Friday 9 December 2016

Katie Byrne: costume drama

How culturally-sensitive is your Halloween outfit?

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

A Middle Eastern man is staying with some friends of mine. Let's be completely unimaginative and call him Mohammed.

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Mohammed is learning English so we take turns helping him with literature excerpts and strange-sounding words.

A few nights ago Mohammed told his favourite joke in English. His translation was very good, even if my friend had to tell him to say 'propose' rather than 'going for proposing' and I had to explain the difference between fingers and toes.

It was our turn next. Someone told a Paddy Englishman, Paddy Irishman joke; someone else told one of those St Peter's Gates gags. There was only one joke I could remember. This one is seared in my memory, partly because it's Christmas cracker-short and partly because it's rude. It's not obscene, mind - but by the same token, I know better than to recount it in its entirety on these pages.

The following day, one of my friends took me aside to tell me that I couldn't tell jokes like that in front of Mohammed because he's - she lowered her voice here - Muslim. She said she saw him recoil in shock. She even did an impression of his horrified face to prove to both of us that this was certainly not the thing to be done. Curiously, while I saw a man strain his ears to understand a joke in a language he wasn't familiar with, my friend saw a man desperately trying to shield himself from immorality; Save me, Allah, from the wicked words of the Western woman!

Afterwards, I wondered if my friend had a right to become offended on somebody else's behalf. More to the point, can we feel real indignation when we don't truly understand the socio-historical circumstances of the culture we think we are defending?

A few days later, online fashion retailer ASOS was in the news for selling bindis in the Halloween section of their website. A number of ASOS customers took to Twitter to question their decision and accuse them of 'cultural appropriation'.

Broadly speaking, 'cultural appropriation' occurs when a culture borrows practices, fashions, expressions, etc from a culture that it previously oppressed. A woman wearing a Native American war bonnet at Electric Picnic is guilty of cultural appropriation because Native Americans were colonised by white people.

The trouble is that the definition of cultural appropriation contracts and expands to fit all manner of scenarios. It is used to condemn the trivial - a Bollywood fancy dress party for example - just as it is used to condemn the consequential - the white-out of the hip-hop industry. (Robbery is a better word in that case.)

Where did this come from? We didn't hear about cultural appropriation when the world and her mother were unwittingly wearing brightly coloured keffiyehs - aka PLO scarves - as recently as six years ago.

In fact, a Google Trends search indicates that the term has exploded in the last few years (much like 'check your privilege'). I put it down to Coachella. Really, I do. Photographs of vacant-eyed models wearing war bonnets and giving the peace sign at the celebrity's favourite festival brought the cultural appropriation police out in force. Pictures of Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner wearing bindis at the festival last year only compounded the outrage.

It should be noted that Felipe Rose of the Village People didn't come under fire for cultural appropriation (and he was half naked). Nor did Gwen Stefani who wore a bindi during her No Doubt days.

If we're completely honest, the issue often lies with the people doing the appropriating. Kylie Jenner was recently called out for sporting cornrows. I wonder if some people were more irked by her self-satisfied pout as she took the photograph in the mirror. Likewise, was it Miley Cyrus's cultural appropriation of dreadlocks at the VMAs that bothered you, or was it her tongue poking out of the side of her mouth?

Occasionally those from the culture being appropriated convey their frustration. The funny thing about these diatribes is that they often betray a latent bigotry. There's generally a reference to a 'half-naked' woman wearing a war bonnet, a 'drunk' woman wearing a bindi and at least one use of the word 'hipster'. The subtext is that Westerners are not culturally evolved enough to wear this attire.

Often the accusation of cultural appropriation perpetuates the behaviour it purports to challenge. On both sides. How can a culture liberate itself when it is constantly reminded that it was once oppressed? Entire countries and cultures can suffer from victim-mentality, and when you think like a victim, you see cultural appropriation rather than cultural appreciation.

Crucially, this type of thinking prohibits the cross-fertilisation of ideas and prevents the evolution of one culture through integration with another.

Speaking of which, Mohammed later told me that my joke didn't offend him in the slightest, just as I'm sure many Hindus didn't care about ASOS's bindis. If you really respect a culture, know that the decision to be offended is entirely its own.

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