In the warmer months, my rice paddy hat is my go to piece of headwear. I picked it up in Chinatown a few years ago in Boston, and the thing is absolutely functional. I defy you to find a better hat for sun or rain. Made of straw, it’s very light, unlike some cowboy hats. You’d think it would be problematic in the wind, but that’s mostly a matter of adjusting it or turning your head. I’ve never lost it while wearing it. I will tell you that the thing is an absolute champ for fanning the flames of your campfire. Wave it a few times with some force and dying embers become an inferno. It’s a neat piece of gear and needs no further justification.
I will admit thought that I also like wearing it for the whimsy. Wearing it on a misty morning while I’m rowing down the way fosters that Asian fisherman vibe that I kind of get a kick out of. It’s made me kind of famous on a local lake. People at their summer camps will see me out trolling and say hey, there’s The Chinaman! I learned about this as another fisherman motored up to me one day to say hi. He’d been wanting to meet me. You see, my hat brings joy in to the world. People smile with my wearing it.
These being the politically correct times that they are, a conversation could easily be had about cultural appropriation. I ran across a blog titled Angry Asian Man a while back, and I could totally picture the author sitting at his screen, reading this, and screaming that that’s his hat, not mine. I’m white and I am oppressing him with my headwear. I need to take it off and get a baseball cap so I can be more in line with my own kind.
Now, lets define our terms. Cultural Appropriation is the idea that different aspects of culture belong to different cultures, they’re property, and that it’s wrong for other cultures to make use of them. Some people object to it as it perpetuates stereotypes. As Asian countries strive to innovate and modernize, my hat may be denigrating them as simple folk and spouters of arcane wisdom. I get it. Fair enough. Other people complain that it robs minorities of their competitive edge. Perhaps I’m less likely to seek out music from an Asian musician if Katie Perry wears her dress better. Okay. Some people complain that it’s disrespectful to traditions. You see this a lot with using Native Americans as sports mascots. The cheerleader wearing the war bonnet clearly didn’t earn those feathers. I’m sympathetic. A lot of people have some legitimate complaints and I get that they feel downtrodden.
Believing what I believe though, I just can’t fully concede. Cultural appropriation rests on the notion of intellectual property, and intellectual property is nonsense. You can’t own an idea. It’s not a physical object. It’s not something you can hold. So, saying that that’s their hat and not mine is just a non starter. My hat is the verifiable product of my labor, and I bought it from a man who was happy to sell it to me. Crimes need victims, and I’m not really taking a thing away from anyone.
Moreover, do we really want a world where individuals are defined by their ethnicity and where those ethnicities can’t mix? In my experience, classifying and putting people into groups has led to a whole lot of evil. It seems like we should be fighting against that notion. The alternative is a kind of quiet apartheid, with you and your people over there, me and my people over here, and we just go quietly about our lives. That’s just sad.
Some will argue that apparent victims of cultural appropriation weren’t willing participants in the exchange and I am therefore perpetuating that oppression. The American Indians are a conquered people. Most of rest of the world was ravaged by colonization. Sure. And that sucks. But I didn’t do any of that. I never owned a slave. I never sold opium to the Chinese. I never slaughtered an Indian village. You can’t blame me for any of that. I’m just a guy who took a bus down to Boston for some Dim Sum and picked up a hat while I was there. You cannot blame atrocities on individuals who did not commit them. Collective guilt is an ugly, ugly fallacy and I will not bear that burden.
I will say that I’ve never actually gotten any flack about it, other than from loved ones who are embarrassed to be seen with me. Take that hat off, you look ridiculous. Maybe that’s because I live in the whitest state in the country and there are no actual Asian people here to offend. Who knows? But it’s my hat. I like wearing it. I suspect that I’ll continue. To anyone who may disagree or who I may have offended, I am truly sorry.