Saturday, December 24, 2016

All this cultural appropriation must stop

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 23.)

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a flagrant act of cultural appropriation. So did several thousand other people.

We watched a Christmas parade. Santa Claus was in it, complete with mock reindeer.
Most of the floats were decorated with Christmas symbols: fake snow, tinsel, stuff like that. A brass band played traditional English carols. 

How did we get away with it? It could only be because the simple provincial folk in the town where I live are ignorant of, or wilfully indifferent to, sensitivities surrounding cultural ownership.

Santa Claus is a figure derived from northern European folklore. What right do we in the remote Southwest Pacific have to place him at the centre of our Christmas celebrations?

Sleighs? Ditto. Christmas trees and holly too.

These are the cultural property of people from distant lands. Those ridiculous fake antlers that shop assistants are made to wear – did we spare a thought for the people of Lapland, for whom reindeer are a taonga? No, we didn’t.

And carols! How dare we sing about Good King Wenceslas or the Holly and the Ivy? What inflated sense of entitlement makes us think we can endlessly plagiarise Silent Night (Austrian) or O Holy Night (French)?

I shamefully admit that I experienced no pangs of conscience as I watched Masterton’s Christmas Parade. Neither, it seemed, did those around me. What a bunch of Philistines.

It was only a couple of days later, listening to an item on Morning Report, that I was forced to confront my cultural arrogance.

It seems someone with an  exquisitely honed sense of appropriateness took offence at the inclusion, in Christchurch’s Christmas Parade, of a float with a Native North American theme. According to Morning Report, the woman complainant thought it was culturally insensitive.

The parade organiser seemed puzzled but unrepentant. She said the float, or similar ones, had featured in the parade for 20 years without a complaint. No disrespect was meant to native Americans. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

She added that more than 100,000 people watched the parade and only one objected. Pffft! That just proves they’re all Philistines down Christchurch way too.

That Morning Report item was a wake-up moment for me. I suddenly realised how shamelessly we exploit other cultures.

Big business tries to get away with it all the time. Only three months ago the Disney organisation, stricken by a concerted attack on social media, withdrew a range of merchandise intended to promote its animated film Moana.

The movie, one of whose central characters is the Polynesian demi-god Maui, has been praised for celebrating Polynesian feats of navigation. The producers say they went to great lengths to ensure Pasifika people were happy with the film.

Again I say, pffft! Not far enough, obviously. People objected to the sale of kids’ costumes that reproduced Maui’s tattoos. “Cultural appropriation at its most offensive worst,” said one tweet.

A chastened Disney organisation quickly capitulated. Quite right, too.

But we mustn’t stop there. Cultural appropriation must be vigorously rooted out in all its forms.

All those New Zealand reggae bands, for a start. There’s cultural appropriation right there, big time. Maori object when the haka or the tiki is ripped off, but doesn’t the same principle apply when Maori bands appropriate the music of Jamaica?

And on that subject, who ever said it was culturally acceptable for white musicians to play the blues? Innumerable middle-class Brits (stand up, Eric Clapton) have grown filthy rich ripping off black men’s music. Jazz? The same.

Basketball singlets and baseball caps? Get 'em off. American.

St Patrick’s Day, which New Zealanders use as an excuse to get drunk and pretend to be Irish, is a cultural outrage. Guy Fawkes? English. Halloween? Celtic. They should be abandoned, all of them.

In fact Christmas itself, unless you’re a genuine Christian celebrating Christ’s birth, is a gigantic act of cultural, or at least religious, appropriation.

To those who feebly point out that virtually everything we do – the books we read, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the songs we sing, the language we use – is borrowed from somewhere else, I say: no excuse! It’s all cultural theft and it’s got to stop. The Christchurch complainant has bravely shown us the way forward.

I just hope she’s not planning to serve turkey on Christmas Day. As a North American bird, the turkey has no place on New Zealand dining tables.

Neither should she open a bottle of New Zealand bubbly, an idea stolen from the French. After all, if we’re going to avoid cultural appropriation, we must be consistent.  

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