So Given My German Ancestry, Is Anything Beyond Wearing Lederhosen and Invading France Cultural Appropration?

I will say that this story honestly loses me.  

Just when you think we’ve reached Peak Sensitivity, the scolds of social justice sprinkle more sand into their underpants. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is currently showing a superb exhibition of the art of Hokusai. As per common practice at scholarly institutions, it is displaying related material, including an exhibition of contemporary Japanese photographers responding to the devastating earthquake that hit the northern part of the country in 2011. It also rehung La Japonaise, an 1876 canvas in its collection by Claude Monet, depicting his wife Camille in a vermillion kimono.

Among the educational programming at the MFA was “Kimono Wednesdays,” an opportunity for museumgoers to try on replica of that kimono in the presence of Monet’s canvas. It was slated for Wednesday evenings, when the museum’s entrance fee is by donation, starting June 24 and running throughout the month of July. But it didn’t make it that far.

Demonstrators showed up at the first two events bearing posters accusing the participants of grave wrongdoing. “Try on the kimono; learn what it’s like to be a racist imperialist today!” exclaimed one. “Let’s dress up Orientalism with more Orientalism,” read another. The protest had been arranged through a Facebook group named Stand Against Yellow-Face @ the MFA (the discussions have moved to a Tumblr), where the principals and their supporters expressed great umbrage. “A willingness to engage in thoughtful dialogue (or not) with museum employees and visitors on the bullshit of this white supremacist ‘costume’ event are welcome,” wrote one of the organizers.

Eventually the museum caved and even apologized.  I can understand the caving -- as the author suggested, it simply was not a hill the museum needed to die on -- but these apologies for non-crimes have got to stop.  Someone has to show some backbone in the face of these absurd pogroms.

When my family was visiting castles in England, they  often had clothes for the kids to play dress-up in medieval garb.  When my son and his friends were at Octoberfest, they bought lederhosen to wear when they attended.  When I took Spanish for years in grade school, we often did projects that emulated various Spanish cultures we were studying (such as the Mexican tradition of leaving out decorated shoes for candy and gifts).  Are these all wrong now?

I suppose if the museum had a "dress like a Kamikaze pilot" promotion or "pretend to be a comfort girl" exhibit, I could see the problem.  But trying on a kimono?  Kimono's have gone through several cycles of being fashionable in the West over the last 200 years or so (in the James Bond books, Ian Fleming often noted that Bond preferred a kimono for sleeping).

Seriously, we Americans have little in the way of home grown culture - haven't we appropriated about everything?  And so what?  The opposite of cultural appropriation in my mind is cultural apartheid.   Which in fact seems to be what some progressives are advocating for on campus, coming full-circle and apparently asking for separate but equal facilities for women and certain ethnic groups so they won't be tainted by white maleness, or whatever.

  • Dan Wendlick

    I feel your pain. Being German/Irish, I'm forever confused about what kind of beer I should be drinking. The easiest solution is one of each.

  • agerman

    Terrible tendency to want to do the right thing as opposed to focusing on just winning? Rampant perfectionism? Can't sit still and be idle? 😉

  • CT_Yankee

    If the Mexicans leave out decorated shoes to be filled with candy and gifts, I suggest the Germans might want to start leaving out some oversize beer mugs to be filled with a frosty cold adult beverage, repeating as necessary....start a new tradition worth expropriating!

  • Another_Brian

    Most of these culture crusaders are middle class white kids, and most of them don't seem to understand that other cultures love to share the things that make them unique with people from other cultures. It's sad they went to these lengths to ruin what would have been an otherwise educational event that most people would never have the opportunity to experience. They should receive some sort of James Earl Ray "Keep Segregation Alive" award or something.

  • Mike

    I keep wondering if these people have never heard the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

  • J K Brown

    Why do they never complain about the appropriation of the culture of the ancient liberties of the Anglo-Saxons, now the English-speaking people? Sure, the culture developed in the Saxon woods, but those that remained on the Continent lost it with the rise of monarchs and despots. Only in England did the culture survive, even the Normans, to rise and spread. If these who are protesting can't trace their lineage to England, then they probably learned of these liberties by military, economic, industrial conquest and colonialism. Perhaps some of their ancestors did voluntarily move to England, Britain, the USA, but they appropriated the local culture.

    Now, so many feel they have a cultural right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, equality. These are not their culture, these did not arise in Asia, Africa, Meso-America, even Continental Europe. These ancient rights traveled with the hated White (English) men. And yet, no one complains about the cultural appropriation, especially when that culture led to the abolishment of slavery, equality before the law, education for all, created the steam-engine and the industrial revolution, women's suffrage, same-sex marriage...

  • J K Brown

    They don't seem to want to give up the cultural appropriation of pizza, bagels, sausages, sushi, etc.

  • J K Brown

    I wonder if they've heard "Walk a mile in their shoes." Oh wait, that is only for ROTC men and pink high heels.

  • Matthew Slyfield

    "So Given My German Ancestry, Is Anything Beyond Wearing Lederhosen and Invading France Cultural Appropration?"

    BEER!

  • walkercolt

    My family and I just got back from a vacation in Japan. In Kyoto anybody can rent a kimono regardless of ancestry and walk around the city. It is encouraged by the city officials there to engage in this "horrible" dress-up / appropriation activity by incentives such as discounts at participating restaurants, taxi cabs, etc. Obviously, the Japanese don't have any problem with gaijin dressing in traditional garb.

    The inability to see cross-cultural events as a positive learning experience by these cretins is almost unbelievable.

