I received some feedback on my blog post, Deliberations: More Courageous Conversations About Cultural Appropriation, and How to Handle Criticisms. Over all, it was positive. However, there were some points of criticism that I received, and want to take a moment to acknowledge and address. To this end, I am writing a small blurb regarding the long-term effects of colonialism through time in relation to cultural appropriation and historical, cultural erasure.
Some of the criticism of my post was that because of the focus of content, I came across as framing it “Caucasian vs. Non-Caucasian,” or in even more blunt language, “White vs. non-White.” First and foremost, I will honor and respect the discomfort I had caused with that impression, though I am not apologetic for it. Part of the reason I called the post “more courageous conversations” in the title was because this is not an easy conversation to have at all. Again, Twitter arguments do not always have the nuance mandated for a real, heart-to-heart discussion on this. Media has certainly not helped with portraying issues of cultural appropriation (or even appreciation in select cases), and the trappings of essentialist-ic thinking certainly have not helped (while on select few topics, it may be warranted). I want to help add some clarity on this topic that there is more than the binary that is often framed when it comes to examining the impact of cultural colonization (such as Western colonialism vs. the colonized). It might also help people understand how colonization and its long-term effects have historically been a phenomenon for far longer than the Colonial Era of which I understand best.
A lot of my own experiences and research had been done on Euro-American imperialism and its long-term effects. As a multiracial, multicultural citizen of this setup, I had been a product of this, for better or worse. Some of the cultural roots of my closest relations and my own had been diluted. So it is no accident I had looked at this particular topic more than others when it comes to colonialism.
In truth, the long-term effects of cultural imperialism go beyond even the Colonial Era. I am going to briefly touch on this topic more than my own area of expertise, as I do not have the same extent of knowledge. Still, I want to convey something to help people understand its power. It will also help nuance this topic beyond the current, more damaging trends and consequences of cultural imperialism that are going on in the Euro-American context.
First and foremost, let us look at the Roman Empire. The British Isles originally had natives who were initially belonging to a completely different culture; or even a set of cultures. For the purpose of this example, I am going to omit modern-day Ireland from the equation. My vocabulary along with knowledge pertaining to this historical time is also not up to par, so if anyone needs to correct me on anything, please feel free to do so. I digress. The Empire eventually took over the southern portion of the Isles. Thus, the beginning of the assimilation of the original inhabitants, though they had claim to other territories still (for the time).
When the Empire started to wane in the 5th century C.E., Anglo-Saxons filled the void the Roman Empire once did. There, we had multiple factions laying claim to territories on the Isles, including the Britons and by the 9th century C.E., the Vikings. As time went on, this compilation of historical events had led to the original natives of the British Isles to culturally wane, being more and more assimilated. As a recent conversation had with individuals closely tied to Welsh culture indicated to me, Wales is one of the few places where people can find remnants of the pre-Roman culture(s) in the Isles (Anonymous, personal communication, 2018). Originally, the dominant religion or spiritual tradition of Wales prior to Roman influences was druidic or pagan (Anonymous, personal communication, 2018). Very few today make any claims to this now. Portions of this culture exist today but is fragmented from what it once was, and not completely from organic considerations of the original culture.
We use many symbols from the pre-Roman period of the Isles today. The original meaning of these, and the stories surrounding them, are not so widely known due to the long-term consequences of cultural imperialism (Writing Excuses, 2016). Now, there are likely many more nuances in this process that I had not covered due to my own limited experience and research with this area. Nonetheless, it further illuminates the fact that cultural appropriation, regardless of where one feels the line is drawn, is an important issue. Ignoring it as an issue will contribute to further erasure of future cultures. What makes the issue of appropriation different now is that we contend with the social category of race in addition to culture or nation of origin.
