Focusing on the differences between the topical cultural appropriation and the almost unheard of concept of acculturation towards refining definition and differentiation, what is immediately striking to me is that on the one hand cultural appropriators take pieces of another culture out of context and sometimes without credit or respectful reference to the culture in question and apply the appealing aspects to their own cultural context or exploit them commercially for their own personal gain, without having a true connection with the culture which originated them. On the other hand, acculturation is, in my experience, an immersion in a culture over several years and an acceptance and adoption of its traditions, customs, social norms, music, language, cuisine and arts and crafts. It may also involve the export or import of cultural artefacts into another culture or even a mixing of aspects with other cultural traditions, but always with a clear reference to the originating cultures and underlying love relationship and inseverable bond with the cultures represented.
By – Julia Aaisha
I came across the term ‘acculturation’ while studying for my Masters in Psychology of Music and thought its definition fitted my own experience of becoming part of a culture other than my culture of origin while living and working in Palestine for nearly 4 years. This process had been primed over the previous decade by living and traveling in Egypt and Morocco 10 and 5 years preciously. These countries do not have much in common with Palestine culturally, being on a different continent, apart from language, being majority Muslim with significant Jewish and Christian minorities, a history of colonial rule and of course the traditional Bedouin culture. Nevertheless, having lived with a Muslim family in rural Egypt, aged 21 and travelled over the Atlas mountains from Ouarzazat to Marakech half a decade later and prayed in a mosque for the first time, these were foundations on which my reacculturation as a Palestinian were built. This included learning the language and local dialects, learning to read and write all over again aged 30, social etiquette, learning to cook, embracing Islam, Friday prayers in Al Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem and finally getting married in my Jesus year (age 33).
My first encounter with the term ‘cultural appropriation’ was in a less academic or positive context as it was being wielded as a somewhat clumsy and inappropriate weapon in criticism of people who had clearly been through their own unique but similarly intense, comprehensive, long term process as my own. This and other shocking realisations about people’s perceptions, opinions and outright judgments and the reality that I had rendered myself an foreigner in both my home village as well as my work communities, prompted me to think about these concepts over the past few years. I felt I needed to put pen to paper and, for my part, attempt to set the record straight, clarify any confusion and deepen understanding of these complex issues for myself and hopefully others.
There are many examples of both acculturation and cultural appropriate in so called ‘World Music’ – a Eurocentric label applied equally to music which is a mixture of intercultural styles and that belonging to very specific geographical areas – as well the international food culture of a multicultural city like London. There are also examples of both in other cultural industries, not least the fashion industry, in which major designers have used items which recognisably belong to other cultures without referencing or representing them. Recent examples include Gucci’s models wearing Sikh style turbans, Victoria’s Secret ‘angels’ wearing Native American style feather headdresses, Topshop’s Palestinian keffieh print ‘playsuit’ and Zara selling a Pakistani traditional longi or dhoti at a premium.
Quite apart from these commercial exploitations, which are correctly labelled as cultural appropriation, how individuals choose to dress is often where we run into difficulties of definition and the term cultural appropriation seems to be flung around far too liberally. For example, if someone chooses to wear an outfit or an item of clothing recognisably associated with a particular culture or nation, while their appearance and/or apparent ethnicity seems incongruent with those of that culture, assumptions are often made automatically that the person has no direct or familial connection with that culture and that they are therefore appropriating an aspect thereof. People might even take offence and express disproval, without knowing anything about the person towards whom they are directing it.
Gone are the days when it was possible to know much about someone based on their physical appearance, especially in a multicultural context, but these reactions are hardwired into the psyche and there is often an unfortunate tendency to judge first and ask questions later, or not at all as the case may be. We may feel justified in communicating or reacting, even if it upsets the other person, without knowing the often quite fascinating story behind the individual’s choice of attire, thereby missing an opportunity to learn, as well as doing potential harm to a complete stranger for no reason. I believe that there are no chance meetings and that there is a reason for every encounter, however brief or seemingly superficial or insignificant. That everyone we meet, or even just see in passing, has some kind of subtle message, gift or lesson for us, as do we for them.
Now whether or not you subscribe to this belief, it is worth noting that without knowledge of someone’s actual individual background, there is very low probability of accurate judgment and that any instant, automatic, uniformed judgment based on appearance is discrimination, regardless of the ethnic, cultural or educational background of the subject or object or that judgment and that even just a thought or a look can potentially cause harm. More demonstrative reactions can, of course, do severe harm and in our current climate carry consequences. The government’s recent campaign to discourage discriminatory behaviours, labelling them potential hate crime and opening channels for reporting instances where such prejudices have caused harm is an encouraging sign that we are beginning to take responsibility. The campaign is surely a result of years of lobbying and campaigning by organisations such as Faith Matters and Tell Mama which, through their hard work, education and information, communication with MPs and Lords and has gone national. This may not completely prevent such incidents but will at least encourage people to stop and think before they act upon such judgements.
Acculturation and the Metamorphosis of Identity
The word acculturation in psychology often refers to a child’s formative years in a particular environment and how that forms their cultural identity, among other identities. Although it is recognised that childhood acculturation in the first decade is the strongest and is often commonly referred to as our roots, acculturation is a continuous process and at each stage important additions can be made to our cultural development and identity. So if the first decade, give or take a couple of years depending on circumstantial variables and individual differences, is known as our roots, the second could be seen as our stem or trunk, the third as our branches and the fourth our foliage and so on. If we use the plant or tree analogy, we see that each stage is vitally important to the plant’s eventual fruition and reseeding – giving back to the earth. Similarly, each stage of human development builds on the previous, adds to its complexity and contributes to what the individual will eventually give back to the world and to humanity. Therefore each stage is to be respected as of equal importance.
