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Surf Culture's Continued Appropriation of the Shaka

Surf Culture's Continued Appropriation of the Shaka

In 2016, associate editor of The Inertia, Dylan Heyden, wrote an article titled, “Is the World Famous Shaka A Form of Cultural Appropriation?” Spoiler: this isn’t even a question. He begins by asking another question, perhaps more to the point then he realizes: “What is my culture?” As a White male from Southern California, Heyden seems to be on the right track because for us, White people, this questioning is key. There was hope in the first few sentences that he would have a discussion on White-skinned people’s commitment to Whiteness and how it impacts everything we do.

But he meanders and talks about “American culture” as a “smattering of different cultures.” Describing “American culture” as a “smattering” is like calling it a “melting pot.” Not only does this trivialize how this country came to be, and how it continues to treat immigrants, but this also furthers the erasure of immigrant histories, experiences, and native languages. Stealing aspects of marginalized cultures is the culture of White european settlers. To call “American culture” anything but White supremacist and patriarchal is false.

His seemingly benign statement is actually callous and flippant, and at this point, it sets him up nicely to make his argument. He continues to define cultural appropriation as, “taking an element of another culture and passing it off as your own.” Um, sorta. But this is kind of lazy. Let’s get more specific. Cultural appropriation happens specifically when the dominant culture (in our country White europeans), takes aspects of a non-dominant culture completely out of context and uses these symbols for their own benefit. There is no exchange or mutual benefit when this happens. It is a demonstration of an imbalance of power that still exists between the colonizers and the colonized.

Three quarters of the way through the article Heyden writes, “...yes, the shaka is a form of cultural appropriation, but only insofar as the majority that display their thumb and pinky finger (myself included, until recently) probably have no idea where it comes from.” Here, Heyden affirms that the shaka is appropriation when used by White people, like himself, and yet, simultaneously excuses it. He even references Dr. Isaiah Walker, a history professor at BYU who specializes in Hawaiian and Polynesian history who confirms that, “California surf culture has historically been at the forefront of appropriating Hawaiian culture in the post-war period -- from aloha shirts, to ukuleles, grass shacks, surf kahunas, tiki charms, and more.” But this doesn’t stop Heyden.

Heyden, like many a surf bros, want to have their cake and eat it too. It is not enough that White privilege allows us to have access to oceans and lands all over the world. He also wants to keep using the shaka that in his words, “It’s like a symbol that you’re a card carrying member of surfdom, have some connection to Hawaii (maybe as surface-level as having visited once), or saw someone do it and thought it was cool.” He continues to rationalize his gross desire to keep this symbol that does not belong to him by explaining that just because it doesn’t belong to White people doesn’t mean we should “put the kibosh on the shaka…” His “salient argument” is that awareness is enough. And not only that, but Heyden believes it’s just simply impractical to stop the shaka from being used because “Surfing and throwing a shaka have come too far.”

What started off as an important questioning of identity when Heyden asked, “What is my culture?” ended in a disappointing justification of cultural appropriation. When White people consider if their actions are appropriative, it is important for us to not center our own selfish, and ultimately, harmful and violent, desires. We really need to examine this question of what is our culture? Because the bargain that our settler ancestors made, which has been passed down to us in 2018, is that in order to be considered “White” we had to trade our cultures of origin for the culture of White supremacist patriarchy - a culture of entitlement, force, and domination. Healing from this bargain means first being accountable to the harm we are perpetuating and the histories we are actively erasing. It means seeking integrity through and through, instead of seeking to fill the void that the commitment to Whiteness creates within us.

My knowledge of the bargain of Whiteness comes from the teachings of Kenya Budd, an equity and inclusion consultant in Portland, Oregon, as well as the podcast Seeing White by John Biewan and Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika.


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