Gordon Nagayama Hall is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He began his career as a psychologist at Western State Hospital. He also has been a professor at Kent State University and Penn State University. His interests are in culture and mental health. Dr. Hall’s blog for Psychology Today is “Life in the Intersection: A Multicultural Psychology Approach”. His new textbook, Multicultural Psychology, 3rd Edition, will be published in January.
What drew you to a career in psychology?
“I became interested in psychology during a class in high school. Unlike anything else I studied, psychology focused on understanding human behavior.”
What drew you to investigating cultural appropriation/cultural identity theft?
“My interest in cultural appropriation stems from experiences in Oregon. For example, I am a Japanese American. I have been to Japan several times. Yelp’s best sushi restaurant in Eugene serves sushi that has does not taste Japanese. The sushi is modified for non-Japanese people in Oregon by adding non-Japanese ingredients, such as cream sauce. This is not the best sushi restaurant from a Japanese American perspective.”
A lot of individuals when confronted with critiques or accusations of cultural appropriation, claim to not be appropriating but “appreciating” different cultures. What is the difference between cultural appropriation or identity theft and cultural exchange or appreciation?
“The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation is power. Scarlett Johansson starred as a Japanese character in “Ghost in the Shell”. Tom Cruise starred in “The Last Samurai”. Japanese actors are not cast in these roles because Hollywood directors have the power to cast whomever they wish. The directors may claim to appreciate Japanese culture but the portrayal is not authentic. And it takes opportunities away from Japanese actors.”
What are the psychological or general consequences of cultural identity theft, or appropriation? How does it impact minority groups, specifically Native Americans?
“Cultural appropriation is like discovering unauthorized charges on your credit card and your credit card company saying, “finders’ keepers”. The thief was clever enough to hack your account, so the company lets them use it. Cultural identity theft can be harmful because someone else takes control of a person’s culture. Media portrayals of Native Americans, such as sports mascots and Pocahontas, result in low self-esteem for Native Americans. Low self-esteem occurs because these portrayals were not created by Native Americans and are not accurate. For Native Americans, cultural appropriation has occurred for generations. It has involved a loss of land, culture, and identity. This is known as historical trauma. The effects of historical trauma include poor physical, psychological, and spiritual health.”
Have you ever had to personally deal with the impacts of cultural appropriation? If so, How did you?
“A colleague believed that he could explain how my Japanese American mother survived an internment camp in Arizona during World War II. His explanation was based on his own theory of coping. He did not understand Japanese American culture. But he believed he could explain my family’s experiences better than I could. I politely disagreed with his general explanation. I explained that suffering is accepted as part of life in Japanese culture. Japanese Americans may have been uniquely prepared to deal with suffering.”
Do you believe cultural appropriation is associated with ethnocentric and xenophobic ideologies? Explain.
“Cultural appropriation is similar to Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century. European Americans felt entitled to expand the boundaries of the United States by taking the lands of Native Americans. Similarly, those who engage in cultural appropriation may believe that other cultures exist for their benefit.”
What do you think is the root cause of cultural appropriation or cultural identity theft? Why do you think individuals continuously engage in it?
“The root cause of cultural appropriation is a lack of respect for other cultures. Cultural appropriation will continue as long as people believe that other cultures exist to be used rather than respected.”
In what ways can cultural appropriation be decreased? What level of belief do you have in a world where cultural appropriation is significantly decreased?
“Cultural appropriation can be decreased by learning to respect other cultures. Children can learn languages other than English. Schools can hire teachers from diverse backgrounds. These actions help a person understand that other cultures are on par with mainstream United States culture. This is already beginning to happen. Younger people are less prejudiced than older people. I am optimistic that millennials can create a world where cultures are respected rather than appropriated.”
What would you say to minority group members dealing with the impacts of appropriation?
“I encourage members of minority groups experiencing cultural appropriation to connect with others in their group. Having a personal cultural identity and finding social support is good for one’s mental health. Finding allies outside one’s cultural group can also help. Connections with others can bring societal change that will reduce cultural appropriation.”
Thank you Dr. Hall for participating in this interview!