Nerds in Shining Armour and Cultural Appropriation
For the most part, white Australians are a fairly cultureless lot. After the secularisation of the west, our colonial ancestors turned their backs on their Motherland and made their way to new shores to start afresh and stomp on anything “otherly” they found along the way. But the problem is you can’t really build a healthy culture out of 250 odd years of invasion in lands that were never yours.
To fill the gaping emptiness in our cultural heritage, we often like to borrow from the groups we used to decimate – but only the bits we like. We braid our hair and sing Beyoncé covers without doing anything about black suppression. We drink tequila on Cinco de Mayo and paint ourselves like sugar skulls on Halloween, yet ignore the widespread exploitation of Mexican immigrants. We adorn our faces with bindis and practise yoga till our chakras pop, but fail to address the fact that Indians are one of the most discriminated-against races in Australia.
I’ve definitely been guilty of a serious lapse in judgement a number of times – there were those hair chopsticks in the late 90s, the slutty Native American costume I wore when I was 15 and the even sluttier Inuit costume I wore when I was 21. These days, slightly less ignorant, I try instead to celebrate cultures rather than appropriate them, and strive to use my platform of white privilege to raise awareness about racial prejudice.
One thing you can appropriate all you like, however, is your own cultural heritage.
“I don’t have any!” I hear you wail, pathetically brandishing a cow-anus pie in one hand (invented in the United Kingdom) and a pavlova (invented in New Zealand) in the other.
But as I discovered at the Blacktown Medieval Fayre in Western Sydney last weekend, actually, you do.
Every year, about an hour west of Sydney, a large-scale festival is held to celebrate medieval European culture. Think colourful tents and pavilions; viscious re-enactments of sword-fighting and jousting; elaborate costumes from the Middle Ages and Reconnaissance; craft demonstrations and workshops; platters of cured meats, field mushrooms and cheeses; and goblets of mead. As an avid lover of fantasy, and not one to knock the opportunity to wear a slutty costume, how could I not go?
There were kings, queens, knights, merchants, soldiers, hunters, vagabonds, peasants, bishops, friars, jesters, fortune tellers, executioners, dragons and maids. I watched children raised on iPads delight in the wooden play-swords and shields they had helped make themselves. I saw adults buying chopping boards and porridge stirrers from a carpenter who forged them on site using a medieval wood turner – supporting not only a local business, but the preservation of an ancient craft almost lost to mass-producing factories. I spotted nerds of all type—fantasy lovers, uber gamers, death-metal fans, history buffs and more—in their absolute element embracing medieval culture with open arms, and it was magical.
Without the vast collective of medieval fight clubs and organisations, festivals like this would not exist. The Society for Creative Anachronism is perhaps one of the biggest – an international group 30,000 members thick who dedicate themselves to practising the skills and arts of pre-17th century Europe. But there is also the Ancient Arts Fellowship, Danelaw Medieval Fighting Society and Full Tilt Jousting, just to name a few – all of which exist for people to come together and recreate the past, attend festivals and participate in workshops on jewellery-making, brewing, spinning, naalbinding, glass making, dancing and martial arts.
“If there’s anything related to medieval times you think you might like, come and chat to us at the Society for Creative Anachronism!” shouted a girl dressed as a nun as eight heavily-armoured men beat each other with swords and lances in front of her. “We guarantee there are people who already do it!”
Granted, going to a medieval festival is probably the nerdiest thing you can do, akin to playing Diablo 3 for 20 consecutive hours or forming an emo band. But it’s not disrespectful. The best thing about medieval culture is that no matter how foreign and unfamiliar it is to everyone today, appropriating it is perfectly okay. This is because white Europeans have never faced discrimination for displaying their cultural traditions, and their culture affects everyone else’s realities. Therefore, no matter your heritage, indulging in medieval practises doesn’t raise any issues of a systematic power imbalance to the advantage of white hegemonies at the expense of marginalised groups.
So the next time you feel like stencilling a henna Ohm tattoo on your chest and throwing on a Native American headdress, maybe consider slipping into a suit of armour and reaching for your sword instead. Find your tribe—nay, your kingdom—and you’ll never have to steal from another’s culture again.