Earlier this morning, I came across an article written by Jarune Uwujaren that discusses the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. I have been following a lot of websites and blogs that have attacked those who misappropriate cultural/native/indigenous forms for quite some time. As someone who knows the histories of colonialism, missionization and imperialism upon ones country and cultural heritage, I clearly position myself on one side of the line. Western expansion from the 18-20th centuries has obviously effected cultural mixing, hybridity and certain appropriated traditions. To say that I only live, eat, speak, dress and think in a Filipino mindset wouldn’t be true. I was born and raised in the diaspora, was brought up monolingual, and thus have a very American upbringing. Sure. But I know that we all get a knee-jerk reaction when hipster kids don their Native American feather head dresses, or when you see a bindhis on the forehead of a really trashed, scantily clad somebody out at a club. “Do they know what they’re doing??” is really the only thing I can allow myself to think without getting infuriated.
Now sometimes even I get really insecure about my own interests. I respect all native/indigenous traditions, and I come from a place of understanding. I have dedicated the past almost 8 years of my life studying material/immaterial cultural heritage, and the majority of it hasn’t even encompassed my own heritage. And I’m not talking from just my interaction with books and scholars, but I have gotten to know artists who were integral in causing cultural awareness and social change, as pillars for a cultural renaissance and art activism for their communities. But just because I know it and understand it does not give me agency to adopt their materials, their designs, or don their ancestry by wearing their textiles. That would be in direct contradiction to what I stand for, not to mention complete disrespect. Just because I am in the know, does not make it okay.
But of course, there are those who have no clue. And sometimes this is completely innocent. And sometimes, they are brought up thinking that just because America is a huge melting pot (I like the word potluck) of cultures, food, expression, that all of these outwardly forms of self-representation is there for the taking. Personalizing one’s style and world view is or should be a good thing. But it’s really not that easy. When someone who has taken a visual design that is directly linked to the spirit of my ancestry, all I want to do is acquaint that person’s face with my vicious backhand. When something I consider sacred, that I would have to go through rite of passage for, that I have to gain the honor and respect first before gaining knowledge of its meaning, it is nothing short of blood boiling that someone thinks they can easily wear it around because it looks ‘cool.’ This is offensive, and I know we need to be patient with those who aren’t aware. As Uwujaren puts it,
“True cultural exchange is not the process of ‘Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours’ that we sometimes think it is. It’s something that should be mutual.”
Preach, sis, preach. The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is a fruitful intersection for dialogue.