Can a culture be appropriated?

AUGUST 18 — Is any culture pure? And can a culture belong to a single people? All cultures intermingle and borrow from each other, after all.

This is how and why we see the Indian Ramayana myth embedded in South-east Asian culture and how we got delicious fusions — like laksa and Chinese rojak

Even chillies which are so fundamental to Asian cuisine came to us from South America via European traders.

If most things are a product of exchange, how can anything ever be appropriated? This idea of diffusion is well accepted in anthropology.

But diffusion is not appropriation and a trip to Sephora will make this distinction clear.

Walking around the cosmetic store with my cousin, we noticed the endless coconut and coconut oil-based products in everything — from lip balms to hair spray — and carried by so many brands, from drugstore to designer.

I bumbled along obliviously until my cousin pointed out the hypocrisy of all the “naturally scented” coconut product samples available. 

If, like us, you grew up in a household that used coconut oil you will vividly remember (or continue to be subjected to) the constant bullying, othering and viciousness liberally doled out: “Eeeeyer, so smelly” was the classic taunt.

Unimaginative yet effective.

It instantly made you feel disgusting and small. Friends have horror stories of being told by their teachers to sit at the back because the smell was too strong or classmates pinching their noses as they walked by.

Yet, today in Sephora, the very habit we were bullied over has become fashionable and sought after. Why? Because it was endorsed by the West? 

So, only when bronzed ladies in California started smearing on coconut oil did most Singaporeans discover it?  It’s the textbook case of a dominant culture appropriating something and then profiting from it. 

It is irritating that something that was used to ridicule us has now become a fashionable money maker for Western beauty companies and there is no acknowledgement.

Is the answer then a firm delineation of lines? Ours ends here and yours begins there.

It is tempting. To shout: “This, all of this coconutty goodness belongs to us and us alone.”

But it seems limiting.

The lesson must be that we need to take more time and make more of an effort to understand and appreciate the culture of our neighbours — especially if you occupy the dominant place in your society.

And we shouldn’t have to wait for the West’s endorsement before we think something from a neighbouring culture has value.

Whether it is Tai Chi or coconut oil, if we were open to learning from each other we would be able identify valuable and interesting practices and share ourselves — creating more understanding, opportunities and business. 

In the meanwhile, excuse me while I slather on the coconut oil — right out of the corner store Patanjali bottle — and savour its “natural scent.”

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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