Decrypting Cultural Appropriation: A Rosetta Stone for Contemporary Progressive Politics

The history of this post is weird: from the first time I heard about “Cultural Appropriation”, I’ve been a skeptic about it in the sense that I thought there wasn’t an actual case for it. I don’t mean I doubted if people were actually performing actions which would count as cultural appropriation, I was doubting if there was even a defensible concept. But when I was doing some research for this post, I came across some ideas which I think can be used to make a compelling case for it. This final version is a map of this whole process- the various approaches that fail, as well as one that I think works.

Alleged examples of cultural appropriation are now legion: white rappers, Katy Perry’s “Geisha-style” performance, yoga, Kimono wearing, etc. But first, what is cultural appropriation? As a first pass, let’s use this one from Nadra Kareem Nittle:

Cultural appropriation typically involves members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions…Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

In this post, I’ll be arguing that a lot of commonly attributed features of cultural appropriation aren’t defensible and so a lot of ways it is traditionally talked about will have to go.


I. Arguments that don’t work

Let’s consider some of the major features which are commonly attributed to cultural appropriation:

  • Involves the exploitation of a marginalized culture by members of a dominant one.
  • It is theft.
  • It is done without permission.
  • It involves dominant groups profiting off the works of marginalized groups
  • It is disrespectful and harmful.
  • The very cultural artifacts which are treated with contempt when associated with members of non-dominant groups are treated as novel and exotic when used by members of the dominant group.
  • It’s done with little understanding of the non-dominant group’s history, experience and traditions, and so is used out of context.
  • It treats culture as a costume.
  • It involves sacred objects and their mistreatment.

Although all these are mentioned, none of the reasons given here justify the sorts of social prohibitions against cultural appropriation that we are used to.

A. Consider first the idea that it involves the theft or usage without permission. This would require that a person who belongs to a certain culture have some entitlement to the use of that culture’s artifacts which someone from another culture lacks, some sort of property right (the first thing to come to mind is intellectual property). This approach would also explain why non-group members would need to get permission- after all the members of the culture are equivalent to its owners.

But not so fast. The term “appropriation” reminds us of Marx’s use of the term concerning the appropriation of surplus value created by the proletariat by those with capital. However, there is a huge difference between Marx’s use and the one in our current debate. In Marx’s case, it was the product of actual labor of certain individuals that we were concerned with. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases of alleged cultural appropriation, the individual members of the marginalized community cannot claim to have invented or have put in any work that would give them entitlements over their culture. For example, consider that the protesters of white people wearing the Kimono would probably not object to Japanese-Americans wearing it. However, none of the Japanese-Americans “permitted” were actually involved in the creation of any actual kimonos, let alone the one in question, since we can safely assume that the number of people involved with Kimono invention can safely be assumed to be small. This is why trying to model cultural appropriation as intellectual property violations fails- marginalized community members are typically not situated appropriately to entitle them to ownership in this way.

(Perhaps people can argue that the real owners, ie., the creators do have these entitlements, and that they might wish for only their culture members to use it and maybe this would serve as something like copyright transfer. However, this is first an empirical question, but more importantly it seems like a stretch).

The reasons for the initial plausibility of the idea that people own their cultures can probably be chalked up to a feature of language- after all people do say things like “this is my culture, you don’t get to decide if…”. However, there are many uses of “my” in everyday life, many of which do not indicate possession. When we say “that building is on my left” or “this is my religion”, we don’t mean we own the direction or religion, instead we’re indicating that there is some association between us and something else. In the case of culture, it is certainly true that we might belong to a culture, but that doesn’t mean it belongs to us.

Of course, cultural artifacts like clothing and music might be held very dear by people, even to the point of it constituting who they are. However, no amount of caring about something gives you ownership over it. This is true for people who think liking a band before they get famous somehow makes their love special, and its true for people who think being associated with a culture for a long time makes it theirs.

This would imply that asking people for permission makes no sense since no one has ownership. And while there might be a financial loss if, say, a white-owned Indian restaurant competed with an Indian-owned one, since the latter isn’t entitled to use of the culture any more than the former, even if there is a financial loss it isn’t one that is unjust.

