An Uncomfortable Kuleana — Cultural Appropriation in the Social Media Age

In any argument, taking a hard stance on less than stable ground amounts to suicide. Yet many well-meaning people commit to causes and social issues while they ignore the fact that they themselves are floating in a system of privilege and pretense. In our socially mediated world it’s all too easy to see, support and repost without fully investigating an issue. We can chime in on just about any debate occurring around the digitally connected world, adding our voice and taking our stand without ever justifying our stake in that territory.

Allow me to provide an example. I live in Hawaiʻi, but I wasn’t born here. I count myself as anti-imperial, yet I am a settler in Hawaiʻi, privileging from America’s violent dispossession of Native lands. I am uncomfortable with this injustice and want to fight in support of indigenous sovereignty, but for all my good intentions I am the heart of the problem. Even thinking I have the right to enter into the fray is problematic.

This basic contradiction is not at all limited to my own struggle in Hawaiʻi. Its essence is probably at the foot of whatever movement you are reposting. You want to do good and support #BlackLivesMatter, but you’re a cop; you are feminist and anti-sexist, but you are a man in a very privileged position; you are upset by the Dakota Access Pipeline, but you don’t know what tribal land you’re living on. No matter your intention to do good in the world, refusing to come to terms with your own identity first is just a bad idea.

Hawaiian culture provides something of an answer in the word kuleana. The word translates as responsibility, but it is the ideology behind the word that non-indigenous visitors will benefit to hear. In Hawaiʻi, responsibility, like most things, is tied to genealogy and connections to land. Responsibility overlaps with duty and right, and begins with the question of where you come from. In struggling to solve a problem, it is those closest to the problem that have the greatest kuleana. They have the most responsibility, and thus greater rights in determining solutions.

Before continuing, however, I want to make it absolutely clear that my taking up and teaching any Hawaiian value is absolutely a form of appropriation. Non-indigenous people throwing around words like aloha, mahalo, or ʻohana is very much part of the long history of colonization. Like any non-Western concept signifying deep cultural values, Hawaiian words should not be isolated, bandied about and worn as some kind of accessory to complete our supposed world-wise identity.

Instead, when we encounter a concept as dense as kuleana (and this unsettling encounter applies to our more central question of engagement in political movements) we need to stop and reflect on ourselves; not asking “Who am I personally, and what does this idea mean to me?” but asking “Who am I representing, where does my lineage come from and what is the historical process by which we encountered this concept?” Hopefully, by considering those questions, we will recognize their deeper implications; namely, that cross-cultural learning (and acting in the world) is always tied to power and inequality. So while no cultural system is more natural, legitimate or important than any other, global systems of power have built hierarchies to erase and marginalize particular peoples and their culture. These same systems privilege you and I, allowing us access to appropriate cultures piecemeal, even fostering our sense of ownership over other’s culture.

So as we look to understand the term kuleana and as we begin to consider our right, responsibility and duty to a cause, we need to remember all this — recognizing that we always argue from a particular footing.

Everything is based on where we are from. If we do take part in a cause that isn’t entirely our own, it’s important we defer from leadership, step aside and instead commit to bringing the message back home, letting others know the instability of their own engagement. That is scarier and more defiant, but at least it’s grounded and real.

My own dilemma goes unresolved, and I feel no better for recognizing my inconsistency; however, my personal struggle is nothing in comparison to the struggle of a nation to reclaim its land. After you take stock of your own kuleana, it’s likely you’ll be just as unsettled, but being vulnerable, honest and self-aware might be exactly what activism in the socially mediated world needs most, leaving room for the real work to occur on the ground.

Author’s Note: I cannot publish this article without acknowledging the work of a few indigenous Hawaiians who are generous enough to teach non-indigenous peoples about their struggle for sovereignty. I have read their work, and listened over their shoulders for many years now. Thank you Samuel Kaleikoa Kaʻeo, Ty P. Kāwika Tengan, Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, Erin Kahunawaika’ala Wright, Rapper Punahele and Kawehi Kina.

Ruben Enrique Campos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and works in the Department of Ethnic Studies. He studies culture and society, usually with a focus on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class inequalities. He’s currently writing his dissertation on the Hip Hop scene in Mexico City, where he lived and conducted intensive fieldwork for just over a year. Aside from constantly struggling to write, read and be a serious academic, he listens to music, reads comic books and exhibits a serious waste of potential.

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