Appropriation or appreciation? Why commodifying other cultures is problematic.
by Will Silcox, 2nd year anthropology undergraduate at the University of Exeter
While doing research for the Nomads: Homes on the Move exhibition, I found myself searching for a variety of tents, yurts, chooms, tipis and other structures on the internet. What struck me was how overpowering the literature was on search pages by companies selling nomadic structures. What surprised me further, was the quantity of these companies that were non-native (many I found were UK-based promoting ‘glamping’). Some of them act as a UK-based distributor of the products, and give credit to the cultures they are from, and only use native materials and labourers. Some companies do not mention where the materials are sourced from, while others even market their product as ‘locally sourced’ and thus more sustainable, despite the structures belonging to entirely different cultures. One theme these companies all share is the commodification of a cultural item for financial gain.
There is little agreement on whether the commodification of culture is positive or negative in an absolute sense. The topic is nuanced, covers a vast expanse of cultures, and the definition is loosely centred on using aspects of a culture for financial gain. The companies that sell cultural items, who acknowledge where their products come from, and who sell allegedly ‘authentic’ products made by the cultures themselves, are sometimes criticised for profiting from those cultures. However, they do appear to at least respect and gain consent from the culture they are profiting from.
When consent is not given, and where respect is not shown, problems develop. Appropriation is tied to the historic exploitation of a people by former colonial powers. The unequal power dynamics between conqueror and subject continues today in commerce by wealthy Western companies.
Native American professionals in the heritage industry often describe their work as “sharing culture” (Bunten, 2008). The heritage industry today can be an important way of sharing that, but by sharing their culture with others, there is the potential for Indigenous people to lose control of their culture and therefore, their identity. To avoid this, Indigenous tour guides created a “commodified persona” (Bunten, 2008) which gives them control over how their culture is presented to tourists. In theory at least, this allows their traditions to be shared without exploitation, or offensive stereotyping of Native American communities.
While Native American tour guides may have cultural authenticity in mind, a company marketing a tent from a minority culture may not, and instead focus more on financial returns. Just as a tour guide with a commodified persona has to ‘perform’ his culture in a way that is profitable, so too must other forms of culture commodification do the same.
Many do not view cultural commodiﬁcation as a positive. They argue that local culture is made inauthentic:
“altered, often destroyed by the treatment of it as a tourist attraction … it is made meaningless to the people who once believed in it”. (Greenwood, 1989:17)
Others claim that the tourist’s desire for authenticity is disrupted through the commercialisation and commodiﬁcation of culture (1973, 1976). On the other hand, some argue that the commodification of culture enables bearers to maintain a meaningful local or ethnic identity and thus preserve cultural traditions, which might otherwise perish (Cohen, 1988, p. 382). The commodification and appropriation of culture does not preserve the traditions and knowledge of a minority culture, it does not take into account the financial and emotional exploitation that individuals from these cultures continue to endure in order to preserve this knowledge. This is made worse by the fact that cultural appropriation is not always an accurate representation of another culture but:
“a tangled representation of political, economic, globalized, and cultural hegemony” (Cuthbert, 1998; Hladki, 1994; Hooks, 2006; Kulchyski, 1997 from HC Han, 2019, p. 12).
It becomes instead a stereotype. This means that because minority cultures get little or no say in how their culture is acquired, the dominant culture (e.g. Western commercial companies) essentially has free reign on how they want to present it which will alter and dilute its values.
The trouble with glamour
In the public eye recently, Gucci models on a photo shoot were wearing turban-like headwear. This ‘turban’ was sold through Nordstrom for $790 and was described as disrespectful mimicry (Conlon, 2019). The glamorous models were reportedly not practicing Sikhs, which caused an understandable backlash. What was particularly infuriating to some about this story was the fact that Gucci could have made just as much if not more money by simply including practicing Sikhs as models. This, many argued, made the whole situation unnecessary.
The trouble with sport
The logos, mascots and branding of certain sports teams have come under scrutiny in recent years. The Washington Redskins from the National Football League (NFL) has endured several campaigns to change the name of their team. The term ‘redskin’ was an offensive slang word used to describe Native Americans and First Nation Canadians in the 19th century, and continues to be problematic in the present day. In response to these campaigns, fans often cite a paper by Ives Goddard who stated that the term was a translation used by Native Americans and therefore benign in its original meaning. Despite this, Jacqueline Pata, executive director at the National Congress of American Indians, has publically said that the label ‘Washington Redskins’ is so resented they refuse to use it (GQ, 2019). In 2016, a hoax Native American twitter campaign to change the name to the ‘Washington Redhawks’ came to no nothing but highlighted a need.
