Cultural Appropriation

Why I will not be taking this photo down


I posted this photo on Twitter, with accompanying text which read “New at this week: gorgeous @toychloe barefoot in the Oriental room!”

Someone replied that this was problematic, and identified two specific issues, assuming I have understood correctly. 1) Use of the word “Oriental” and 2) A white girl in a kimono as cultural appropriation. I was urged to do some research. So I have, and this is what I conclude thus far.

The Word “Oriental”

I apologise for the offence caused.

The Wikipedia entry for “Orient” mentions that the term “Oriental” is often considered an antiquated, pejorative, and disparaging term in North American English. I was not aware of this. I speak British English, being British; note that the Wikipedia entry makes no such mention for British English. The OED however notes that it is offensive when used of a person. I’m happy to update my use of language to avoid causing offence in future. I don’t much like being called “Taffy” or listening to the n-th joke about sheep shaggers, so it seems only reasonable.

In point of fact I was not using it of a person, but of an artistic style, orientalism, which pertains to a fashion in vogue at the time our Georgian house was built. I described the ROOM as “oriental”. There very likely was an “oriental” room in the house originally, and previous owners of the house have maintained something of that style of decor. I will henceforth call it something else, but will not be in a hurry to redecorate the room, because we like it, we might have to ask permission to do any such thing, and besides, it’s pretty.

A White Girl In A Kimono

Here I’m afraid I must disagree with my correspondent.

All people of all cultures have drawn inspiration and innovation from other cultures, throughout human history and indeed before. We are all human beings, and we should all be allowed to draw inspiration from cultures we were not born into.

White girls should be allowed to wear kimonos. Nigerian girls should be allowed to wear Ancient Greek Peplos. I have photographed Swedish, Romanian and Scottish girls wearing Cheongsams. I’ve photographed Italian people wearing historical Viking dress and English women wearing Togas. I’ve photographed Dutch men wearing dress traditionally considered appropriate for women; were they culturally appropriating the clothes of a traditionally oppressed minority? No, they were just doing something they enjoyed.

Should I have been offended at the cultural appropriation of English people wearing traditional Welsh dress at school Eisteddfods? Why should I? It’s not in any meaningful sense mine, even though I was born and raised in the country from whence the tradition originates.

I’m no moral authority, but I do have a silver rule to back up the golden rule. Replace all labels by the word “person” or “people” and see what I think of it then.

“Should a white girl be allowed to be photographed wearing a kimono?” becomes “Should a person be allowed to be photographed wearing a kimono?”. Yes they should. Anybody who wants to should be able to.

What is the alternative? Not shooting those photos with that model, I guess. Does that mean we should racially segregate the models who come to work with us? We’re planning to redecorate one room in our house (currently decorated with sailing ships and clouds) in the style of Norwegian folk art mixed with a bit of Jelling Style because I happen to like it and I want to try painting some things in that style myself.

Is it OK for me to do that because I have Scandinavian genes? (My father has an inherited condition which is associated with Viking genes, and one branch of the family name is of clear Nordic derivation). Or is the admixture of Celt such that I’m not allowed to use that for inspiration any more?

Once we have the Norwegian room, will it be OK to shoot the blue-eyed blonde British models there? What about shooting a model of Japanese ethnicity there, wearing traditional viking clothes with shoulder brooches? Polish models? Spanish models? Models whose family origins are from Iran? Russia? The Ukraine?

Saying that only models of a certain ethnicity or cultural origin are allowed to model in certain outfits or certain rooms in our house is unacceptable to me.

And let’s examine the Kimono in that photograph. It is a kimono in the following two senses (again, after Wikipedia). 1) It is a thing to wear, which is the literal meaning, and 2) It is similar in design to the traditional Japanese garment of that name.

It was designed and sewn by a British person based on a pattern designed by a European (inspired by that traditional Japenese style), from fabric made in India. That fabric is a synthetic one invented in Britain (or at least most likely descended from a material invented in Britain) but designed to look like a traditional Chinese fabric in texture and also with a design inspired by Chinese tradition.

There’s a long history of colonialism and bloody war between many of those civilisations.

