In my posts I usually try to put forward an argument or perspective, and usually a relatively firm one. One that has occupied some time and reflection, albe-they never remotely infallible. This one is an open question because I haven’t been able to get close to an answer. I’m nervous about sharing it because the initial argument to be picked apart gives a false illusion of a political leaning. It’s a symptom of a process I, and many, follow. Find an argument that you want to understand better or that doesn’t ring true. Pick at it. Root around for causes until they form principles. Then see how far and wide they can be applied. Find the boundaries of an argument and test them. So bear with me, please.
The question in hand lies around representation. And, much like who watches the watchmen, I want to know what represents representative? What is representative and who can be one? Yeah, this is likely to get fruity. So let’s start broad and topical. Hipsters.
Whilst hiking a dormant volcano in Mexico, as all good hipsters do, I stumbled over some rubble and into an interesting conversation. The participants? An American of Mexican descent who feel acutely tied to the country. An American of unknown descent, who seems keen on being vegan and travelling. And a Brit whose light links to their Scottish side mainly manifested in love for certain mid-90s films and supporting Scotland in the rugby. It no longer seems spurious to categorise as hipster eh? Don’t worry, it gets more hipsterile.
A conversation about cultural appropriation comes up. You can imagine the relative positions taken. Our world travelling hipster, slowly killing the earth every time she visits a new part of it, is wide-eyed, optimistic that we can all relax a bit more and embrace easy solutions. Our proactively Mexican taking a relatively fierce position, unsurprising given recent, distant and in-between histories. Our Brit – mild-mannered, unaffected but not uninterested, becomes the devil’s advocate / facilitator. A nice abstinence coming from a country rarely, if ever, abstinent from interfering.
The conversation starts with questions of consent, copying, coopting and bastardising cultural artefacts, including food, music and more broadly too. Consent being a critical word here. If people proactively use food as a means to make a living in a new country. That’s their choice right? Or is a factor of various tranches of racism that other lines of employment were far from porous? What if they felt they had to adapt their food, a central piece piece of social performance and cohesion for centuries, in order to meet the delicate palates in this new place? What if they did so willingly? What if it was begrudging? And what if other people, of their culture, felt it was bastardising it? What if they franchised this out to others, relinquishing the reigns? Does that mean that they relinquish rights to it too?
Unwittingly this becomes exactly the point. Who has the right to decide? Could I sell my mum’s recipe for macaroni cheese? What if my sister didn’t agree with it? What about if Italians didn’t? And which Italians would have the right to? Those related to the early users of macaroni? I’m not even sure where the China-Italy water-softening-starch debate comes in, but as you can see, this is a thread that expands to various cloths.
Back to the conversation. The vegan says that she dressed up as Frida Kahlo for a fancy dress – in a way that indirectly, if not directly, asked the question of whether or not that counts as cultural appropriation. Clearly she wasn’t asking me [tangential but incredible link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l1PMVvfjDM]. So, onto the ‘ask the Mexican’ segment. The response was yes, it’s a problem. I’m not to argue that point. Frankly I don’t know either way, hence the questioning element to this. But it raises thoughts. If an American woman can’t dress up as Frida Kahlo. Can any Mexican man? And one living in Mexico now as opposed to within the specific conditions within which she grew up? What if the American, whilst disconnected and therefore unrepresentative on lines of nationality, was an artist? What if she had suffered from polio? What if she tried to express similar observations and reflections as Frida Kahlo did?
The ultimate question is, at what point does someone become representative? That’s not to say people need to be individually and culturally identical to claim some form of power or ownership of something. And especially within our neoliberal context (I’m surprised it’s taken so long to use that word too), the call for greater, stronger representation is essential, especially of things that have historically been plundered without consent and usually with force. So, unsurprisingly this seems to be about power. Who gets to hold it? Who gets to share in it? Who decides? And who represents the unrepresented?
Shift to politics and we have clear state-led rules on who qualifies to take part in the processes of choosing representation. But, as recent and distant history shows us, even in open and democratic processes, representatives are not always representative. Large proportions of peoples’ direct votes say otherwise, let alone their experiences, perspectives and cultures. Take it to the sector. Villages leaders are often unrepresentative of those they represent. They are especially unrepresentative (usually) of minorities and the socially marginalised – hence why they haven’t been marginalised. Could we honestly say that INGOs are representative of the people they serve? I guess that’s a trick question, because they more represent those they serve than those they are supposed to. And that’s a whole other topic about how NGOs are fundamentally structured as service providers, mostly for foreign governments. I know, no surprises there, but the more you look at it, the more you see NGOs as simply service providers, but ones who need to justify everything they do and do little apart from what was contracted. Even so, how do they try to become more ‘representative’. Hiring continental staff (which feels strange for reasons of breakfast references), or national staff? Hiring staff that know relevant local languages, or who are from the area themselves (but clearly moved away)? At what point do we say ‘yes, that’s representative’. And who decides? And I guess I’m inadvertently articulating one of the main problems. I, like so many, am looking for hard answers where in fact there may be none. But either way, who gets to decide that too? Yep – full wool brain time.
Consent and representation are not small things to discuss, in either scale or significance, history or future. But that’s why they’re so important to explore. I don’t presume that there’s a hard and fast rule that explains everything I’ve alluded to question above. But I’m stuck on it. I’m baffled by it. And it’s fricking intriguing. So answers on a postcard please. Help me step out of this bath of gross ignorance I’m currently sat in. The water is swiftly moving from tepid to cold.