Cultural Appropriation 101 – Is it okay to call the mainstream Babylon?

Cultural appropriation is a tricky topic, especially for privileged white people, including myself.  The idea, as i understand it, is that the dominant group takes culture and fashion from peoples they have oppressed without thinking much about it. And the people who are having their culture borrowed/stolen are yet again abused by the privileged class.

Al Jolson in black face - not Okay

Al Jolson in black face – not Okay

Black face performances are a classic example of cultural appropriate, which is so obviously repulsive now it is almost never done anymore.  But what about Mohawks? This is a hairstyle from the indigenous North American natives which has been adopted by the punk movement.  This tribe was part of the Iroquois confederacy and like most native cultures in North America was decimated by European settlers who landed after Columbus.

Is this also offensive or an inappropriate taking from a culture which was massacred by white people?

Is this also offensive or an inappropriate taking from a culture which was massacred by white people?

The original inspiration

The original inspiration

North American Native Population - If we kill you all off, can we take your fashion?

North American Native Population – If we kill you all off, can we take your fashion?

But the very nature of cultural appropriation is tricky, because in some cases the oppressed people who took on the culture borrowed it themselves.  This is the case with dreadlocks, which have been popularized as a low maintenance hairstyle which adorns the Rastafarian’s.  Is it inappropriate for whites to don dreadlocks?  Does it matter that before the Rastifarians embraced them they were the style from multiple cultures from around the world, of different racial ancestry?  Does it matter that some of these ancient cultures (like the Sufis) want their style emulated while some Rastifarians do not?

For me it gets even worse with the use of the word Babylon.  Babylon is also used by the Rastafarian culture and some people get upset when i use it as a piece of cultural appropriation.  But the Rastifarians got the term from the early Christians, of multiple races and classes.

Seems like a pretty city.  Babylon circa way back

Seems like a pretty city. Babylon circa way back

From Truth FAQ

What is Babylon? In literal terms, Babylon was a city in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). It was known for its great wealth, impressive walls and buildings, hanging gardens and its codes of law. Metaphorically, it is referenced many times in the Christian bible as a symbol of great evil and sin; it has also be used by other cultures/groups to symbolize various things, e.g. the Rastafarian movement uses the term to describe the system that has oppressed them. ‘Babylon’ is used here as a metaphor to describe the system of control that has enslaved humanity via the legal name. In particular it refers to the system of commerce that the entire world has been made subject to. There is no doubt in my mind that dominant races and cultures need to pay attention to issues of cultural appropriate and avoid simply snapping up things they find stylish, cute or trendy.  At the same time, many cultural components have multiple histories and complex origins which can be celebrated and respected.

And there is something which feels highly appropriate about calling the mainstream society “Babylon” and the people who live in it “Babylonians”, as contrasted to communards or other folks who choose to fall out of mainstream lifestyles.  The symbolism of Babylon as a grand city which embodies the problems of the contemporary world feels apt.


And i expect there will be some displeased comments on this post from friends and advisers who feel this practice is ill advised.

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About paxus

a funologist, memeticist and revolutionary. Can be found in the vanity bin of Wikipedia and in locations of imminent calamity. buckle up, there is going to be some rough sledding.

14 responses to “Cultural Appropriation 101 – Is it okay to call the mainstream Babylon?”

  1. Gryphon says :

    Well, in the defense of this usage, communards (and Rastafarians, for that matter) are in no way responsible for the destruction of ancient Babylon, so they don’t qualify for your definition of cultural appropriation. One might be concerned that the memory of poor Babylon, once a peaceful and glorious city, is being maligned, but given that its inhabitants have been dead for a more than a couple millenia and that the Bible, as you point out, has a serious headstart on such maligning, I suspect this one might be okay.

  2. richard w. lisko says :

    i’m shocked, pax. you’ve appropriated the thinking of a racist culture that wants you to think of yourself as white.

  3. richard w. lisko says :

    as a side note, the antinomians in england circa 1640 used the term new jerusalem in conjunction with babylon to describe the system against which they were struggling. these terms were carried far and wide by sailors english, irish, lascar, and african… the original motley crew. it seems the roots of the term babylon go deeper than the rastas who use it today. who appropriated what? 🙂

  4. Will says :

    I am irritated by the whole concept that drawing from another culture is a bad thing, or oppressive, or inappropriate. All cultures draw whatever seems attractive from all other cultures. I can hate the oppressiveness of a culture without assuming that every interaction with another culture must be a bad thing. Why does anyone think that borrowing the Babylon concept, or the mohawk haircut, or rap music, or Western business suits, is inherently a bad thing?

    I’m prepared to be enlightened on this.

    • paxus says :

      Well, Will, if you are willing to hear some thoughts on this topic, there are lots out there. But i wonder if you can buy in on the idea of actors in black face being oppressive or rude?

  5. Carl says :

    My goddess is BABALON, do what thou wilt.

