The myth of the noble savage continues……

Oh man, I’ve been naughty and haven’t kept up my blog for a couple of weeks.  I honestly don’t know how it happens, since I don’t have a job I’m supposed to have loads of free time, right? Alas, this is not the case.  I dont know what on earth I do during my days, but I can tell you that I’m rarely doing nothing.

So I’ve had a couple of relevations in the weeks that I haven’t written on here. I will try to be brief because I really can’t be bothered writing right now, but I feel I’ve let myself down by not keeping up my blog. So here goes….

The concept of cultural approriation doesn’t exist in France.

I walked past a rugby store named after Otago, a region in southern New Zealand.  While I intially thought, ‘hey, that’s cool’, on further inspection I realised that they were selling Maori culture, my culture, but not in a good way.  They had a whole lot of merchandise with the word ‘Maori’ proudly displayed, as well as clothes with symbols which at first sight appeared to be Maori but which weren’t at all authentic. Finally, I came across shirts and boxers (boxers!) sporting a photo of the first Maori rugby team. I felt compelled to go and find out whether the company was affiliated with a New Zealand organisation, since most New Zealand companies would recognise the importance of consultation, in which case I would rest easing knowing everything was done accordingly.

The answer was no.  I proceeded to explain how important it is for them, as a company representing my culture, to know about the culture itself.  She did her very best to reassure me that she understood about protecting the integrity of the brand and thus Maori culture.  Which just frustrated me.  It’s not just about protecting the integrity of the brand and therefore the culture, it’s also about doing the right thing. Which in my opinion, means representing the ‘actual’ culture, rather than some imagined idea of what the culture is. It also means consulting with the people themselves.  Pfft.

Don’t get me wrong, I am content to see that people appreciate Maori culture and its always great to have reminders of home. But by doing what they are, they are accepting the responsibility to inform people about Maori culture. The problem is that they seem to equate Maori culture to rugby culture. The way their store is organised, would have you think that rugby is synonymous with Maori culture. But they are not one in the same. Yes, the All Blacks pay homage to our culture by performing one of two different haka before each rugby game, and yes many players sport Maori or polynesian tattoos, but they are not the same thing.  And no, I don’t give a crap if Dan Carter thinks the shirts are great.

The thing is, when I discuss this issue with French people, they don’t seem to have a clue about the concept of cultural appropriation. They get the issue with the photo but beyond that they’re clueless. But that doesn’t make it ok. Although I can appreciate why they may not understand. I mean, French people are as diverse as the world is round. But in spite of that, there is a common stereotype of the French person. In one discussion someone even said to me, ‘yeah but that happens to French culture all the time, who cares?’.  I care.  At least with French culture, stereotypes exist for a reason –  large numbers of French people do eat baguettes, they do eat cheese, they do drink wine. And in the event that someome takes offense at this common conception of French culture, there are at least 70 million people, dotted all around the globe, to correct the mistake and enlighten people.  But while stereotypes of Maori culture might exist within New Zealand, pretty much nobody outside of Australasia can tell you much about Maori people.

Except of course that they run around in grass skirts. Which is a myth, not a stereotype. And this is my point. Where stereotypes generally come from a general trait or characteristic, what this shop is doing, is perpetuating a myth. We are still noble savages, as far as the average French person is concerned.

That is what gets my goat.  It’s one thing to play up to stereotypes, but its another to perpetuate a myth.  We are a living people, with a living culture which has evolved and adapted to life in the 21st century. So I believe the store has taken on a huge responsibility by putting themselves this position. Whether it is intentional or not, they are giving people the impression that they, the store and it’s staff, have knowledge of Maori culture. But the only saleswoman who works there could tell me nothing about my culture. To which I say: if you’re going to sell clothes with the word “Maori” all over them, then you should have a least a little bit of knowledge.  How is this strategy supposed to protect the integrity of the brand (at the very least)?

In any case, this is to the French people who simply don’t get it.

When your people have been oppressed and your culture on the verge of extinction; when your people have fought with all their strength to keep the traditions and language alive; when you continue to fight for respect because as an ethnic minority you have not always been considered an equal to your European counterparts; when you number only a small minority of the total population of an already small nation, at the bottom of the world – perhaps only then you will know what it feels like to see your culture being sold, without any regard or without any respect to our reality.

I take offence, not at the fact that someone would like to share my culture with the world (for that part, I am grateful), but that they have done this without first taking the responsibility to learn about our culture in the first place. If they had done this the right way, they would not look like ignorant fools by selling the face of someone’s grandfather, someone’s father, someone’s uncle, a living being, onto the crotch of some underpants.

That is just bloody insulting. And wrong.

Surely that cuts across cultural barriers?

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