Since 1915, the Cleveland Indians baseball team have used an offensive caricature of Chief Wahoo as their logo, which has unmistakeable similarities with the anti-black caricatures of the 19th and early 20th century. Quite unbelievably, this logo, which presents Chief Wahoo as a grinning, red faced caricature of a Native American, was only removed earlier this year when Major League Baseball insisted that it be removed. There was upset from this decision from the fans which shows the extent of this issue. While I understand the focus of the fans’ upset may have been more about the longstanding tradition and personal identity of the logo rather than anything else, it reveals the lack of education and understanding amongst fans as to why this caricature might be offensive.
Exeter Rugby Club was rebranded as Exeter Chiefs in 1999 shortly after the team turned professional.
While their logo portrays a more reserved masculine character than that of the Cleveland Indians, it is a still a Native American stereotype of a fierce red blooded warrior commonly depicted in Hollywood Westerns. And which tribe is being represented here? There are still question marks over the use of their mascot, the way the fans whoop and their general dubious affiliation with Native American culture. An online poll by the Express & Echo in 2016, asked:
“Should the Exeter Chiefs drop their ‘Red Indian’ imagery?”
The responses included 14% of respondents voting ‘Yes’, while the vast majority of the nearly 600 respondents deemed the club’s imagery as:
“a fuss about nothing”.
This poll is discussed here.
As the link between the Exeter Chiefs and Native American communities is neither longstanding nor authentic, this poll result is concerning. Again, rather than simple prejudice or racism, I think the overarching issue at play here is a lack of education and the lack of opportunity for Native American communities to help educate fans. In Britain, school students do not learn much about Empire, and how colonialism deeply traumatised the many Indigenous subjects – this includes Native Americans in Canada, for example. These untold histories are finally coming to light in the UK.
An initial step is to create a dialogue between the fans of the sports teams and appropriate representatives from the minority communities themselves. If Indigenous peoples can explain why they are offended by such imagery, then a richer understanding of the culture can be gained, far more than any chanting or dressing up might achieve.
It is important for Indigenous peoples who have survived the trauma of colonialism and continued exploitation, to have their voices heard in our society. This issue is about removing old fashioned racist ideologies that persist in the modern world. It has never been easier to communicate views on a global platform which is all the more reason to actively gain consent, and respect minority cultures via groups such as National Congress of American Indians.
Cultural appropriation and the commodification of culture are still issues that need addressing in a local and global context. This is why British museums are attempting to decolonise themselves. This isn’t political correctness gone mad but a necessary act of addressing a major injustice.
There are some positives to the commodification of culture when it allows Indigenous peoples to construct and present their own culture, and which helps to preserve their traditions (we’re familiar with foreign food, for example, or how to wear a Japanese kimono). However, there are at this point in time at least, overwhelming negatives. A free for all of exploitation, coupled with a belittling perspective of other peoples. Culturally appropriating an aspect of culture and then selling it commercially without consent and without paying people is both offensive and damaging. The West is always interested in taking the ideas of non-Western peoples but they’re not interested in the people themselves.
Power, permission, respect and acknowledgement are all key factors. Minority cultures should not be taboo or hidden away, but instead should be understood and celebrated.
Bunten, A.C., 2008. Sharing culture or selling out? Developing the commodified persona in the heritage industry. American Ethnologist, 35(3), pp.380-395.
Cohen, Erik 1988 Authenticity and Commoditization in Tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 15(3):371-386
Conlon, Scarlett, 2019. “Sikhs call headpiece sold by Gucci disrespectful mimicry” – https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2019/may/17/sikhs-call-headpiece-sold-by-gucci-disrespectful-mimicry
Cuthbert, D. (1998). Beg, borrow or steal: The politics of cultural appropriation. Postcolonial Studies: Culture, Politics, Economy, 1(2), 257–262.
Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United States (FAO), 2017 – (http://www.fao.org/home/en/)
Foer, Jonathan Safran (2009). “Eating Animals”, Page 136. Little, Brown and Company, USA. ISBN 978-0-316-06990-8
GQ Magazine, 2019 – https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/the-trouble-with-cultural-appropriation
Greenwood, Davydd: 1989 Culture by the Pound: An Anthropological Perspective on Tourism and Cultural Commodiﬁcation. In Hosts and Guests. Valene Smith, ed. Pp. 171–186. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Han, H.C., 2019. Moving From Cultural Appropriation to Cultural Appreciation. Art Education, 72(2), pp.8-13.
Hladki, J. (1994). Problematizing the issue of cultural appropriation. Alternate Routes: A Journal of Critical Social Research, 11, 95–119.
Hooks, B. (2006). Black looks: Race and representation. Ventura, CA: Academic Internet.
Kulchyski, P. (1997). From appropriation to subversion: Aboriginal cultural production in the age of postmodernism. American Indian Quarterly, 21(4), 605–620.
MacCannel, Dean: 1973 Staged Authenticity: On Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings. American Journal of Sociology 79(3):589–603. 1976 The Tourist: A New Theory of t he Leisure Class. New York: Schocken.