The past few decades alone bear witness to numerous accounts of cross-racial casting in the movie industry – some as obvious as a white man in brown-face playing an Indian character, and some as seemingly innocuous as a white Mean Girls character who apparently originates from Africa. Although such attempts have been made in the guise of diversifying Hollywood, they have been copiously used as a means to cast white people without actually casting ‘white’ people.
Not very long ago, in a galaxy we call home, it was announced that a new Star Wars movie, directed by J.J. Abrams, would be coming to theatres soon. While avid Star Wars fans rejoiced at the news, some were, rather disappointed (to say the least), at Abrams’ casting choices – specifically for the role of a certain stormtrooper.
Essentially, countless people (particular those of the lighter phenotype) couldn’t understand how Boyega, a black man, could play the role of a Stormtrooper – an elite warrior most often depicted in a very distinctive white body armor. Their complaints ranged in complexity from a detailed explanation of the entire Star Wars plot, followed by a quaint summary as to why a stormtrooper had to be a white character, to a simple “it’s just wrong, man!”
Despite the intricate controversy surrounding the plausibility of allowing a black man to play a fictional human-alien-soldier (?), the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens is to be released in the US on the 18th of December, and is projected to do extremely well. Oh let us not forget to clarify, Boyega is still set to play Finn, the Stormtrooper.
A plethora of the arguments in opposition to Boyega’s role, hinted (sometimes, outright stated) that the reason he was wrong for the role was because the role was traditionally meant for a white man, and casting him would equate to cultural appropriation. Specifically, they say that since people of color get to protest what they call ‘white-washing’ in movies, they also reserved the right to speak out on such an atrocious act. Thus, this argument utilizes the idea of cultural appropriation to suggest that Boyega’s role is detrimental – if not completely destructive – to the “culture” of Star Wars. Well now, let’s examine the role of appropriation.
Appropriation involves taking something for one’s own use without the owner’s permission. Thus, cultural appropriation denotes the unconsented adoption of cultural elements, symbols, or themes by a member of a different culture. The concept is seen as a negative phenomenon because it often assumes that the culture being “borrowed” is simultaneously being oppressed by the culture doing the “borrowing”. However, what happens when the situation is reversed – when the culture doing the borrowing is actually oppressed by the culture that it is borrowing? Specifically, we ask, is cultural appropriation still a bad thing?
The controversy and racist remarks behind John Boyega’s role as a Stormtrooper accentuate that many whites are not fond of a black person appropriating a historically white role. However, this does not automatically mean that the appropriation is bad. When done blindly, with no understanding or respect for the culture being appropriated, yes, cultural appropriation is bad. When so many Americans rush to stores during Halloween to dress up as Indians for simple amusement, yes, it is wrong. When done to either accentuate the significance of that culture or to enhance a particular aspect of the individual’s own culture, however, culture appropriation is not bad. Specifically, we argue that cultural appropriation can be done positively when it does not mock or ignore a culture’s values but is used to either 1. Enhance the values of that culture or 2. Bring cultures together in an intellectually harmonious way. Many musical artists, such as Eminem (a topic we have posted about earlier), use cultural appropriation to demonstrate the significance of that culture through their music. Their music gives justice and respect to that culture while simultaneously benefiting the message the artist is trying to convey.
In a similar fashion, John Boyega’s role as a Stormtrooper demonstrates that a black man can represent the same position of power and strength as a white man. In other words, John Boyega’s role crosses racial boundaries as it articulates that positions of power is not determined by one’s racial status. Thus, cultural appropriation is being used positively here to undermine popular beliefs and re-construct the meaning and implications of race. To put it simply, to be a Stormtrooper doesn’t mean you have to be white. Consequently, the role utilizes cultural appropriation to break down cultural boundaries rather than enforce it. So, to answer the question, “does cultural appropriation always have to be a bad thing?”: No, it depends on the context in which it is being used.