Many have vague familiarity with the fact the first Empire widely known in the world was founded by China. I am not as familiar with East Asian history, though, so I will not be touching on this example much. I am more comfortable discussing the history of South and Southeast Asia, so I will bring up another example, one that has nothing to do with European colonization. There is the Vietnamese Mother Goddess figure, Thiên Y A Na, or Lady Po Nagar. Before the mainstream Vietnamese of today, and even before French imperialism, there was a group who had more territory in Vietnam, the Cham people. Chams are indigenous to Vietnam. Lady Po Nagar was their Mother Goddess prior to her integration into the culture of the current dominant group, the Kinh. The Cham people were an Austroasian group, their cultural influences embodying much of the history of the former Indochina in Central and South Vietnam.
During the time when the South China Sea was known as the Champa Sea (or Sea of Cham), the Chams had traded with multiple kingdoms and societies in Southeast Asia. Their religions were primarily Hinduism, Islam, and the ancestral worship that Vietnam is known for today. Some were and may also be Mahayana Buddhist. Some Cham groups integrated elements of all these traditions, embracing them as part of cultural exchanges with other parts of Asia and the Far East. In any case, Lady Po Nagar was considered by some Hindus an aspect of Bhagavati-Uma. Other symbolism found in Champa ruins also tied the Mother Goddess to the Goddess Durga. When I have time, I will expand my list of references.
Between fights with other groups in Southeast Asia, and several cases of genocide throughout time, Chams have fewer numbers today. My relatives from Southeast Asia also do not remember the name Lady Po Nagar, let alone the Goddess as an aspect of Bhagavati-Uma or the Goddess Durga. Sometime prior to when she had been adopted by the Vietnamese of today, her history as any of these entities had become buried, though fortunately more are learning of this information now. I find this history a tragedy, in part because it demonstrates how much cultural imperialism can take us away from history very sacred. Generations can pass and good people will no longer remember the origins of a culture or symbol of it due to cultural erasure from a previous entity, or group of entities. The Khmer Rouge wiped out almost half of the Cham population in Southeast Asia, contributing further to this historical, cultural erasure.
People may say it is rather normal, and a reality that cultures will thrive and perish in time. It is said to be completely natural for civilizations to war with each other, and to take and discard what they please when they become the victor. Some will insist that no one should ever care about this sort of history because there are other things to worry about. While these sentiments are quite understandable, I respectfully disagree. We cannot know everything, no. This does not mean that we cannot at least make an effort to do differently, though.
We cannot be perfect, and will not be perfect. People wanting to work on fighting the long-term effects of imperialism, to save what we still have, will certainly stumble on the way. To expect cultural purity when topics of historical cultural appropriation come up is not a realistic standard. Yet it does not diminish the seriousness of the topic, actually serving as further proof of its significance to social justice. The discourse reinforces just how pervasive, and difficult it is to eradicate all of the conditions that help its influences thrive. Failures will happen. Being afraid to fail is perfectly okay, and only shows one cares. Pitfalls will happen, because all of us are a product of multiple colonizations, empires, and the bloodshed and destruction entailed.
Caring about this though means we can work with all of humanity for a better future, to protect what makes us better. We can also learn when we are unwitting pawns of cultural erasure, and see how we can make sure to not do it when we learn better (or to slow down the progress). Eventually, it can mean a true cultural exchange of equals that can enrich us individually, if not collectively. I hope I can help with this, even if I may stumble a few times on the way.
Bray, A. (2014, June 18). The Cham: Descendants of ancient rulers of South China Sea watch maritime dispute From sidelines. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/06/140616-south-china-sea-vietnam-china-cambodia-champa/
Drishith. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://detechter.com/po-nagar-in-vietnam-is-found-to-be-hindu-goddess-bhagavati/
International Organization of Champa. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.ioc-champa.com/
Writing Excuses. (2016). 11.46: Colonialism, with Steven Barnes, Tempest Bradford, DongWon Song, and Shveta Thakrar. Retrieved from https://writingexcuses.com/2016/11/13/11-46-colonialism-with-steven-barnes-tempest-bradford-dongwon-song-and-shveta-thakrar/