This is the second installment of a four part series covering the Mardi Gras Indians. If you haven’t read the first part yet, head here.
At the end of the previous article, we settled on cultural appropriation as a topic that may not be so meandering as is the majority of online traffic. Cultural appropriation is often times not a player in outrage culture, but rather a justifiable call for social justice. While recognizing that the topic is controversial, it may help to breakdown the factors that play a part in the practice that generally accrues explicit and passionate negative criticisms. Simply put, cultural appropriation or cultural misappropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another culture. If this were your first exposure to the practice, it could be argued that there is nothing inherently bad about it; after all, trans-cultural diffusion has historically played major roles in defining identities.
Of course, we’d be naive to stop the discussion there.
Within the framework that helps us identify cultural appropriation, there are a few main elements that ought to be pinpointed: dominant vs. disadvantaged, explicit offensiveness, capitalism, and ownership. All of these factors cement the status of opposition to cultural appropriation as far from a trivial cause.
Most importantly, cultural appropriation garners controversy from an implied extension of the definition, wherein those adopting a particular culture are members of a dominant group appropriating from disadvantaged minority cultures. From there, we can derive examples of discrimination that are explicitly offensive and widely recognized as being so, and classify them as cultural appropriation. These types of misappropriations usually require no justification as to why they are a) examples of a dominant culture appropriating from a disadvantaged culture and b) offensive, as they often employ traditionally discriminatory, caricatured, or offensive rhetoric. Two notable examples are blackface and the use of Native American iconography in American sports, namely the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Redskins.
The latter of those examples leads in to the third factor we might consider when identifying cultural appropriation: capitalism. In these situations, particular cultures or expressions of culture are commodified (just like spirituality, memes, love, and most everything else in America) in such a way that the dominant culture disrespects traditions and sacredness of elements of the disadvantaged culture without giving credit or compensation to the culture from which they are derived; the natives in protected lands don’t receive a share of the Braves’ annual revenue. Whether or not this represents a symbolic form of intellectual property theft is increasingly complicated, but it is undoubtably an example of cultural appropriation.
The argument might then be made: who owns the culture? Is it possible to own elements of culture? What does ownership even mean in this context? These types of questions cannot be answered simply or concisely, and they continue to muddle the controversy of cultural appropriation, but should nevertheless be considered.
The immediate, for-all-intents-and-purposes, and likely final answer of ownership is that the culture that birthed a specific practice or religion, food, language, or visual style is the definite proprietor, but we’re once again treading into the territory of cultural diffusion. The examples of cultural appropriation that have already been cited don’t necessarily move in that direction, as Native Americans have a lesser degree of involvement when it comes to cultural diffusion between themselves and colonial Europeans; if there was any, it may have been a “I like what you have, so I’m just going to take it,” situation. So, where can we find a more ambiguous example? One where it is not clear cut if it’s cultural appropriation and cultural diffusion?
Look no further than the Mardi Gras Indians.
Stay tuned for the next installment in this series, subtitled “At Long Last, the Mardi Gras Indians.”
COVER PHOTO: Pinterest