Is Cultural Appropriation Ever Okay?

This morning I was watching the trailer for that 1998 classic Six String Samurai – a film I rather enjoyed in high school for it’s overly-bizarre story.

At one point, my sister made me a mixed tape which included one of the movie’s great lines: “They say he can kill over two hundred men, and play a mean six-string at the same time.”

That’s pretty great, right?

But now that I am older and wiser, now that I have lived in Japan and seriously studied Japanese culture, I watched the trailer this morning and thought, “man, that’s kind of offensive. Right?”

I mean, you’ve got this super white guy pretending to be a samurai. How is that going to go well?

It certainly qualifies as cultural appropriation, “the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group.” And cultural appropriation is, most generally, deeply problematic.

But somehow this felt a bit different.

Almost like the Eel’s cover of Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On or the Dynamite Hack version of Boyz in the Hood.

These are all easily examples of cultural appropriation, but I’m not sure they rise to the same level of offensiveness as, say, the cultural appropriation of the Harlem Shake.

When white people everywhere suddenly discover this “new” “meme” that actually has been happening in Harlem for decades, that seems offensive on many levels.

But I’m not sure all cultural appropriation is the same.

The Eels cover of Get Ur Freak On, for example, sounds exactly like its being sung by a bunch of white guys from California. They’re not trying to be something they’re not. I’m not sure they’re even trying to appropriate the genre of rap.

They are singing a song they love and kind of owning the fact they can’t do it justice.

There’s an element of self-awareness in this, I think. An element of knowing that they are not only borrowing from another artist’s creative works, but that that art belongs within a whole cultural context they don’t understand.

I find a similar sense in Six String Samurai. They’re not trying to be samurai, and I don’t think they’re parodying samurai either. If anything, it’s a parody of white Hollywood’s cultural appropriation of Japanese culture – a subtle reminder that that’s how ridiculous white boys as samurai look.

Obviously I am not in the best position to judge this, being incredible white myself. It’s entirely possible that I’m just making excuses for artists I enjoy and hoping that my liberal sensibilities won’t be offended by the possibility that I like something which is actually problematic.

But I think there might be something to this notion. That cultural appropriation can be used as a subtle social commentary. That with an awareness of one’s own whiteness or one’s own separateness from another culture, appropriation can more properly be an homage, and can even intentionally highlight the problems of appropriation.

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