Monday, October 12, 2015

Columbusing and Kendall Jenner as white people translator

There was some talk recently which I noticed on bustle.comfeaturing Kendall Jenner wearing a traditional style of dress from South Asia called a salwar kameez, consisting of a pair of tapered pants with a long shirt worn over it. Except the original trendspotters (not sure who...) were excited about her look without having acknowledged the cultural origin of the outfit. It allows some thinking out loud on transmission of culture.

Kendall Jenner was being her celebrity self in the spotlight, but the initial (or otherwise) lack of acknowledgement of the origins of her attire is being discussed as cultural appropriation, with an interesting (and relatively new) word attached to it - Columbusing- that I just learned from @Soc_Imagination (Compliments to The Sociological Imagination for bringing me up to speed). 

In case you haven't heard the term, Urban Dictionary one of my favorite websites, defines it as as "When white people claim they have invented/discovered something that has been around for years, decades, even centuries". The founding example is its namesake - the idea that Columbus "discovered" America, never mind that it had been landed upon previously by other European ships or the ongoing power dynamics and the bloody colonial history attached to territorial "discovery". Laughably, the iconic example at this point is how Miley Cyrus columbused twerking.  If you would call that dance she did at the VMA awards properly twerking. Perhaps her twerk did introduce the term to the 50 or so people who hadn't heard it previously.

Columbusing works as a description because it so deftly captures the "appropriation" aspect - the borrowing, taking, or employing of something that once more "naturally" belonged to another group. The way Ricetec, a Texas based ag firm tried to columbus Basmati rice, filing a patent for it in 1997 which would have robbed India and its farmers the economic wealth derived from its national culinary staple and agricultural heritage - to say the very least. 
Good for India that Dr. Vandana Shiva lead the charge against Ricetec.
But what I think the term also highlights is how particular individuals -cultural intermediaries, sentinels, nodes in network speak, trendsetters for the fashion bloggers, disruptors for innovation and brand thinkers- become translators of other groups' culture for white people, then commodified for rabid consumption. In many places in the West, that is simply the "dominant" culture. Kendall Jenner became part of the "white people" translation process by wearing what high-end fashion brand The Row, called a "tunic" (going for a whopping $3690) over the traditional term for the dress. The designers took what tends to be a very colorful and decisively modest dress style and wiped it of the ornamentation and colors that normally define it to meet their monochrome chic style. It was lightly transformed and sold in a venue where few people making under 150K a year could afford to shop (see black leggings for 430 euros...). Then the trendspotters reached near rapture over the originality of the "anti-crop top" and the story is told. At what point did the cultural appropriation happen? As I've described it, it is a process and often no single actor can be extracted from the equation. 

Kendall Jenner's tunic is a good, simple example of cultural translation, of which the appropriation aspect of 'columbusing' is sometimes, but not always a part. On becoming an American citizen (after about 30 years in the US) my father changed his heroic Greek name Konstantinos, after Constantine the Great, to "Costas", which seemed to him easier for the Americans. Assimilation or Americanization is a result of many cultural translation/s over time, of a similar sort. He changed the name because it was too annoying to spell Konstantinos for Americans over the phone. Many immigrants changed their names for similar reasons, making the cultural differences between them and the locals less stark, more easily digestible for the xenophobic. Each of these decisions accumulate, one by one, to create a larger effect, like Americanization - which can sometimes appear like a watered down, saltless version of something more harmonic and intense. Something is certainly concealed or lost in this process for the base culture. Do you think this example of translation is columbusing? Discuss, and let me know what you think.

Yet in many cases, the translation process creates something altogether innovative for the dominant culture - who don't receive it as a degraded copy of some platonic cultural meme, but as something new and fascinating. For a sort of trivial example, the director Ridley Scott translated Swiss surrealist HR Giger's perverse and disturbing alien imagery into a blockbuster film in the Alien series. While the movie was terrifying and disgusting (for me), it was re-packaged well enough to highlight how the translation process also enables cultural diffusion. This photo shows HR Giger's work - complete with head as giant phallus - to be consumable to a relatively limited audience.   Monet's waterlilies this is not. Throw1979 Sigourney Weaver in the mix and you have one of the biggest sci-fi hits of all times.

Cultural translation often doesn't require the translators to come from the target group or dominant culture - in music there are clear examples from the 1950s and 1960s of columbusing of innovative music by black artists by white translators for white audiences (Elvis and The Rolling Stones are the common examples). In contrast, take NWA, whose origins were recently featured in the film Straight 'Outta Compton. Through their raw stories and talent, they brought the violence of inner city ghettos and the black male experience to a young white audience eager to understand and empathize and sometimes emulate the urban styling. Cultural translation is science journalists who interpret the encoded language of published academic articles for a non-science audience of readers in the New York and LA Times. There are many other examples of cultural translation which may have this more neutral or positive character - can you think of one?  

Columbusing is then the negative side of cultural translation which, on the other hand, is one mode of creativity and more broadly of social change. It is the space where cultural innovation and diffusion often takes place.

Happy Columbus Day?

On that note, I'll leave you with this video on the absurdity of Columbus Day from the brilliant John Oliver.

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