Balancing cultural appropriation with good business
The fine line between a fashion statement and political correctness
The Hong Kong International Literary Festival kicks off this Friday, and among the events is a dinner with the US novelist Lionel Shriver.
Interestingly, Shriver just spoke at a similar festival in Australia, and was afterward rebuked, with the festival organisers scrubbing links to her speech from their website.
The reason? Shriver, a white woman, defiantly wore a Mexican-style sombrero and delivered a scathing attack on the concept of “cultural appropriation”.
In case that’s a new one on you, the expression typically means members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups, often with little sensitivity of the latter’s history and and traditions.
In Hong Kong, however, Shriver’s talk sold out very quickly. Is this because people in this city are not aware that writer is an offender of modern sensibilities, or do they just not care?
Shriver has long been defending writers against charges of literary cultural appropriation, that’s when authors write in the voices of other cultures (or genders, economic classes, etc).
There are also commercial aspects to cultural appropriation. And China, it seems, is a top offender. The country regularly manufactures items – from sombreros to non-politically correct Halloween costumes to ethnic designs – that critics say insults and/or appropriates the intellectual property of other cultures.
Yet China is clearly not the only maker of sombreros. I lived one wonderful year in Mexico City, and near my flat was a thriving crafts market often patronised by American tourists eager to bring back gifts, clothing and, of course, the ubiquitous sombrero. What would be the business impact if these naifs became too culturally sensitive to buy such gear?
Then there was the case of actress Vanessa Hudgens being Twitter-shamed for the trifling offence of wearing a feather earring of Native American design to a music festival. It’s true this was cheeky of her, as the year before she had donned a full feather headdress, sending the PC police into paroxysms of rage. But even an earring is shame worthy? This would not seem to have great implications for purveyors of such goods.
Against this backdrop, and in self-righteous huff, last week I fired off emails to Native American purveyors of crafted goods, in the hope of finding a victim, some starving artist whose livelihood had been stamped out by, you know – overeducated, oversensitive, social justice warrior types.
Soon, a rather chastening email response pinged into my inbox.
“We do not call ourselves Native American,” Winona from the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Nation explained. “Because we are in Canada.” Oops.
Winona, a proprietor at Sa-Cinn Native Enterprises on Vancouver Island, is in fact quite inflamed about cultural appropriation, and had sharp words for this part of the world.
“Here in Canada our ancient designs are being mass produced in China,” she wrote. “I ask always, ‘How did we get here?’ That a totally different ethnic group is producing our ancient designs, that belonged to different house of different chiefs.
Well, okay, fair enough. Still, it seems clear that this cultural appropriation business can get out of hand – one loony university in Canada even banned sushi and yoga classes from the campus, because this supposedly “appropriates” from the cultures of Japan and South Asia.
And another correspondent, Ken Maracle of the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, about 100km from Toronto, sort of backs me up on this, with his rather balanced, common sense view on the matter.
“In my opinion, lots of people go too far when anything is “Native” made. Not everything is sacred. It is fine to wear jewellery. Why not?” wrote Maracle, a craft artist and Iroquois faith-keeper.
But it is not fine, he said, for woman to wear a headdress as a fashion concept, because “only men wear headdresses and only in the longhouse” (so much for gender fluidity in these parts).
He added that the snapping turtle rattle is also sacred and made for ceremonies and should not be sold or used in other capacities.
“If the item is not sacred then it is for everyone. If sacred, then no. Don’t make a mockery of it and make yourself look really dumb by wearing or using sacred items.”
As to Shriver, it doesn’t seem she is making a mockery of Mexicans with her sombrero stunt, but rather of political correctness run amuck. I hope Hong Kong welcomes Shriver if she dons her sombrero this week – just check for a “made in China” tag first.
Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong based financial writer