  6. leavergirl says :

    If “Babylon” belonged to the Rastas, I’d have to pack up shop. Fortunately, it doesn’t.

    It’s a good topic, though… I don’t believe that cultural appropriation is a bad thing per se. If it were, every act of cultural diffusion would be an offense, a theft. Which is absurd. So when exactly is it a poor move?

    • paxus says :

      Well, i think this is exactly the question. What if you are part of a culture which has nearly been wiped out, like natives in North America. Is your being offended important enough to make something a cultural taboo? I thought this would be a more charged topic.

      • leavergirl says :

        And then, is being offended a reasonable criterion?

        I remember seeing a vid about “Czech Indians” — people who get together on weekends and vacations to live somewhat in imitation of the Indian culture of N. America… and an Indian couple traveled there, and spent time with them. They were not offended. My impression was that they seemed to think that the group’s culture was heartfelt and in the right spirit. Still, it certainly IS cultural appropriation.

        And, had they been offended, would that mean that what these people are doing is nasty and better stopped?

  7. Will says :

    Pax, of course blackface is oppressive, but that’s a red herring; blackface has little to do with cultural appropriation. Blackface is generally a warped and negative caricature of black physiognomy and pronunciation — sort of the opposite of adopting or replicating black culture.

    Similarly, the “redskin” thing is generally considered offensive by the people it refers to, and that’s to be avoided — but again, it’s not a cultural appropriation, it’s just denigration. (Which is an interestingly relevant word if you look at the root word, now I come to think of it.)

    I think I might agree with leavergirl: if the culture clearly says “this is our identifying mark that sets us apart from other cultures,” then it might be considered stealing if you adopt that mark. Otherwise, it’s just called learning. 🙂

    • paxus says :

      Dearest Will:

      You are right, the black face is not cultural appropriation, it is parody in poor taste, quite different things.

    • Trev Hill says :

      Not totally. Blackface became particularly popular with the rise of “Ethiopian songs”, such as those of Stephen Foster. Some of these were based on slave songs (or in the style of them). Obviously, slavery was still a thing at that time, so white performers blacked up to sing the songs. Later, even after the end of slavery, Black performers had to wear blackface (white lips etc). Interestingly, in “Mayhew’s London Poor” there is reference to several “Ethiopian” minstrel groups playing in London in the 1840s, one of which allegedly had “a real Ethiopian”.

      Of course, there were performers like Thomas Rice who performed the “Jump Jim Crow” song and dance (which he allegedly based on a presumably mentally ill Black man who he saw singing to himself and dancing) and some of the lyrics (like “Camptown Races”) were rather derogatory (to say the least).

      Stephen Foster actually felt he had done a service with his songs because it seemed to bring greater interest to “real Ethiopian songs”.

      While I’m not saying that Blackface minstelry is good by any means, it can be seen as appropriation of Black American culture of the 19th century.

  8. Paula Caplan says :

    Short on time so here’s a thought or two re: Cultural appropriation, an incredibly broad issue with many variations so it’s pretty impossible for there to be a definitive answer…..1) I think intent and respect and permission makes a difference. When a group sanctions use of its original ideas, be it clothing, language, etc. and remains involved in its evolution, and is compensated appropriately so it’s not ripped off to benefit those who take whatever it is as their own, it seems more acceptable to me;

    2) It’s difficult because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, I find steadfast rules to be impossible to aptly address all situations. Not everyone will agree on issues, especially ones such as this, even if group “leaders” or the majority of a group tend to feel one way. Again, I think intent, form of portrayal, respect, influence and acknowledgment matter, but personally if there were feelings against its use, within parts of the group of origin, such as with the Washington Redskins, out of respect, generally I feel it should be relinquished. It’s hard to say as everyone will draw the line in different places, and we need to be offended sometimes to reflect on ourselves, but again this makes a difference when it has been an oppressed group that doesn’t have the power and resources that whites have, like here in the U.S. whites got, what was it, gunpowder or something after the revolutionary war, but African Americans never got the 40 acres and a mule to accrue wealth….

    3) Out of respect, I never felt comfortable to use the language of any group regardless of whether I was an “accepted insider” of the particular subset I was hanging with, so to speak, unless it was something so ingrained in my being, i.e., growing up in a particular neighborhood where another race or ethnicity significantly dominated so that you grew with the same influences shaping your development or as in my case after spending so much time with people who had some different ways from mine, certain basic elements naturally evolved into being a part of me and were then used; (Again is it an artificial overlay, not yours to begin with, or a natural evolution arising out of respect, equality of power or a compensation, of any type, to adjust for in part going out of our way to do or not do something doesn’t seem correct, be it those who will only date people of a particular race for example, within your own group or exclusively those of another, or after a break up if you go out of your way to avoid or to demonstrate something it shows you are still triggered and don’t have a comfort and healthy balance with those issues.

    If we could ever have a truly egalitarian, just society that celebrated and respected all, then it would be divine to incorporate elements of all that make the tapestry so much stronger, textured and vibrant!

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