Zombie culture

March 3, 2017

   Following Vogue's release of the first installment of its diversity-themed March issue, supermodel Karlie Kloss apologized on Twitter for agreeing to a photoshoot in which she was styled as a Japanese geisha. She is garbed in a traditional patterned robe and black wig, posing alongside a sumo wrestler. The photographs are fabulous. The 24-yeard-old American-Danish-German model probably thought so too until she was bullied on social media for allegedly being "racially insensitive." 

 

   "Cultural appropriation!" the critics howled.

 

   Kloss, of course, wasn?t the first celebrity to have been accused of this supposed cultural crime. Madonna was bashed for using Latin America as a backdrop in a music video. Gwen Stefani faced criticism for her fixation on Harajuku culture from Japan. One of the Kardashians was lambasted for wearing a do-rag. The list goes on. The social media is unrelenting.

 

   I may be no fan of these celebs, but I have low tolerance for trolls contriving cultural postures to euphemize their disdain for the celebrities' ostentatious behavior. Can't we just call it what it is?

 

   But the power of "trending" is like a virus that zombifies our culture and intellect. The ones who don't think critically get infected easily.

 

   The charge of cultural appropriation gets jumbled up with "racism," and celebrities are not only the target of denouncing stones. It creeps into the education system and becomes institutionalized ideas. Last year, several American universities banned cowboy and Indian costumes --- and other "racially insensitive" and offensive Halloween costumes. What qualifies as insensitive and offensive depends on the whim of the culture police. Pocahontas, offensive; sexy French maid, not; dreadlocks, offensive; gypsy, not.

 

   In 2012, a Portland school banned the mention of "peanut butter and jelly sandwich," which the school's principal categorized as "an example of a subtle form of racism." Hence the unmentionable popular item in the students' lunch bags has lost its name. The reason, according to the school principal, is that Latinos don't eat the unmentionable; they only eat tacos and torta. Click the laughing emoji.

 

   Eventually this monster of censorship and complex sentiments has been legitimized into academic and legal discourses. Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University and author of "Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Culture," defines "cultural appropriation" as, "Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc."

 

   This definition would qualify --- and condemn --- a lot of well-meaning people as "cultural appropriators," including linguists who speak different languages, fusion chefs who take pride in their culinary innovations, God-seekers who explore different religions and Western hippies who promote natural methods of healing.

   

   Who hatched up "cultural appropriation?" When did it start sneaking into our vocabulary? I certainly never heard of this phrase when I was studying sociology in graduate school.

 

   In grade school, I always looked forward to Oct. 24, the United Nations Day, when every class was assigned to wear the costume of a certain country as a way to celebrate all cultures of the world. I was an Indian, an Indonesian, a French, an Irish, a Polish and Hungarian. At cultural events in school, I was an Igorot, a Manobo, an Aeta, a Muslim ? dressed in costumes worn by these Philippine tribal minorities. Part of wearing the costume was learning about the culture.

 

   When did cultural celebration become theft? What is the point of cultural exchange programs nowadays?

 

   In an addendum to her definition of "cultural appropriation," Scafidi said, "It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects."

 

   Why is cultural appreciation "harmful?" Determining harmful intention requires us to look inside someone's mind and assesses the motivation. But we can always rely on zealots to plant malice in the mind of the innocent and distort their view of the world.

 

   Hashtag: cultural regression.

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