When is it appropriate to appropriate? Why appropriation is bad. (Part 1)

Cultural Appropriation has made the news again. Nuseir Yassin runs the popular video log Nas Daily. He recently made the news (herehere, and here) when he offered a tattoo course by Whang-Od on his Nas Academy. Whang-Od is a traditional tattoo artist from the Philippine province of Kalinga who was honoured by the Philippine government with the Dangal na Haraya in 2018. The controversy started when Whang-Od’s grandniece called the course a scam. It turns out that Nuseir didn’t follow the proper procedures in making the deal with Whang-Od. According to Dr. Nestor Castro, 

“Whang-od is not just an individual artist but she is also a member of the Butbut Tribe of Kalinga. Her skill on the art of traditional tattooing is derived from the indigenous knowledge of generations of Kalinga ancestors. Thus, this indigenous knowledge is collectively owned (although it may be individually practiced) by the Butbut. Thus, the consent of the members of the Butbut is necessary if this knowledge is to be shared to outsiders. Getting the permission of one individual is not enough.” [Click here to read the entire post].

Apart from this, the agreement also doesn’t conform to Philippine laws on the rights of indigenous peoples. In the end, Cultural appropriation of this type is inappropriate because it is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society. The issue is culture or people’s right to be the gatekeepers of their own cultural wealth, whether that means protecting that wealth from other’s exploitations, or benefitting themselves as the owners of that cultural wealth.

Virgilio G. Enriquez, whose Pagbabangong-Dangal: Indigenous Psychology and Cultural Empowerment is from the Philippine context, presents six phases of cultural domination to which “indigenous psychology and culture have been subjected” throughout the world. Included in the stages are:

1. Denial and Withdrawal, where the “colonizers outrightly reject the very existence of what they perceive as an inferior culture.” This inferiority includes language, sport, food, law, and religion. “As the dominant culture denies the existence and worth of the indigenous culture, it also attempts to replace it with its own.”

2. Desecration and Destruction, where the “oppressive culture attempts to destroy whatever vestiges are left” of the indigenous culture. “Clearly, as the dominant culture atemts to destroy element s of the supposedly inferior culture, it tries to institutionalize and strengthen its own.”

3. Denigration and Marginalization, where the indigenous is labeled, giving the impression that it is inferior or damaged. This includes terms like Juan Tamad, quack doctor, ningas kugon, Filipino time, and talangka mentality as well as inaccurate portrayals of Filipinos in artwork depicting historical events, each of which is a negative stereotype of what it means to be Filipino.

4. Redefinition and Token Utilization, where the indigenous is “redefined and recast into the colonial mold.” Thus all indigenous meaning attached to the element is lost and it is not only completely redefined in a new context but also claimed by that new context as one of its own. Enriquez uses the Manila Galleon as an example. Here we have Filipino ingenuity in shipbuilding being redefined and claimed by the Spanish as one of their own. Enriquez also includes a discussion of what appears to be the token usage of “indigenous psychological texts” by Western-trained practitioners. It seems that they are being used not because of their value as psychological tools but because they merely make the client more at ease in an unfamiliar setting. 

5. Transformation and Mainstreaming, appears to be similar to Stage 4 only intensified. Here Enriquez focuses on the word hiyang, that at one time was considered nonsensical but is now seen as highlighting “personal differences” in therapeutic settings. Enriquez applies this to what happens in the doctor’s office, the kinds of food we eat, and folk-understandings of colors, shapes, textures, and sounds. “Once the prejudgment that the indigenous concept is merely superstitious or even useless has been proven wrong, the concept is reluctantly used but redefined according to the colonial mindset.”

6. Commercialization and Commodification, is where the real legitimacy of the indigenous is recognized by the colonizer. This can lead to one of two options, according to Enriquez. The first is “transforming and mainstreaming,” where “complete recognition and respect” is given by the colonizer to the indigenous and the two are mutually beneficial. The second option is where the indigenous culture’s knowledge and heritage are “exploited and commercialized.” Enriquez says that option #1 is rarely taken. He goes on to discuss the exploitation of indigenous genetics, both plant and human.

Enriquez proposes a counter-framework he calls “Decolonization, Counterdomination, and Empowerment” in order to guide in the recovery of what has been lost through colonialism. His model involves blending “both the modern and traditional cultural systems.” Key to his approach is what he calls indigenization from within, a traditional values-based approach that sees the indigenous as the main actor rather than the outsider. This internal orientation is essential to beginning decolonization because it puts the indigenous firmly in the driver’s seat. Enriquez identifies four aspects to indigenization from within, namely the “identification of key concepts from the indigenous culture,” the “semantic and lexical elaboration of these concepts,” the systematization and articulation of a theoretical framework, and applying and using this framework in the field. This process combines ideas and practices that are not only appropriate for the culture but also valid scientifically. So while one may conduct an interview in order to gather data, one is also free to conduct that interview in a culturally appropriate and relevant way.

Thus, by most accounts, appropriation is something that is bad but can be remedied. In our next post we will talk about a situation where appropriation is not only good, but is also the right thing to do.

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Image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.