Last week, Faye told me about her discussion with some of our office friends on statements opening with “I don’t mean to be (racist/offensive/whatever)”, which ironically sets the tone for whatever sentiment you did not want to come across. With our recently concluded year-end party (a.k.a. Christmas party), our lovely colleagues had chosen bohemian as this year’s theme. A year ago, it was supposedly The Roaring Twenties, which I thought was offensive and tacky in the midst of Yolanda’s destruction in Central Visayas. Good thing it did not push through, which was a good call. We also had a fashion ball (where I wore a T-shirt LOL), a masquerade, a Filipiniana and some other themes I already forgot.
I already had an ominous feeling for this Saturday’s event. Given that its bohemian, people will most likely wear festival clothing for the event, and it won’t be complete without the presence of a headdress. I have read an article written by ‘Outstanding Warbonnet’ from The Prague Review last September on ‘How not to wear a warbonnet‘ after the annual cheerleading competition that I had watched. Just as we thought that the event would conclude without any headdress in sight, ‘lo and behold, several of these popped from thin air just in time for the obligatory fashion show.
I first encountered the term ‘cultural appropriation’ in my graduate school anthropology class when I was researching on interracial marriages for my report and term paper. First of all, it is a very foreign notion to Filipinos. Imagine, I did not even encounter the term until graduate school, when I even took an undergraduate subject years before. We have discussed cultural sensitivity and ethnocentrism, but I guess we fell short in discussing cultural appropriation. When do you cross the line between appreciation and appropriation?
Cultural appropriation stresses a divide between the group whose culture was appropriated and the group who is appropriating. It posits that the minority’s culture was often appropriated by another culture, usually the oppressing one. This is where it gets tricky in our case, that is, Native American iconography appropriation in the Philippine setting. Obviously, we never conquered the Native Americans, and in fact, we were once a conquered country as well by Spain almost 500 years ago. Does it mean it is okay for us to use Native American artifacts? Not entirely. Another important part of the term is mindless appropriation without any definite understanding of the artifacts or activities’ significance. In short, they were reduced as mere ornaments, devoid of any meanings.
So how do I even reach this point of writing about this? I recently posted about the shirt I intend to wear for the event, and upon closer scrutiny, I had a nagging feeling that the print might me Mesoamerican in origin. I got nervous. How can I start talking about cultural appropriation when my own linen shirt has this air of ambiguity on it? I did due diligence and feverishly looked for Mesoamerican scripts, patterns and architecture if it has any semblance to those symbols, as I felt bad that I might be mindlessly using an ancient script to feel bohemian. And gladly, it did not. All was well, right? Not exactly. I realized later on that the silk scarf that Mon wore was, well Mayan-inspired. Too late.
So what am I exactly getting at? I had a random rant about this last September:
Amazing but it was an Anna dello Russo, Alessandra Ambrosio, Pharrell Williams and a bunch of Coachella hipsters moment. Hmmm… It’s sad that we Filipinos do not have a strong concept of cultural appropriation/sensitivity in general. It is okay for us to pull our eyelids on photos, have blackface on soap operas (or even that Nancy Binay makeup transformation) and talk stereotypical Chinese/Japanese in comedy shows for the sake of entertainment. And then if some foreigners perpetuate stereotypes about us, witch-hunt na kagad ito.
Let us start with the local, collegiate leagues. From the blatant disregard and appropriation of the squad who wore headdresses and some more from the 2014 UAAP CDC, to another NCAA school that has an Indian Yell and also has an elaborate costume-gimmickry in their halftime routines — the pervasiveness of the stituation was just normal. (Full disclosure: you might think that I have an axe to grind with the team who won the championship because, well, I used to be part of the squad who got second place, but I must admit that even we had committed the same faux pas in one of our promotional materials years ago.) Anyway, the good thing that came out from all of this was that at least more people became aware of the term cultural appropriation because of our community that tends to intellectualize all things. =P
It is still problematic, non? But I guess using iconography is excusable if there is an effort to understand its meanings, and push for a reason why these meanings need to be known by a larger audience. That’s all.