In a recent article from the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth makes the case that it is fine to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white female, as Motoko Kusanagi, a robot detective in future Tokyo.

Cultural appropriation, as described by the cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz, can exist for both the majority and the minority. It does not necessarily yield negative results as we often assume. Rather, it is a concept that reminds us to be cautious when the majority appropriates the minority’s culture, because it can often happen in a way that enforces negative stereotypes against minorities — e.g., that they are violent or servile or that they do not have a voice to represent their own culture — and entrenches existing power relations.

However, I think our usage of the term has evolved to mean only such negative instances — partly, because theorists have primarily focused on such usages. If you talk to someone about cultural appropriation, they are not going to mention Japanese animation, which often appropriates American culture; they will most likely mention black face or casting a white actor to play Mulan. So this is why I define cultural appropriation as an instance in which a dominant culture appropriates a minority culture; and this is why I use cultural cross-pollination to describe instances in which a culture benefits from using elements from another culture. In other words, cultural appropriation describes power relations; cultural cross-pollination describes fruitful interactions between cultures. I think such a demarcation will clear up our conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions.

One may object that the distinction between cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation is often blurry — samba and bossa nova are played by those who trace their ancestral roots back to European colonialists, Native Americans, and African slaves. So if such a person is a few percentages more European and plays samba, they are cultural appropriators? There is no clear way to tell whether this is an instance of cultural apporpriation. But we can tell that this is an instance of cultural cross-pollination. The purpose of the demarcation isn’t to sufficiently describe every exchange between cultures; rather, it is to clear up the conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions. The demarcation allows us to make sense of a cultural product that is both cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation — for example, the Rolling Stones. We celebrate their music, yet recognize the fact that they appropriated black artists like Muddy Waters. This is quite an intuitive answer, but the debate we often see on cultural appropriation prevents us from validating such intuitions. It, instead, insists that it is either cultural appropriation or cultural cross-pollination. Why not both? Clarifying such intuitions and preventing such unnecessary conflicts is the purpose of such a demarcation — and I believe that it is successful.

One thought on “Cultural Appropriation: Motoko Kusanagi is White?

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