Cultural appropriation and the erasure of cultural diversity

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This story was written by Irene Mairemí Pita Vaca and Isabel Collazos Gottret for Muy Waso (Bolivia). It is republished by Global Voices under a media agreement.

Cultural appropriation is a sensitive topic, prone to endless misinterpretations, because it touches the heart of who we are: a mixture of cultures difficult to unravel. Questioning “the cultural” in Bolivia provokes resistance, due to its strong intimate and identity component and, above all, because we do not know the histories of the cultures that surround us.

The history of political and economic struggle is reflected on the map of cultural inequalities of our territory. Thinking about cultural appropriation reveals the power imbalances between cultures, between the tangible worlds and intangible subjectivities that build our identities. Therefore, it reveals aspects that are difficult to face: our racism, our classism, our prejudices. Especially in a country like ours, with its multiple nations, its infinite layers of exchanges and historical struggles.

Globally, we find the same phenomenon that not all cultures enjoy the same recognition. A “gringo” blockbuster will be famous around the world, while the distinctive Ayoreo songs fade away. Any Bolivian will know who The Avengers are, but will not know that the Indigenous Ayoreo people are divided into seven clans, each with their own animals, objects, natural phenomena and patterns.

And nobody questions this disparity, because it reflects the order of the world. The power of hegemonic cultures over minority ones. But what happens when members of hegemonic cultures copy and appropriate elements of minority cultures?

In our current globalized economic model, governed by the laws of a capitalist system that commercializes everything, cultures are also sold, but not at the same price — because some cultures have market access and others don't. This causes situations of improper cultural appropriation, in which members of a hegemonic culture use elements of other cultures for their own benefit and empty them of their meaning.

Intentionally or not, this renders the members of cultures invisible, as they disappear behind promotional campaigns of “whitening” and “hegemonization” of copied cultural objects and practices.

To counteract this phenomenon of cultural appropriation, activists and leaders denounce and make visible culture keepers to promote social justice. An example of this recovery is the development of fair trade in handicrafts to guarantee a fair price and remuneration for the artisans.

Museums are increasingly repatriating objects to their communities of origin, demonstrating the immense potential that objects have as agents of memory, connection and justice. There are also campaigns to denounce fashion designers who take designs and techniques from Indigenous groups to launch new collections at sky-high prices.

A problematic discussion

However, these complaints give rise to ideals that seek to protect cultures based on their authenticity, origin or ownership. These concepts seem problematic when they try to categorize culture. Some possible consequences of this narrative are new differentiations and classifications between groups of people, aiming to exclude through sociocultural control.

This position seems to strengthen reactionary and conservative proposals that reinforce the otherness between human beings. As if, by seeking to protect cultural expressions, we arrive at a representation of the world where cultures are immovable, rigid and inflexible.

We don't understand culture like that. On the contrary, we think that if a cultural expression is so reduced to its rules and norms that an external influence calls it into question, it is because it has lost its soul. But it is very difficult to question the discourses of cultural reaffirmation that are based on ideas of fixed and closed cultures. We are aware that they are claimed by historically discriminated individuals and populations, whose cultures continue to be marginalized. The revaluation coming from self-determination is powerful. It is a resistance struggle, which responds to the current urgency.

However, in the global context of cultural capitalism and the expansion of creativity as an industry or individual company, we find it hard to imagine how such a defensive and exclusionary vision of culture could allow the inheritors of these cultures to flourish and prosper.

Cultures are about transformation

Cultures are constantly changing and in this process, certain cultural elements are dying. This is difficult to accept, especially when it comes to cultural expressions that reflect the meaning of life, the place occupied in the world by the people who belong to those groups, from unique and different ways of being, feeling and acting.

However, change is natural and we think that what dies can be reborn in another form. The problem is when cultures die, not to be reborn, but to give rise to a monoculture that destroys everything. The monoculture that comes wrapped in plastic, that poisons what it touches and whose only value is consumption, wanting more, having more, to copy the lives of the owners of everything, those who benefit from consumption. For us, this is the real threat, the heart of the matter.

Misappropriation of culture is one more element of the destructive hegemony that empties us of our content, limiting our vision of the world.

We, as authors of this text, have asked ourselves how and by what principle we can (or not) practice what we love. Expand our experiences without misappropriating other people's practices. Practice yoga, dance forró, dress in huipiles or put on earrings decorated with aguayo. Of course, in principle, from the point of view of doing, we do not consider ourselves to be hurting anyone.

Are we taking responsibility?

But are we taking responsibility? Of the subtleties, injustices and voices that are silenced at the moment in which the practice and the object are valued, but not its creators. We don't know and that's why we write this. We question ourselves to reach an ethical and expansive individual practice that connects instead of cutting threads of understanding.

We will take responsibility, learning from the contexts, as cultural practices have a history. Valuing the creations through a fair payment to their creators. Facilitating spaces where the creators or mediators of cultural practices are the ones who take the stage as experts, recognizing all their work, demands and challenges.

We are aware that determining the origin of the intent is impossible because the same action, carried out from different intentions, completely changes the meaning of things. So, we denounce cultural appropriation for having an intention of usurpation, caricature or economic domination.

What we defend is its other aspect. The expansive culture that intends to connect, with curiosity and respect, people and communities with each other, with the territory and the transcendental. The very transmission of cultural expressions also depends on these connections and learning, which, we regret, can be stolen and decontextualized throughout this discussion.

Therefore, we see it as necessary to reposition people at the center of this debate.

Back to the people

It seems obvious to say that cultural practices and objects depend on their creators. But capitalist companies just nullify people to erect consumable object-symbols. Just as museums have been, since the 19th century, creating expertise in the conservation and investigation of cultural objects, ignoring the inherent and powerful connection that the object has with its creator.

The challenge is not to “protect” minority cultures from what surrounds them. Knowledge cannot be locked up in a museum to prevent it from being broken. They are alive and are part of the body of the people who keep them. The challenge is much more complex and lies in being able to choose freely and consciously where we direct our cultures. In an unequal world in which freedom is synonymous with purchasing power, this objective, based on being, feeling and doing, is a true revolution.

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