Cultural Appropriation

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I’ve been trying to understand “cultural appropriation.”  I’m not saying it doesn’t happen or that it’s not a problem.  I’m simply admitting I don’t really understand it yet.

There was a high-school girl in Utah, it seems, who wanted to go to her prom in something pretty, but not slutty, which often seems to be the fashion, not only with prom dresses but also with the clothing at many “high society” functions among the rich.  As it happened, she stumbled upon a lovely Chinese dress at her local mall, and although I am no judge of such things, personally I thought she looked lovely.

But the picture of her in that dress went viral on the Internet, passed around by people angry at her “cultural appropriation.”  “My culture is not your prom dress,” wrote one angry respondent, a comment whose syntax I still haven’t been able to sort out, since it seems to me, logically speaking, a dress is not a “culture” anyway.

So there must be something problematic here because several thousand people sent messages to this young woman excoriating her for her “cultural appropriation.”  (And I used to think women were just being paranoid when they worried what other women would think about what they were wearing.)

Thankfully, several hundred thousand more, including women from China, wrote to tell her she looked lovely and this was a great dress to wear.  Given the number of responses, this young woman might at least be forgiven for not knowing where the line is that she, supposedly, crossed.

One wise thing Thomas Aquinas says about law is that it needs to be promulgated, if you want people to follow it.  A rule that nobody knows is not really a rule.  Unless, of course, it’s one of those “rules” the cool kids know that, when you violate it, results in haughty contempt being heaped upon your head like hot, burning coals.

Not being a cool kid myself, I rarely know their rules, but I am trying to make a good faith effort, although it’s not always easy. Since thousands of Chinese women supported the young woman from Utah, I’m not sure whether it really was the crime of “cultural appropriation” or not.

Another problem is that I study the great medieval theologians such as Aquinas. Thomas “appropriated” material from ancient Greeks and Romans such as Aristotle and Cicero; from early Greek and Latin fathers of the Church, such as Irenaeus, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and John Damascene; from Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides; from Muslim Arabic thinkers such as Averroes and Avicenna, not to mention being an Italian who entered the order started by the Spaniard Dominic Guzman, studied with the German Albertus Magnus and finished his studies at the University of Paris.

If appropriating riches from other culture is a crime, Thomas Aquinas was monumentally guilty.

But he’s not the only one.  Thomas was especially impressed by St. Paul, who may well have grown up speaking Aramaic, like Christ, but whose training as a Jewish Pharisee would have caused him to read ancient texts in Hebrew.  But he was also a citizen of Rome, which is why he was sent to be tried there, so he likely knew Latin.  And yet all of his letters were composed in Greek. He traveled through Greek cities in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) preaching first to Jews, then to Gentiles, then traveled to classical Greek cities such as Thessalonica, Corinth and Athens, where he disputed with Greek philosophers, and wrote one of his most famous letters to the Jews in Rome.  Talk about cultural appropriation!

The thing is, I always thought this sort of multi-culturalism was supposed to be a good thing; one of the things, in fact, that made them such fertile thinkers and writers. They were able to draw from many different cultures.  In fact, I thought one of the things that made America great was that we had drawn together so many different cultures.

You go to France, and you eat French food.  You go to Spain and eat Spanish food.  What is American food?  Tex-Mex. French fries.  Hamburgers (named after the German city of Hamburg). Sushi.  Pizza. Gyros.  Hummus. Tabouli.  Dutch apple pie.  German chocolate cake.  (Now I’m getting hungry.)  Czech beer. Belgian beer.  Mexican beer.  German beer. Japanese beer.  You get the idea.

By the way, who appropriated beer from whom?  Could we even figure this out?  And if we found out everyone else culturally appropriated beer from the Chinese, would we insist that the Belgians, Mexicans, and superb micro-breweries in Michigan stop making it?  I don’t know. But then again, I guess I just don’t understand cultural appropriation.

So I asked a friend who is much more sensitive about such matters to give me an example of cultural appropriation so I too could be appropriately sensitive.  She thought for a moment and said, “Well, here’s one: people dressing up in green and getting falling down drunk on St. Patrick’s Day.”  “That is a saint’s day,” she said sternly.  “And the Irish are not all drunks.  It’s disrespectful!”

“And how about Mardi Gras – people deciding to get drunk on our religious holiday!  And then there are the people who dress up as slutty nuns to go to Halloween parties, or rock stars like Madonna wearing a crucifix with some sleazy outfit.  The Met Gala with all the slutty clothes based on papal vestments.  Justin Trudeau dressing up in “authentic” dress in India that nobody wears anymore. Growing up rich and still claiming to be part of a victimized group.  These people are appropriating cultural symbols in ways which are disrespectful of their history and origins.”

“Maybe so,” I said, “but plenty of people, including lots of liberals, find the things you just mentioned totally acceptable and do them all the time.”

Exactly,” she said.

“Well, okay, I guess.”  But I’m still confused. Would it be “cultural appropriation” if I, an outsider, took on someone else’s idea of cultural appropriation?

*Image: Utah teen Keziah Daum in the offending dress [Memory Tech Photography]

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

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