The kimono itself, according to Wikipedia, was heavily influenced by traditional Han Chinese clothing. So should Japanese people even be allowed to wear them, since they are apparently culturally appropriated from China? What is the statute of limitations on how long ago a borrowing has to be before it becomes legitimate?

This is nonsense. Throughout history we’ve all begged, borrowed and stolen inspiration from each other, all the time and in all directions. We are all human beings. We should be allowed to. It is one of the most fertile sources of innovation we have.

So yes, I am good with 1977 London Punks appropriating Tartan, boys going to school in skirts, African Americans joining in the SCA and enjoying themselves pretending to be Medieval European nobility without the bad bits, Germans wearing Shalwar Kameez, Chinese people wearing dhotis, Jordians wearing saris, Japanese teenagers wearing jeans or suits, Swiss teenagers wearing muu’muu and British teenagers wearing fashions inspired by French and American designs from the 1950’s… and doing what the hell they like to them to give them their own personal twist.

Fusion cuisine is great. I’m happy for English people to make Bara Brith, Cawl or Welshcakes and put whatever twist they like onto it… and sell it in their recipe books. Again I have no more say or authority over who should get to adapt cawl recipes than any other human being on the planet, despite it being a historical staple of great importance to my oppressed culture. I have no more “right” to it than anyone else on the planet. It’s a thing, an invention of other human beings (who are all now dead, as it happens). It doesn’t have the rights and protections of person, and nor should it.

Consumption of food derived from agriculture should not be restricted to those from the either the fertile crescent or the area Iran where it was (likely) independently invented; once the idea spread, it belonged to all of us. One should be allowed to enjoy a Birmingham Balti or a sushi derived dish whatever one’s ethnicity. Welsh people should be allowed to eat pasta. It shouldn’t be restricted to Italians… or possibly Greeks.

More power to everyone’s creative elbow and have fun. And the same with fashion fusion, too. We will continue to put any model into any outfit in any room regardless of their ethnicity or cultural background, and tie them up in ways inspired by and derived from Western bondage traditions, Japanese bondage traditions, and any other thing we feel like trying.

(Incidentally, I am aware that research does not end with Wikipedia. But it is a good place to start.)

About Hywel

Particle physicist turned fetish photographer, producer and director. I run and together with my wife, who is variously known as Ariel Anderssen or Amelia Jane Rutherford, depending on whether she's getting tied up or spanked at the time.

9 thoughts on “Cultural Appropriation

  1. I’m very offended by people who go out of their way to find things to be offended about – or to find things that other people might just be offended about, according to Wikepedia. Where do we go from there …?

  2. Just ignore the haters or perhaps tell em to bollox. To me it seems like this troll has put the hook out and you’ve thought ‘ohh shiny’ (don’t mean any offence)
    All i can say is’ don’t feed the trolls’

  3. Pingback: Cultural Appropriation: You Say That Like It’s A Bad Thing – ErosBlog: The Sex Blog

  4. Well said, Hywel! On “Oriental”, one difficulty I encountered when working in a British university was that the students whom we should officially have described as “east Asian” – and who would be described in American English simply as “Asian” – would insist on calling themselves “Oriental” to distinguish themselves from their “Asian” (i.e. south Asian – Indian, Pakistani or similar) colleagues.

    To add to the fun of life, the Vatican has a dicastery named in English as that for “Eastern and Oriental Churches”, where “Oriental” means bodies further east than the Orthodox….

  5. I hope you keep on doing what you’re doing. This “cultural appropriation” nonsense is just another form of modern political correctness run amok. Every culture is guilty of some kind of “cultural appropriation.” It’s called being human.

  6. Anecdotal demonstration that “Oriental” is in common usage in British English without the negative connotations it has acquired in the USA, here is a photo of my fave local takeaway from before we moved:

    I never asked what the ethnic origins of the lovely people who run it are, but to my untutored ear it sounded like they spoke Cantonese.

    There seem to be plenty of establishments around the country with Oriental in the name, which suggests that the offence taken at the term is far from universal.

