Can an American culture truly exist? How do we define what is American? What about American religious practices including folk religions? How do we as American reconcile our colonial past with our modern capitalist society? I want to address culture appropriation accusations regarding the myth of a truly American culture.
How do you define culture? The beliefs and customs of a geographic are is a simplified way of doing so. However this is tricky when you refer to the United States. Simply put we do have a well-defined geographic area, U.S. territories. However we do lack a central source culture to draw upon. Many of the Founding Fathers and early settlers who formed the bulk of the leadership in this country were of British descent, mostly English but also Scottish and quit a bit of Irish. In fact Irish immigration has come to this country in multiple waves over the two centuries of our existence.
Once should tread lightly when discussing anything as American. On the one hand you have the concept of colonialism. Here you have taking or merging of different ideas from other cultures and blending them together. This is known as the melting pot. It should allow for those from the source cultures to exist in the land bringing their own practices with them. The goal is to recognize each immigrant culture as equal to the dominant host culture. In this case I would use Irish-American as an example. Irish American is a distinct brand of Americanism. It is a unique blending of Irish Gaelic culture with the existing customs in the region. This is prominently seen in the Midwest especially Chicago where a large Irish heritage population exists.
What of the “mutt” culture or creole culture of America? Does that have any true validity to stand on its own? Or is it purely a form of colonialism. Does being a product of colonialism automatically discount the existing of a hot culture? I don’t know but I am here to find out.
Going back to the Irish American subset. This is a distinct culture within the broader American culture. From an anthropological standpoint distinctly American traits do exist and are quite prominently defined. For example the American tailgate culture. The practice of sitting outside a sporting event cooking food and mingling with strangers this is a truly American exhibition of American sports culture. So we have established there are subcultures within the broader American landscape. Now where does that leave us with the question does an American culture exist and if so does it have any validity?
I believe it is possible to practice truly American cultural traits while borrowing from source cultures so long as it is a part of your own ancestry and done respectfully. I don’t support appropriation of other cultures by blending the bits and pieces of other cultures into a broader sense of what it means to be American. Cinco De Mayo is a distinctly American-Mexican holiday that is a big part of U.S. culture. However it is not widely celebrated outside those with ties to Mexico or Mexican heritage even.
Digging a little deeper how does the broader sense of American culture compare to other island cultures that exist as creoles? I have two examples I want to examine. First is Ireland. What makes person Irish is not having Irish blood but rather living in Ireland. Participating in Irish culture means living among Irish people. These could be Irish with African or Indian ancestry and are just as valid as Irish people. They can adopt the host culture while blending aspects of the source cultures. This is what makes Ireland so interesting.
Does this mean there is no “Irish” bloodline There is no Irish race per se. There are people who trace their ancestry to early inhabitants of Ireland but most of them are still rooted as invading the island. It is difficult to lock down what a “native” Irish ancestry is which is why Irish people in Ireland look down on those of the Irish diaspora claiming their Irish culture as their own. That is appropriation for sure.
Let’s take a look at Haitian creole culture. Here you have a native population mixed with outside forces vie force. One example is Haitian Vodou, a religion that borrows heavily from African Earth religions, Catholic Christianity and Celtic Paganism. Here is a perfectly valid blending of different cultures into an existing culture, albeit through forced contact. Itself a product of colonialism.
There is still one difference between the two. In the case of Ireland they were invaded by outsiders, so the native culture blended or adopted the attributes of the invading cultures. This blending together over centuries is where what we refer to as Irish culture comes from. It was a group of people forced to interact via imperialism. The same thing happened in Haiti but slightly different. The invaders were brought over against their will as slaves forced to work as manual labor. The host culture borrowed and blended with the invading cultures to produce a uniquely Caribbean culture distinct to the geographic region of Haiti.
What happened in America was similar. While the host culture was invaded and decimated the source cultures blended with subsequent immigrant cultures not invaders but migrants invited to join the new land of hope and opportunity. This land was riddled with errors as the scars of colonialism ravaged the Native population while also decimating the lives of the African immigrants who were brought over as slaves similar to the Haitians. Thus there exists a lending of various cultures until they all merge into a new, broader creole culture.
This blending of cultures is what makes American culture unique. It was done over two centuries with a mix of colonialism forcing it upon those already here while also welcoming others from around the world. It makes you wonder which parts of American culture should one appreciate? Where does a non-Native drawn the line? Without asking the question how do you define a “native American” because that line of thinking goes down a dangerous path of continued dismissal of the anguish the Native population was put through.
How can you spot creole American culture without appropriating? The simplest method is to stay in your lane as they say. Welcome and embrace the aspects of your own heritage, as mixed and varied as that may be. I believe it is acceptable to appreciate aspects of other cultures without appropriating them. How this is done is largely by not taking from the source culture but rather giving something to it. How you do that is up to you.
For example if you admire Native American culture buy works of art produced by Native Americans. You are giving back to the culture while appreciating something from it. If you admire Irish culture buy books written by Irish authors and give them reviews on Amazon or Kindle. If you respect what African Americans went through and wish to support their struggle purchase rap albums produced by black artists from record labels run by black individuals. You can take from the source culture as long as you do not claim it as your own and assuming you absolutely give back in some way.
American culture certainly exists and is exported all around the world largely via Hollywood and our music. Cultural exports make up a large percentage of our nations GDP. I am a firm believer that American culture is as valid as other cultures, however I do not in any shape believe it is superior to others nor do I support the taking from other cultures. I believe we should rid ourselves of appropriation where we can, give back when we have the means to do so and foster our own cultural identity as prominently, but respectfully, as we can.