B. What about the fact that marginalized communities tend to be oppressed, and might be living with terrible setbacks because of historical and current harms perpetrated by the majority? We certainly shouldn’t deny that people continue to be oppressed because of race, ethnicity, etc., but this by itself doesn’t show why cultural appropriation is bad. Four variations of this are especially common.

First, it’s pointed out that members of marginalized communities are mocked and treated with contempt for engaging in traditional behaviour (for example, clothing), while members of dominant communities who wear the same clothes are praised for their artistic vision. Even assuming that it is the same set of people who are reacting asymmetrically, note that getting the dominant community to stop wearing the “ethnic” clothes in no way enhances anyone’s freedoms since the marginalized person will still be mocked if they dress traditionally. Therefore prohibitions might appease someone concerned with the asymmetry, but it doesn’t actually help end the substantive injustice. This idea also holds more generally in cases where people point to historic or ongoing injustices: these are no doubt awful, but we will have to show how banning cultural appropriation would in any way better the lives of the oppressed.

Second, it’s pointed out that dominant group members use cultural items without knowing any of the complex history behind them. While this is no doubt true, the dirty secret is that this is also going to be true for the vast majority of members of the marginalized group. While there are certainly many people who care deeply about the history and passing down of traditions, there are just as many who don’t think too much about it and just do it because that is the way that things are. (And this is assuming there is a single meaning and history for culture, instead of the several fragmented and contested meanings). Unless we want to prohibit this substantial second group from accessing their culture, this cannot be a criterion for excluding the dominant group.

Third, there is the fact that sacred objects of marginalized communities are often treated sacrilegiously. After intense contestation over time, we seem to have come to the conclusion that free speech means nothing if it doesn’t involve the right to offend. Now the standard position is that even if mocking religious beliefs is unseemly, it doesn’t count as morally wrong. If this is the case for dominant religions, I don’t see why being the religion of an oppressed community would change anything. Feelings might be more intensely hurt, but all speech (including offensive) is considered a far more valuable good.

Lastly, isn’t it wrong that these appropriators “treat culture as a costume”? I think this worry arises because we (mistakenly) tend to think of people from different cultures as different kinds of people- this way, when someone uses cultural objects from another culture it seems superficial and demeaning because they are using objects inappropriate for their kind. This is however a completely unjustified lens. All culture is costume, sometimes superficial and sometimes so deeply entrenched it appears natural. And to gatekeep based on extent of “superficiality” falls into the problems of the second point above- too many marginalized people might have to end up prohibited too.

I think these are the major stands most often associated with defenses of the idea of cultural appropriation, and I hope to have shown that none of them work by themselves. This isn’t to say they are irrelevant, it’s just that as the argument stands now, they are insufficient to make a case.


II. An Argument that works

The argument that should be made depends on the idea of recognition, but to appreciate this we first need to rid ourselves of a feature of our usual idea of authenticity: that there is some fully-formed but hidden authentic self inside each of us, which we can access through self-reflection is we just shut society out.

Although not set out this explicitly, we can detect these assumptions in the cultural injunctions to “stay true to yourself” and to “not care about what other people think”. However, our connection to society cannot and should not be severed for two reasons.

The first is to do with the genesis of the tools of self-reflection. The various ideas, concepts, and ways of thinking come to us from society, even if we later forget this.

The second (and relevant here) points out that our connection with society isn’t just confined to a one-time acquisition of concepts, but that out identifies are constantly formed in dialogue with others. As the philosopher Charles Taylor points out in his excellent essay The Politics of Recognition

We define our identity always in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things our significant others [broadly understood] want to see in us…The monological ideal  [that is, pure self-reflection] seriously underestimates the place of the dialogical in human life…It forgets how our understanding of the good things in life [involves] enjoying them in common with people we love; how some goods become accessible to us only through such common enjoyment. Because of this, it would take a great deal of effort, and probably many wrenching break-ups, to prevent our identity’s being formed by [other people].

…my discovering my own identity doesn’t mean that I work it out in isolation, but that I negotiate it through dialogue, partly overt, partly internal, with others. That is why the development of an ideal of inwardly generated identity gives a new importance to recognition. My own identity crucially depends on my dialogical relations with others.

