Using ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ to Explain Why Cultural Appropriation is Wrong, but Morally Permissible
Written by: Artur Galvao
This is an philosophy paper written by one of our writers for his course on morally of cultural appropriation. Although no one will probably read this, I still wanted to post it for proposes an ethical theory not commonly explore in these parameters. And, it uses “Avatar: The Last Airbender” so, why not. Keep in mind this is not a POLITICAL statement, just philosophical one.
Cultural appropriation (CA) is the action of obtaining something from another’s cultural and assimilating it into your own culture. At first pass, cultural appropriation seems to be inherently wrong, and brings about the question: why should someone take what is not theirs? However, the reasons some philosophers deem it to be so does not fully encapsulate the complexity of the topic. The topic is truly up for debate, with the philosophy of cultural appropriation being a relatively modern field of study. The lack of abundant information provides myself with the chance to explain why cultural appropriation is morally wrong. However, before I get underway with my argumentation, not all forms of cultural appropriation are morally wrong. Cultural appropriation is a subjective topic, for it is applicable to any culture to any degree. Most commonly, we witness cultural appropriation happening to minorities. Well documented cases of CA stem from white people (usually of high financial and social status) appropriating the culture of a minority (e.g. Africans, Indians, etc.). Consequently, CA is seen predominantly in westernized cultures; for example, The United States’ mentality of “a melting pot,” a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, with the different elements “melting together” into a common culture. This is seen to be one the most probable roots for CA, for in a society with such a mentality, cultural appropriation seems to be a common occurrence. However, I beg to differ; appropriation is the assimilation of culture, not the blending of it. Nevertheless, what can be said is that majority of the CA that is happing in westernized societies is morally wrong. Representation of this claim can be seen when Kim Kardashian’s Snapchat received backlash for her ‘Bo Derek’ (a white American film actress’) braids. With one fan saying, “Kim Kardashian on snap talking about some Bo Derek braids. Kim they are called CORN ROWS” (Julia Pritchard). Due to her lack of appreciation and/or recognition to the correct culture, which in this case would be African American culture, this demonstrates how Kim is morally wrong in this situation. Others, on the other hand, assert that she should not have worn it at all because she is not of that culture.
I take greater issue with the latter response, for there can be cases where an outsider can incorporate another’s culture while being morally permissible. This paper will provide an interpretation for why CA is morally wrong but is allowed under certain circumstances. For the assimilation of culture is only morally permissible, if and only if, the integration is happening with the consent of an informed insider of the culture. What classifies someone as an informed insider is a person who has successfully mastered the practices and philosophies which are taught to them. To explain such concept, I will be using the graphic novel “Avatar: The Last Air Bender Book 4: The Promise Part 3”, a sequel story to the famous TV Show “Avatar: The Last Air Bender”. As strange is it may seem, I believe this story provides an intuitive and comprehensive outlook in why CA is morally wrong but acceptable during certain premises. Thus, the structure of the paper will go as follows: first I will summarize any important terms and concepts, then an explanation of the diegesis of “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” and its graphical novel will follow. Lastly, an analysis of the story and how it relates to CA will conclude the paper.
Cultural Appropriation as Stealing:
An argument worth considering for the purposes of this paper is ‘cultural appropriation as stealing’. This is a common reason for thinking that cultural appropriation is wrong for it is associated with stealing. However, that line of thought seems misguided; it would seem, for x to be stolen from y, y must own x, and cultures cannot own most of the things that are appropriated from them. However, a culture can own something if it originates of the culture, but not from the culture. From is generally used to express that something originates from something else, while of is mainly used as a possessive. In other words, just because an insider of Mexican culture creates a particular pattern, does not mean that Mexican culture can lay claim to it. Reasoning for this is that such a pattern is produced from the individual, and their involvement in the culture is coincidental. However, when the pattern is produced of the culture it implies that if it were not for the existence of culture, such a pattern could not exist. Although this argument concludes with “thus, cultural appropriation is morally wrong,” the justification, or lack thereof, does not provide a compelling argument. Therefore, the argument this paper presents will retain the same conclusion but using a different thought process. By providing the issue within a different context it ought to deliver an alternatively intuitive feeling over the moral status CA.
Explaining the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”
The world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is one where people can manipulate four elements: water, earth, fire and air. These styles of bending have given way to 4 great cultures, one of them being the Air Nomads. Aang is the Avatar, an enlightened and revered individual, and also a part of the Air Nomadic culture. A real-world equivalent would be the Buddha, in terms of his status and reincarnation. Each culture has their own symbols deeply rooted in their cultures. Elizabeth Burns Coleman would identify these as insignia, which to her “are a mark of someone’s institutional role and a sign of authority” adding that only certain people may bear insignia, authorize their use, and produce them (Young, 121). Within this world, Aang ran away and got frozen for 100 years. In that time, a rival culture destroyed his own, making him the last of his kind. Within the culture of Air Nomads, tattoos of an arrow function as insignia. Aang earned these tattoos because he had mastered all air bending techniques and philosophy.
The Graphic Novel:
Due to Aang’s social status, people start dressing like him by replicating his clothing and tattoos. Aang meets with some of his admirers, and is glad at the level of authenticity they underwent to show their appreciation of him and his culture. However, when he is informed that the tattoos are real, he becomes angered. As per Aang, arrow tattoos should be earned through the mastering of all air manipulation forms and are not to be acts of imitation. And, since they are not true Airbenders they ought not to practice such traditions. Ultimately, Aang decides to take them as air acolytes in order to teach the ways of the Air Nomads, for he believes it is the only way not to let his culture be corrupted.