  7. (Note: I am quite tired and about to go to bed, so I apologize if this is rather rambling and stream-of-consciousness.)

    My two cents (which is probably worth considerably less than even that): as an American, I am aware of the (fairly recent) trend that the word “oriental” has negative and offensive connotations. My impression is that the word carries no pejorative implications prima facie; etymologically, it is simply an adaptation of the latin word for east, “orientem,” and the derivations thereof. As such, it is entirely through localized usage that it has obtained its negative connotations, and you are undoubtedly correct that this usage has not crossed the pond in a significant way. Nonetheless, I suspect the issue being raised is not whether the word is inherently problematic, but rather its propensity for causing needless offense. I think it does cause offense in some; however, I am also unsure of a universally acceptable alternative (I would say East Asian, personally, but that doesn’t have the same romantic ring to it, alas). So, in short, I don’t really know whether it’s appropriate or not; on the other hand, since I’m *really* white, my opinion is purely academic anyway.

    More importantly, on the issue of cultural appropriation and political correctness in general: first off, I do think that there is good reason to be as politically correct as possible. Part of the dominant public dialogue in the past several years (in the US, at least; I obviously cannot speak to the discourse in other nations) has been over the notions of privilege and sensitivity. Without opening that can of worms too widely, I will say that it has been useful in illuminating the stances implicit in resistance to political correctness. I found this (anonymous) quotation convincing: “[people who attack political correctness have] never had to rely on others to speak up for them to protect and correct systemic injustices that society has leveled upon them. What they fail to understand is that there is a valid and profound reason that the term “political correctness” exists. The term was born out of a desperate need to aid and to render fairness and safety. So many [of them] have a lot of fun throwing the words “political correctness” around as a pejorative, but to me and many others it only serves to identify them as a person who lacks empathy and kindness.” While the line overgeneralizes and oversimplifies, it does convey the relevant point: that political correctness is, in essence, an attempt to “correct” dialogue that can be unintentionally harmful so that it causes no unnecessary or unintended harm. This gains significantly greater importance when the goal is to combat oppression, whether major or minor, and in instances where being “politically correct” is a potential way to stop the perpetuation of unintentional microaggressions and assumptions, there is really no good reason to oppose it.

    As for the cultural appropriation part (and your arguments against it), it is not so much an issue of a slippery slope (which seems to be the crux of your opposition), but rather an issue of dueling priorities. The notion of “oh, if I do this, then I will have to do every extreme possible permutation of it, and since those are absurd, every version of it must automatically be absurd as well” doesn’t really fly, alas. Cultural appropriation is a legitimate problem; when a group in a position of power appropriates the distinguishing characteristics of the oppressed group, it runs the risk of both token-izing the oppressed group, and reasserting the oppressive dominance of the more powerful group. That said, there is an opposing interest in free expression, particularly in a forum that relies more than usual on being able to express oneself fully and honestly (such as within BDSM).

    It’s not a simple question, nor one with simple answers, but the short version is that rather than dismissing the premise entirely, it pays to weigh the costs and benefits in both directions. Some things are clearly on the wrong side of the line; blackface, for example, has not been an acceptable form of cultural appropriation for nearly a century (though until the mid-20th century it was actually viewed as progressive in certain contexts, such as in “the jazz singer”). On the other side, I don’t think anyone is going to criticize the Rolling Stones for borrowing elements of the blues that had been the province of African-American musicians who have largely faded into obscurity. I’ve not found your the photosets on the website to be unreasonably appropriative, and I’d argue that in this context one can go much further than in others because of the necessary emphasis on role-playing and free expression, but there are legitimate arguments to be made in favor of being careful not to go *too* far.

    Anyway, apologies again for both length and the lack of structure (and, I suspect, coherence), but those are a few thoughts on the matter. If I have time to revisit the matter in a more cohesive fashion later, I will attempt to do so.

  8. I’m in The U.S. And I agree with you. But I’m sick of all the liberal crap and political correctness anyway. I would like to know one thing. Who is that girl? I found that picture online and love it. I only found your website searching for where that picture came from. I’d like to know what else she’s in. I’m a fellow foot lover and love her feet.

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