Thus in context, the notion that belonging to a culture necessarily means being born into it or growing up within it, having a parent from it or some other genetic or ethnic attachment to it is not very helpful when considering a person’s true individual identity and potential. It is also not a reliable basis on which to assess the nature, legitimacy, credibility or significance of their work output or general contribution to society. Length, intensity and extent of immersion will positively correlate with degree of acculturation, which will also depend on many other variables, individual capacities and predisposition, according to whether the person already comes from mixed backgrounds, whether culturally, linguistically or simply ethnically. In many cases, ethnicity plays a less significant role than we may think, now with many generations of global immigration and large populations living outside their historic geographical contexts for decades or centuries, many have lost contact with them in all but theory.
Acculturation is Not a One Way Street
This may be more common with integration into so called ‘Western’ cultures but it is by no means exclusively in this direction. However, in this postcolonial era certain patterns of thinking, perceptions and habitual attitudes have become rather deeply engrained, by design or by default and across colonised and colonising populations. The subconscious perception in the West seems to be that it is quite right, proper and logical that people should want to come to Northern Europe and North America, learn the language, assimilate to a certain extent, adopt certain cultural norms, assume a western identity and participate in at least the subculture of the country. It is often seen as the more ‘advanced’ culture, as well as the wealthier and more powerful. This is not necessarily the case, which leads into other complex arguments and potentially thorny territory beyond the scope of this article.
However, when people from ‘Western’ cultures decide to go east, for example, and acculturate themselves into a ‘non-western’ paradigm, they are somehow seen, by westerners, as a threat to status quo and rapidly labelled as cultural appropriators, regardless of their intensions or individual circumstances. That attitude can be seen in all strata of society, from traditional, through pop culture to high culture and intellectual elites. For example in western classical music there are many fine musicians from eastern cultures who, although they may at some stage have faced discrimination, are accepted, valued and well respected members of the cultural elite. They are not accused of appropriating the culture, foreign to their origins, through which they earn their living. Whereas if western musicians go and study Eastern, Middle Eastern, African or other ‘non-western’ musics, including western classical musical forms by non-western composers, they immediately and involuntarily accumulate labels such as ‘Ethnomusicology’, ‘World Music’ or ‘Cultural Appropriation’.
For example, American Qawwali group, Fana fi Allah spent years studying this particular form of Sufi spiritual music specific to Pakistan, have travelled the country, learned he language, toured around the holy shrines and developed a very strong relationship with the culture as a whole, its customs and traditions and its Islamic practices. Nevertheless, during their UK tour, the term ‘Cultural Appropriation’ was flying around all too loosely and inappropriately, regardless of how they may have been viewed, or whether they were accepted by the people they met in Pakistan. It is seldom used in some other cases where it would be far more appropriate, for example in ‘Israeli Hummus’ and the rebranding of Palestinian embroidery and other traditional cultural artefacts as Israeli products. Other comparable examples may include ‘English tea’ and ‘Italian coffee’.
Quantification and Qualification of Acculturation
Acculturation requires a significant investment of time, study and other resources and shows a level of commitment far beyond any superficial appropriation of artefacts. It becomes a true identification through a lifelong devotion to the culture, which gives more back to it than it ever took from it and builds a bridge linking it to other cultures as a positive representation. An example of acculturation through acceptance of and devotion to a complete, non-western culture is the worldwide phenomenon of conversion to Islam, as the fastest growing religion in history. Notwithstanding negative mass media misrepresentation of Islam and its exploitation by extremist political groups, many people within a western, non-Muslim cultural context find some of its ideas challenging, unthinkable or even abhorrent, such as polygamy, even though polyamoury in various forms is becoming increasingly fashionable and socially acceptable.
There may always be aspects of a culture which are more or less palatable to an outsider. Another possible definition of acculturation might be an understanding, in context, and acceptance of – although not necessarily conformity to – and active participation with and positive representation of the culture as a whole. This has to include the parts which may be jarring or problematic from the perspective of the cultural convert’s original culture – the ideas, norms and ideals of which still stand, as they form part of the roots or base of the person’s identity, heritage and worldview. This highlights the importance of continually questioning the basis of our beliefs, digging over the ground beneath us, excavating its treasures but also clearing its weeds and the rubbish of habitually held views, sometimes pulling them out from under us, which can be destabilising and uncomfortable.
Questioning our standpoint in terms of how convinced we are that we are right, on what we base our opinions and whether they are held with enough flexibility to be allowed to change given sufficient contradictory evidence, is essential to our intellectual development. If, after stringent self-scrutiny, we maintain that me are right, does it justify telling someone else they are wrong? Our experience of reality is unique and cannot be generalised to another’s. Equally and by extension, the value system and worldview of an entire culture cannot be superimposed on that of another. If there are seemingly conflicting expectations, values, beliefs, ideas and practices between one’s culture of origin and an adopted culture, to what extent are they really contradictory and mutually exclusive and to what extent can they coexist? Does it become necessary to choose one or the other at a certain point or is it possible to have both?
It is not possible to discard our heritage, even if it is possible to deny and reject it, or simply ignore and neglect it. It can, however be built upon, and is it not healthier to acknowledge both equally? As the merging of different periods of architecture in an ancient city creates a balanced blend of diverse aesthetic forms, so can different cultural identities enrich life, if we can move beyond dualistic thinking and choose to accept both and give the two, or more, equal importance. It is not an easy line to walk, but it is a life affirming and worthwhile one.
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