How Arrow Tattoos Functions as Insignia?
Following that story, an explanation is required pertaining to, how Air Nomadic arrow tattoos function as insignia. The important question to ask is: how are arrow tattoos of which Air Nomads receives any different from any other tattoos one might get? If myself and an Air Nomad get a tattoo of an owl, it is unreasonable to assume that we are somehow stealing each other. For it does not seem that we have ownership of this tattoo, and it would be unreasonable to assert that an act of stealing is occurring. Therefore, there is a fundamental difference between ordinary and arrow tattoos, for arrow tattoos need to be earned through rigorous practice, which is not true for owl tattoos. This provides an essence of ownership. Additionally, the designs and patterns found in the tattoos are of culture, not from, as mentioned previously. Therefore, arrow tattoos function as insignia, and ought to be regarded as the property of culture.
How Would Someone get Consent?
This section will seek to clarify how to get permission, who one should ask to do so, and, how Aang’s consent creates a scenario where “argument from stealing” can be rejected. The first question is simple to answer, one must simply ask an insider of the culture. For the second question, one ought to ask the closest insiders within their community, for those are the people who will feel majority of the appropriation. However, this bring up two questions: If an insider accepts, while another does not, which one are you ought to follow? And, how would someone get consent from culture with more representatives than one, unlike in Aang’s case? Both questions can be answered as such: with informed consent a no will always trump yes, for it is important to abstain from action if a no is present. However, suppose that 98% might yes and 2% say no, should the no’s trump the yes’s? Within this case, it still applies as such, because in essence consent is formulated around no, not yes. In addition, Aang’s consent eliminates acts of stealing from outsiders. For how something can be stolen, if it is given. Therefore, informed consent presents to moral permissibility to cultural appropriation.
What can be learned?
What can be understood from this allegory are the following six of assertions:
(1) First, the story shows how cases of cultural appropriation occurs when the majority is appropriating the minority.
(2) Second, when appropriating a culture, people do so for aesthetic reasons, for example the reason why fans are appropriating Aang’s culture is due to him being a famous individual. The Kim Kardashian case, as previously mentioned, is a similar case which shows that people want to emulate a person due to their social status.
(3) Third, Coleman provides an argument which implies that by appropriating a culture’s insignia, said culture would be destroyed. This is due to that fact that it loses its significance in relation to other cultures; in other words, an insignia provides a difference between cultures. However, I disagree with her on that reasoning. I believe that, if a culture is destroyed, then it is because the significance of the insignia is lost for insiders of the culture independently of how the rest of society identifies them. Thus, in this story, we see how the insignia of arrow tattoos loses meaning to Aang.
(4) Fourth, the process in which one obtains their tattoos is important. This is something that Coleman would agree with; if arrow tattoos function as insignia, then given her argument, the design can indicate that it is the property of a given culture. The design and placement of the tattoos would separate insiders from the outsiders with similar arrow tattoos. Although the design is significant, I argue that the way of obtaining the arrow tattoos are more important than their physical representation. Aang does not become angered over seeing people dressed in Air Nomadic clothing and tattoos. It is only when shown the permeance of the tattoos does he become offended. Thus, the significance of an insignia is the meaning that insiders of the culture ascribes to it.
(5) Fifth, as a result of our understanding of sections (2) and (3), we recognize how the meaning ascribed to the arrow tattoos has been lost to Aang. The meaning that Aang and the Air Nomads have put on the arrows tattoos is they must be earned. Constant practice of Air Nomadic philosophy and air bending provides them with the opportunity to do so. The inclination I obtain from the story is that the arrow tattoos symbolizes an entrance into the culture. The meaning given provides a sense of higher stature to the insider. A real-world equivalent would be a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish culture. Where in both scenarios, the importance of the ritual/insignia is propelling one’s stature to higher authority in within the culture. The meaning and what they represent is more important then their appearance. However, their appearance still should not be appropriate for it can interfere with the meaning behind them.
(6) Sixth, it demonstrates how in order for Aang’s culture not be corrupted he resorts to teaching the philosophy of the Air Nomads to non-air benders. In the graphic novel he says, “I love my people’s culture and I don’t want to see it corrupted” (Yang and Koneitzko, 74). By Aang deciding to teach them he is giving them the tools to successfully appropriate his culture if these outsiders want to. However, there is a fundamental difference between this act of cultural appropriation then in others. Whereas, before the culture which was being appreciated held no choice of having their culture assimilated. The difference between the two is a matter of consent. In the latter case, appropriation is happening without the culture’s knowledge. Consent is not part of the equation thus, robbing them of any opportunity to give consent. However, in the former, Aang is giving explicit consent. Since he has the arrow tattoo he would be the best candidate to give informed consent on the behalf of the culture. Even if he was not the only representative, his authority in the culture would still give him creditability in the decision.
Cultural appropriation is morally wrong but permissible, if and only if, the appropriation is happening subsequently to the consent from an informed insider of the culture. However, this not should be looked as an objective view on CA, for every culture will have a different response for their culture being appropriated. And, due to it academic infancy, arguments and objections will need to be provided, in order for us to clarify the moral ambiguity of cultural appropriation.
Pritchard, Julia. “’You should be ashamed of yourself’: Kim Kardashian accused of ‘cultural appropriation’ by furious fans after showing off her ‘Bo Derek’ braids on Snapchat.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 29 Jan. 2018. Website.
Yang, Luen Gene and Bryan Koneitzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Part 3. Dark Horse Books, 2012. Print.
Young, James. “Art, Insignia, and Cultural Identity.” Cultural Appropriation as Assault. Pp. 120-125. Print.