  • Arrian

    The funniest thing to me is that defending Japan from cultural appropriation is about the most ironic gesture you can get. The Japanese relentlessly steal and shamelessly mangles culture like nobody else. They don't even bother to wave in passing at the source of something, often not even realizing that it's not originally a Japanese invention. (A sizeable chunk of the population doesn't realize KFC wasn't created in Japan, for example.)

    And how are they faring culturally? Pretty darn well, The Shibata family is on the 21st consecutive generation of bowmakers to the emperor, the Ogasawara clan has been teaching etiquette for 828 years, etc. These niche activities continue largely because the government subsidizes traditional arts and crafts, but the core of Japanese culture continues probably due to some combination of that same confidence in their cultural superiority so many people find exasperating in Americans and pretty serious insularity. Yeah, they're both insular and aggressively stealing other peoples' cultures, contradictions like that abound not just in Japan but in all of us.

  • tmitsss

    My religion stolen from the Jews, my preferred government stolen from the Greeks, my beliefs on civic duty from the Romans, Elvis stole my music for me

  • Nimrod

    It's the natural consequence of teaching divide-and-rule Marxist conflict theory. Of course they never learn enough of the details of the philosophy to enable them to question it. So much for education. Let's have a Confucian reformation of names and change "education system" to "indoctrination system".

  • Bobisnotyouruncle

    When visiting the forbidden palace in Beijing, I was practically harassed into putting on ancient robes and headpieces for a picture ($15 or something). The Chinese don't care about cultural appropriation, and the Japanese 'stole' almost their entire culture from the Chinese!

  • obloodyhell

    }}}Seriously, we Americans have little in the way of home grown culture - haven't we appropriated about everything?

    We haven't "appropriated" anything. We are a MONGREL culture -- we have people with ancestors from all over the world LIVING here as citizens. When one of them -- or one of their ancestors -- brought something useful, we said, "Hey, that works!! Let's adopt it!!" and did -- contrast the French, who, back in the 1980s officially BANNED French books and magazines from using the term "Walkman" and had some dumbass Frenchified term for it. Failure to use the Frenchified term meant paying a fine to the official government "French Purity" police.

    "Appropriating" is playing into these idiot's hands. We USE it because we RESPECT other cultures more than any other nation on earth, and when they have something that works, we ADOPT it as our own. So we take Hong Kong action movies and adopt their stuntwork to fit our own movies.

    This adoptive mechanism is why American IP is so damned valuable everywhere else in the world. Universal Studios alone has already made 3 BILLION dollars with films this year alone, much of that thanks to foreign box office...

    Can you name anything French that travels half as well? Zippo, other than stuff by Luc Besson, who is the best damned director/creator France ever had, with at least four different franchiseable memes under his belt: Nikita, The Transporter, Taxi, Taken) as well as a number of other awesome solo films outside those franchises (Leon-The Professional, From Paris With Love, The Fifth Element, Wasabe, Banlieu 13, etc.). Truffaut and the rest of the 60s "art house" types were vastly overrated. They appealed to film students and few others.

  • obloodyhell

    LOL, rather it got forced on them by the Chinese. Until, what, about 1650, Chinese warlords ruled Japan. It says a lot when you find out that the Japanese word for "rapist" also translates to "Chinese".

  • obloodyhell

    The Japanese "steal" -- they adopt things from other cultures, but don't respect them as being from other cultures -- the Japanese word for "foreigner", "Gaijin" also translates to "barbarian"... That is, anyone who is not Japanese is a barbarian. And this is reflected, as you suggest, by the fact that many Japanese fail to realize that KFC is American.

    Americans don't "steal", they "adopt". Americans know that the kimono is Japanese in origin. They know that pasta dishes are often Italian, or based on Italian food styles. They're called "Swedish Meatballs" because we don't hide the source. We happily recognize that the world is filled with wonderful things, and we Americans aren't the only source of them.

    If it works, we happily adopt it. See above for my comments on how this is just another way in which America is fairly unique, in its xenophilia instead of xenophobia. Contrast with the French response to cultural invasion and incursion.

  • obloodyhell

    No, it's quite believable. They are cretins. If they weren't, they wouldn't be cretins.

    P.J. O'Rourke describes a term that explains it quite well, in "Parliament of Whores": Perpetually Indignant.

    Their goal is to attack everything by being indignant. It fills in their sense of self-worth to attack things and get people to back down, no matter how idiotic their reason for attacking is. They are, at heart, petty little bullies.

    The answer to any such bully is to step on their toes until they apologize for their big fat feet.

  • Dave B

    Wearing lederhosen for Octoberfest is quite similar to wearing Mickey Mouse ears in a Disney theme park.

    It's fine for the occasion and appropriate but equating lederhosen with all germans is more akin to saying all americans are texan cowboys or vapid californians like in The Californians sketch on SNL.

    Lederhosen is more of a (south) bavarian thing and anytime germany is equated to bavaria a lot of cringing happens.
    The former kingdom of bavaria still oddly has a lot of political sway in the german federation, with its ruling christian conservative party forcing the german government to agree to its demands.

  • Jason Azze

    This story loses me, as well. I can't even figure out who is on which side. Is Camille Monet the racist imperialist in the eyes of the protesters, or are the imperial Japanese the racist imperialists?

  • markm

    Huh? Did you get Korean and Japanese history mixed up? The Japanese may be of Chinese and/or Korean origin, but the only non-native-born ruler in over a thousand years of records was Douglas McArthur.