Last week, I attended a forum for civilised disagreement hosted by Tortoise, called ThinkIn, where the topic was ‘Jamie Oliver's jerk rice and museum marbles: who owns culture?’. Having previously attended many similar events in community spaces, I was looking forward to a fiery conversation around the complexities of cultural appropriation and, as the event titles suggests, misappropriation.
The chair, Ravin Sampat, set the tone by stating “This is not a white-bashing session… this is not the ‘wokest’ room in London,” which put many of the people in the room at ease. There was an acknowledgement that conversations around cultural appropriation can be sensitive and hard to untangle - “a ticking time bomb of emotion”.
Whilst the event’s title referred to “museum marbles” and began with the museum scene from Black Panther, the main focus was on defining culture itself. My initial scepticism subsided as the nuances of the topic came to the foreground. Responses went beyond the simple dictionary definition of “the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society”. Culture was about heart, it was soul food, it was traditional, generational, yet fluid, ever-changing and adapting. Amma Aburam described it as the intersection of the past and the present. Other people offered culture as a collection of totems we inherently know, a common reference point.
There were some bold claims of “nobody owns culture” and “we all own culture”. A young teenage girl, perhaps the youngest in the room, articulated that in the depths of her soul this was not true. For her, culture was owned by particular people - otherwise what differentiated gay culture, British culture, Yoruba culture, and who was being offended if all culture was universal?
Amma skillfully put forward the case against cultural ownership and for cultural stewardship. She suggested that culture is not a possession but a responsibility. Jamie Oliver’s “jerk rice” and Kim Kardashian’s “KimOhNo!” were both criticised for cultural misappropriation, and Amma believed that this anger stemmed from the intention, “I know this culture, I understand it, and this culture is not being represented in the best way.”
However, what does cultural appropriation even mean in the context of a long human history of cultural exchange and “cultural borrowing”, when is something cultural appropriation and when is it appreciation?
It is useful to think of culture - as Zygmunt Bauman or Clifford Geertz have made clear - not as a simple ‘product’ to be traded but as a set of ideas, beliefs and artefacts that are both embedded in and expressive of the lives of a people. The act of extracting any cultural element from that wider context and of transposing it in another needs to be done based on an understanding of the meaning and value that people in the culture of origins attach to it. It requires deep sensitivity to how that act of appropriation and relocation will be interpreted.
Fiona Compton built consensus around the room for the idea that cultural appropriation was built around three things: disrespect, disempowerment and profit. As one audience member put it, we have to ask what is being appropriated, by whom and for what purpose.
Using this framework to analyse Kim Kardashian’s shapewear brand exposes a depth of pain. At the end of World War Two, Japan was brought to its knees by two US nuclear bombs. It was forced into an unconditional surrender, the Emperor of Japan had to publicly renounce his divinity, and there are Japanese veterans still alive today who have spent their life contending with this most public of humiliations. To now have a controversial US celebrity try to copyright and profit from Japanese culture in this way is deeply offensive.
So how do organisations and businesses avoid cultural misappropriations? The consensus antidote is to work collaboratively and co-create with authentic voices. Brands and organisations should avoid trying to own culture or speak for a culture that they have dubious connections to. Instead, invite creators and innovators who are already within the said culture to the table. Open doors, pass the mic, invite others to dance for a more inclusive environment where creativity can thrive.