For over 20 years, I was a member of an ensemble that provided music at the annual Irish Mass at St. Barnabas Roman Catholic Church.
The group included several men and women boasting at least some Irish blood, but it also featured a Polish keyboard player, a Slovak guitarist and (courtly bow) a Lithuanian on Fender bass. Several of us wore traditional handmade Aran sweaters and, to a person, displayed a lot of green.
Our pre-liturgy selections included tunes such as “Four Green Fields,” “The Castle of Dromore,” “Black Velvet Band,” “The Galway Shawl” and “The Wild Colonial Boy.” After communion, we always played “Lady of Knock.”
In a few days, I will don my bright green St. Bride’s jacket, a cap that I bought at South Side Irish Imports and my beautiful knit sweater for the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
At some point, I will enjoy at least one delicious corned beef from County Fair Foods, accompanied by cabbage, boiled potatoes, carrots and slathers of powerful horseradish.
By what right do I, a descendant of South Chicago Lugans, perform this annual right involving what to me will always present a heartfelt tribute to the cultural surroundings of which I have enjoyed for so long? Have I been guilty all these years of practicing the social blasphemy of cultural appropriation or merely demonstrating the rewards of cultural exchange?
It is clear that cultural appropriation and cultural exchange are similar terms that do not represent a “distinction without a real difference.” They actually are different abstract phenomena, and each has inspired many graduate-level research papers.
Cultural exchange has resulted in the democratization of all forms of knowledge, including science and technology. It produced the internationalization of mutually beneficial laws, the establishment of useful multinational organizations and the promotion across borders of human rights and environmental cooperation.
I am reminded of some of the things that European Crusaders discovered when they encountered Muslim culture in the 11th century.
They were amazed by Islamic accomplishments in science (including the scientific method itself), many forms of mathematics, medicine, law, philosophy and technology. Education was a central pillar of their religion.
To the Europeans, perhaps most startling was the fact that all of these achievements took place in a society ignorant of Christ and his teachings.
For their part, the Europeans translated works of Greek philosophers and ancient science to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. Culturally speaking, they probably gained more than they gave.
Cultural exchange, along with several other concepts like patterns of migration and empire building, is one of the cornerstones of the study of world history, and it is as inevitable as anything else in nature.
On the other hand, cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is characterized by a clearly identifiable imbalance of power, and it is not to be confused with a more equitable cultural transaction.
Today, many view cultural appropriation as extremely harmful, being nothing less than a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating, minority cultures, especially indigenous cultures and the millions living under de facto colonial rule.
An October 2015 article in a major national publication offered some guidance on navigating the waters of “borrowing” from other cultures and on avoiding charges of appropriation. The article offers advice on a number of useful do’s and don’ts.
At all costs, people should avoid gross, juvenile and mostly outdated ethnic stereotypes (think blackface). Do not deliberately pour salt into wounds that may not have even begun to heal.
This one is painfully obvious: don’t dress up as an ethnic stereotype. Someone else’s culture or race—or some offensive idea of it—should never be a costume or the butt of a joke.
Sports teams continue to do this, and the time to move on is probably long past.
People also may be leaving themselves open to the charge of appropriation if they wear or brandish sacred items or artifacts as accessories.
Fringed-suede bikinis, turquoise jewelry and a feathered head dress—essentially “sexy Indian” costumes—have appeared on fashion runways, even though war bonnets have spiritual and ceremonial significance, with only certain members of the tribe earning the right to wear feathers through honor-worthy achievements and acts of bravery.
I know how I feel when I see some non-veteran adorned in the apparel of a military wannabe. Why not add a Purple Heart or a Medal of Honor?
And if we choose to engage with other cultures, why not make an effort to do that on more than just an aesthetic level? Think about what America might be like if all black people were admired to the same extent as is their music, dance or athletes.
Picking and choosing isolated, distinct cultural elements, whether dance moves or print designs, without acknowledging and engaging with their originators or the cultures that gave rise to them, not only creates the potential for misappropriation; it also sidesteps an opportunity for an art form to perpetuate genuine and potentially world-changing progress.
How did the concept of cultural appropriation originate?
It emerged in academia in the late 1970s and ’80s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism. By the mid-1990s, it had gained a solid place in academic discourse, particularly in the field of sociology.
Let’s pause and think about colonialism and its impact at the time of the conclusion of World War II.
The populations of scores of countries supported their colonial rulers during the war. They hoped that, when the war ended, their countries might gain at least partial independence.
Instead, wars of liberation were later waged in places like Indochina, Africa and in nations that had become appendages of Soviet Russia.
In the U.S., hundreds of thousands of veterans were to learn that placing their lives on the line for their country in no way guaranteed equal treatment in that same country.
So, suspicions and sensitivity to what I will call “enhanced cultural exchange” persist, and while they may be overstated to a degree, it is worth our while to be sensitive to their existence.
As to my annual faux Irishness, I ask my neighbors to be my judge.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!