Cultural Appropriation in a Multiracial Society
What are the chances of cultural appropriation occurring in Singapore, a country known for its multiculturalism? Celestina Gimino finds out more about the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation, and how it impacts Singapore’s society.
Hype Issue #53
Oct 28, 2021
According to Cambridge Dictionary, cultural appropriation is the act of using elements from another culture without showing any respect or understanding about it. Some examples include applying henna to create freckles or wearing ethnic costumes like the cheongsam as a fashion statement.
In essence, appropriation strips an item of its cultural significance and reinforces certain stereotypes about the culture.
A recent incident involving an American company drew a lot of criticism due to its cultural appropriation of mahjong, a popular Chinese game.
The company attempted to revamp the game, stating that it needed “a respectful refresh”. In pursuit of aesthetics, the company was criticised for erasing Chinese culture in its remake. In addition, none of the founding members came from a Chinese background.
Many took offense to this, feeling that the company had exploited Chinese culture for its own profit.
Examples of tiles from The Mahjong Line. Photo taken from The Mahjong Line.
Historically, mahjong was a popular pastime activity among Chinese-Americans in the 1920s to 1930s. In a study conducted at Stanford University, the activity served as a way for them to bond with one another at a time when Americans viewed them as mere foreigners.
Singapore’s diverse and multicultural society is what makes it so unique as a country. Due to its melting pot of ethnic cultures and religious traditions, many people may be unaware of the underlying existence of cultural appropriation.
A survey was conducted by HYPE among 32 participants aged 16 to 25 years about their understanding of cultural appropriation. Upon being asked if they think that it is a serious issue in Singapore, 20 respondents agreed that while the issue may not be severe, cultural appropriation still exists in Singapore.
When asked about their knowledge of cultural appropriation, respondents often cited the Brownface Controversy by Mediacorp as an example. The incident, which occurred in 2019, made headlines as local actor Dennis Chew portrayed four different racial groups in an advertisement.
He wore a tudung to resemble a Malay lady and darkened his skin to look like an Indian man.
In Singapore, cultural appropriation refers not just to the misuse of cultural elements derived from the four main races, but also other ethnic minorities such as the Native Americans and the African Americans.
Being a predominantly Asian country, the inappropriate adoption of the Native American and Black culture may not be something that Singaporeans are aware of. This includes dressing up as Pocahontas for Halloween, wearing an indigenous headdress or sporting dreadlocks.
Hena Daswani, 17, a student at Raffles Institution, shares her thoughts on Singapore’s Racial Harmony Day (RHD) celebration.
She says: “Most of the time, people dress up just for the sake of taking pictures for social media and do not have proper knowledge about the clothes on their back.”
In contrast to cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation is the act of respectfully borrowing elements from other cultures and understanding the cultural significance behind them. The experience broadens one’s perspectives and allows them to deeply connect with those from other cultures.
Many primary and secondary schools in Singapore celebrate RHD as a symbol of our multiculturalism.
During these celebrations, students are encouraged to come to school dressed in ethnic costumes. Some schools may provide food tasting activities that allow students of other races to experience food from different cultures. Students of different races may also share about certain cultural and racial meanings that students of other races may not be familiar with.
Despite these efforts, are students sufficiently taught about the different cultures to better appreciate the significance of the ethnic clothing that they wear?
Photo of students celebrating Racial Harmony Day. Photo courtesy of Celestina Gimino.
Racial Harmony Day
The same HYPE survey also revealed that 28 respondents had learnt about cultural appropriation through social media or their circle of friends. This further implies the lack of effort made in schools to educate students about cultural appreciation.
Irina Ong, 19, a student at Nanyang Technological University, says that her school had only started celebrating RHD in 2021.
“[Cultural appropriation] holds little content value in our education system,” Irina shares, explaining the reason why people may be unaware of the issue.
Gillian Wee, 19, a student at National University of Singapore, shares the same sentiment. She says that the significance of racial harmony in RHD celebrations has been reduced to a ‘glamorised fashion festival’.
“Little effort is being made to promote the normality of actively living and engaging with people of different races in a state of mutual tolerance and kindness” she adds.
For Gillian, a lack of understanding and ignorance among Singaporeans may lead to an erasure of the Eurasian culture.
The university student of Eurasian descent thinks that many Singaporeans “turn a blind eye to this forgotten minority race and its culture”.
Reflecting on her past RHD celebrations, Gillian noticed that teachers have always been quick to mention that jeans aren’t the appropriate attire for Eurasian ethnic clothing, but never made the effort to mention other options that were suitable.
Ways to educate ourselves better
Singapore schools do not teach students about cultural appropriation. Based on our survey, most had learnt about cultural appropriation on their own.
“Students are taught to promote a healthy multi-racial environment. However, they are rarely taught about the consequences that come when living in such a diverse society,” Irina shares.
With the advancement of technology and the prevalence of the Internet, it is becoming easier for minorities to voice out their opinions on social media platforms. Social media has provided a larger platform for influencers of minority races to continue educating their followers about their culture.
Hena says: “Influencers of the majority races should be deplatformed if change is not seen after being called out, so that others do not mirror their actions and know the detriments of cultural appropriation.”
Society is progressing towards inclusivity with a greater awareness of discriminatory acts or practices that were normalised in the past. As the younger generation continues to spread awareness of such issues, it is likely that people will understand the offensive nature of these acts, which will then lead to denormalisation.
This further promotes the notion of mingling outside one’s own race to appreciate the differences that exist between various cultures.
“Racial harmony cannot be achieved without any education on racial diversity, appreciation of other cultures and not gatekeeping certain cultures,” says Gillian.
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