altered and unauthentic photo, a theory these two theorists believe serves as a product of the “sameness” of the culture industry. They argue that the majority of artists are interchangeable due to the convergence of a standardized process. Through this type of a repetition of the “sameness” there is a lack of individuality due to the standardization of product. The ability to “like” on Instagram drives material and what is considered “normal” in society. People gain acceptance through their images. The drive to attract “followers” is such an act that fuels the systematic cycle of Instagram. Furthermore, businesses are able to advertise their products through Instagram manipulating culture into a business entity that continues the cycle of standardized products.

Individuals attempt to create a manufactured identity through Instagram and as Adorno and Horkheimer (1993) argue the culture industry as a whole “has molded men as a type unfailing reproduced in every product” (p. 35). Users appeal to the masses by presenting their lives in a way that mirrors what is demonstrated through television and film, and as a result, this cycle of standardization continues. The reality of social media is just that, it is a separate entity from our real lives. Adorno and Horkheimer would find that their past theories on culture and illusion would fit within the role Instagram plays in constructing a false reality.

We believe that the power of Instagram has a substantial influence on the way culture is constructed. Users try to present their best selves even if is it not their real self demonstrating that users are in fact “cultural dupes” attempting to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The artificial representation of reality continues to mold a lack of consciousness within society and it has increased the materialistic approach to culture.

References

Adorno, T., and Horkheimer, M. (1993). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In S. During (Ed.), The cultural studies reader (pp. 31-41). London: Rutledge.

What Benjamin Might Say About Youtube

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In Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production,” he raises two main points.  He starts by arguing that all works of art can be reproduced.  Benjamin goes on to say that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in its production in time and space” (p.29).  In other words, Benjamin is stating that reproduction of art causes the original work to lose its aura.

But a reproduction platform like Youtube is something that Benjamin could not foresee. In his time, films were made exclusively by large studios, but today, individuals have the technology to create videos of their own, outside corporate control.  By our estimation, Benjamin would agree that there are two fundamental types of videos on Youtube: Spontaneous (authentic) and Reproduced (inauthentic).  The first, spontaneous category would include things like: Video bloggers, candid events, on-site reporting, UFO sightings, and reaction videos.  For example, reaction videos filmed for the purpose of self-expression would be considered authentic, original works.  These “authentic” videos capture a specific moment or event that would not have been accessible to the public without YouTube.  The second, inauthentic category would include: Films uploaded to Youtube, clips of TV shows, and music videos – all examples of artistic works that have been previously exhibited in other forms.  That is to say, these “inauthentic” YouTube videos are not original creations, rather they are the type of mechanical reproduction Benjamin warns against.

Overall, Benjamin would likely have negative views on Youtube.

He would suggest that Youtube encourages the kind of capitalistic mechanical reproduction by his definition. While all videos are reproducible–and reproduced and consumed with views, Youtube further encourages reproducibility with view counts and thumbs-up systems. Also, according to his second major point, anything and everything that has been copied and uploaded to YouTube, even the original has depreciated in authenticity.  He also argues that stats like view count shrink auras.  We disagree. We think that in today’s time, the original still retains some authenticity because the content is unchanged and the quality of the original is still better. When you watch a reaction video on youtube, you’re still experiencing that same story, the same content. This is a form of reproduction that also qualifies as original content, something that Benjamin could not possibly have foreseen.

References

Benjamin, W. (1986). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In J. Handhart (Ed.), Video culture: A critical investigation (pp. 27-51). Rochester: Visual Workshop Press.

News Framing of Debates Over the Confederate Flag

The conflict around the confederate flag emerged shortly after the Charleston shooting on June 17th and has sparked national debate settled only after the removal of the flag from South Carolina Capitol House on July 10th. The news story involves the presence of the Confederate Flag and its relation within the recent Charleston shooting event. Many governmental officials and citizens felt that the Confederate Flag was outdated, and that it built onto the ongoing race problem in America. As a result, the South Carolina local government signed legislation removing the flag from the Statehouse. In response, major news outlets discussed this event’s implications and its role within a progressive era.

Major cable networks has given lots of attention to the story. Fox News has made extensive televised and written coverage of the story during its lifespan. Interestingly, while partisan tension pertaining removal of the flag has been heated, coverage from Fox News emphasizes one consistent theme—how does racism relate to confederate flag.  Both implicitly and explicitly, the network’s coverage points out that it does not. A news article calls removal of the flag “political correctness run amok.” Krauthammer goes further to comment on Fox’s news program that the removal of the flag is irrelevant to Charleston massacre, which would have happened anyway. In his opinion, removal of the flag is just the standard liberal impulse to do something when people don’t know what to do. The discussion further includes a quote from president Obama on racism, calling it something in the gene of Americans. Criticizing the quote, the anchors conclude that removal of the flag has little to do with deeper issue of racism, around which the event supposedly evolves. And it is apparent that other political sides of the issue has been omitted or downplayed in Fox’s discourse.

On MSNBC there are about 400 stories around the Confederate Flag. They frame the story as an issue of racism and thus a political issue – there’s a sensitive debate arguing about the removal from the statehouse grounds. They talk about rethinking the placement of Confederate symbols, and eliminating merchandise that relates to the symbol. They mention how the Republican Party has started, since the Charleston shooting, thinking about the possible racial implications that the Confederate flag and symbol might have, when before they didn’t see it even as something to be considered a problem. Videos in the news outlet website present ideas about a “backlash” that may be possible from taking the Confederate Flag down, how members of the KKK or other protestors might create revolt because of this. These protestors are used to frame the event as a racial issue.

Over on CNN, there are about 300 stories on the confederate flag after June 17th 2015, with at least 5 stories generated per day on the topic. Before that, stories on the confederate flag only occurred once or twice a month. Before the shooting of June 17th, stories that mentioned the confederate flag didn’t go into much detail about its racial significance, although sometimes briefly mentioned how for some it was racially divisive and for others a symbol of heritage.

After June 17th 2015, the flag is pointed as being a symbol of racial segregation. There are mention of stories about the history of the flag and its significance against racial diversity. There are statements in articles explicitly saying that the flag was designed for racism: “The White Man’s Flag” (http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1252204). There is a strong agreement to taking down the Confederate Flag. Overall, CNN frames the issue of the Confederate Flag as a strong racial issue that needs to be resolved, and should have been resolved long ago.

Our findings suggest that while all networks covered the story extensively, their different framing scheme results in representation of the story in quite different lights. Resorting more often to the people’s response, MSNBC did not make a clear stance. Trying to sever ideological issue of racism from the politics of confederate flag, Fox News disapproves of removal of the flag as a response to Charleston shooting. CNN expressly frames the shooting as a racist issue, thus taking a more leftist stance. Hence, audience who view these different discourses would conceivably form different views of the issue, as the facts and opinions presented vary greatly.