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Cultural appropriation on Tumblr?

Cultural appropriation on Tumblr? June 14, 2015Leave a comment

Groomsmen in turbans, women in saris, the happy gay couple in sherwanis. The stage was set for a vibrant, colourful civil partnership that looked straight out of a Bollywood movie. However, those featured in the photograph don’t appear to come from the culture the clothes represent.

In fact, on Tumblr, this alleged cultural mismatch was called out, accompanied with profanity, as a clear example of cultural appropriation. This call was responded to with a similar hot headedness from others, both agreeing and disagreeing with the view presented.

While intense arguments are commonplace online today, one thing Tumblr prides itself on is a hyper-awareness of social issues. The problem with the post featuring the happy, apparently white, couple is that it is impossible to know the cultural background of everyone in the photo. Also the context of the photo remains unexplained.

Is one of the grooms of Asian extraction? Is anyone wearing something they shouldn’t be? At what point does cultural appreciation become cultural appropriation? Does this mean that people are strictly bound to the traditions of their own culture and race?

These questions have been asked time and again, but on Tumblr people are expected to know the answers. People are also expected to make others aware of the issues by ‘reblogging’ about them, or ‘signal boosting’ if one has a large following.

Multiple first person accounts are funnelled into a central ‘dashboard’ as a homepage, and opinions, followed by yet more opinions, create a very matter-of-fact environment. While this can make social problems easier to understand, misinformation travels just as fast. Should the words of someone of South Asian descent, who expresses offence at this photograph, be taken seriously, or is it inadvisable to comment until the full context of the image is known?

The question of whether or not the image is an example of cultural appropriation was featured on Reddit. The first paragraph of this post states that a label of cultural appropriation is not relevant in this case as it is “just clothes” worn to match the theme of the wedding.

The Reddit post goes on to ask, who has the authority to determine whether something is cultural appropriation or not. Placing the onus of responsibility onto the culture directly affected isn’t a workable solution.

An entire culture of people is not homogenous, but has different viewpoints and experiences, particularly on what is offensive or not. For example, take rap star Iggy Azalea. She has been widely criticised as a cultural appropriator across Tumblr regarding her fashion sense, body language and accent while rapping.

There are still people who defend her within the African American and Black British communities. Even the popular YouTuber known as the1janitor, who has used his platform to make some influential comments about racism, says Azalea’s music is okay.

In fact, by the end of his video, posted to Tumblr as GIFs, he blames Tumblr for making him get up in arms about an issue which doesn’t even come under cultural appropriation, in his opinion.

When creating an atmosphere of grassroots awareness, every view presented will find support somewhere. These are issues which require lengthy exploration, explanation and discussion. Instead, they are being presented on the internet where shorter, more digestible information is favoured and responses are made in an (unconsidered) instant.

There is no doubt of the benefits of Tumblr in highlighting complex social and political issues. But as the1janitor implies, the access to information for which Tumblr is so revered, could also lead to its dismissal.

As with most social media platforms, the lack of an overall content editor or fact checker makes it unclear where the real authority lies. Tumblr does, however, make it hard to stop being optimistic about a platform – used primarily by teenagers and young adults – where the users challenge the information and images they are presented with.

The discussions on Tumblr may be heated, and even sometimes misinformed, but at least they are happening in the open.

Nylah Khan is Digital Women UK’s social media support.

Picture credits: Wikimedia.org – Bindi.pottu and All grown up and married

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