Of course not everyone is relevant to identity formation- there are particular individuals and groups who will be more relevant than others, and those who count as relevant might alter- but the it remains that other people matter for our individual identities.

One important way other people matter is through their recognition (or misrecognition) of who we are. Think about why slurs are so bad. If we really were self-sufficient and self-contained, getting called a slur wouldn’t matter because we would know it was false. The fact that insults can cut deep show that recognition matters. Moreover, the push by gay rights movements for the ability of queer people to live open lives, as well as the push for preferred pronouns lend further credence to the idea that we care about being recognized.

Some of our identities have to do with social groups, and therefore the salient sort of recognition here is public recognition, which can be thought of as how we (that is, our identity group members) are recognized or represented in various cultural avenues. Taking this social aspect seriously, in media-drenched societies like ours, it is in the interest of human flourishing that people be represented truthfully, represented positively, and represented in ways that they have control over. The first helps build real identities, the second helps build healthy identities, while the third enhances autonomy. (These can conflict, of course).

We can now return to the specific case of cultural appropriation and see how these new ideas can be applied. While it does “involve members of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups”, its justification comes not from the fact of oppression itself, but by considerations of how marginalized communities are represented and treated in societies like ours.

It’s still true that people have no entitlement or ownership over their culture, and so the asking of permission still makes no sense . However, if we’re interested in helping groups realize their chosen representations, then asking if a certain portrayal is appropriate will certainly help. Since there still isn’t any theft, as argued before, maybe the term “cultural appropriation” isn’t appropriate, but it’s in use so I continue to use it.

We can also see why the dominant culture using differently the sacred and long-held objects and symbols can cause so much pain. If there is a a particular symbol that is being used differently by the mainstream, it becomes increasingly hard for the community to preserve the old meaning since representations affect how we see ourselves and the various features of our identities. There is also no doubt also a sense of violation but, as I pointed out earlier, offensiveness is not a good enough reason to stifle speech. The issue is with a community’s ability to preserve the integrity of its ways.

This is also related to why the portrayal of cultural symbols in ways that are false, insulting, or superficial irks people- people are aware that the attempts to represent them aren’t managing to do this. Instead they’re being shown some figures that might look like them, but don’t actually resemble them. And so the few opportunities that minorities have to see themselves represented are being wasted. When people say “our culture/race is not a costume”, we should remember that most of the situations that this is being said involve the (mis)use of cultural items by a dominant group member for a laugh. And so a defensible interpretation would be “our culture is not a comical costume, we are fighting to have a positive representation of our culture as the dominant representation of our marginalized culture in the wider culture, and this is undermined by your costume”. And we can also see why cases of appropriation of certain cultural forms that arose as a response to oppression, such as large parts of African-American culture, seem especially disquieting, because the original oppositional manner in which an oppressed community sought to exert autonomy in the public sphere is itself being threatened by dilution.

We can finally also address why charges of cultural appropriation is always hurled at dominant groups, and not at minority groups. For example, this satirical article argued that Japanese Square dancers were appropriating. If the issue were the theft of one culture’s objects by another, then this would indeed be a symmetrical situation. But the problem of cultural appropriation arises only when a group lacks certain sorts of representation. Since dominant groups can be reasonably assumed to have control over how they are represented as well as ensure positive representations for themselves, there is a reasonable asymmetry involved in who can and cannot culturally appropriate.


III. Complications

Now a completely reasonable question is as follows: Truthful representations are completely reasonable because we want to be truthful, but can’t this push for positive and selected representation lead to bad consequences? We can imagine anti-vaxers, creationists, fundamentalists, and even dangerous people requesting these. The answer can only be a recognition that autonomy and freedom, while being important ends, are only some of many valuable goals we seek. Society certainly also has an imperative to keep out dangerous views and so it will have to be debated about where the lines have to be drawn. With respect to this debate, however, we need to remember that the reason certain groups lack power happens to be because of historic and ongoing oppression, as well as existing representations that are biased. These will weigh in favor of granting robust spaces for marginalized communities to determine their own representations as they see fit.

And speaking of a plurality of ends, by now Lionel Shriver’s speech as well as the outcry against it have gone viral. Shriver defended the artist’s right to take up different social perspectives, but does so without recognizing that we do live in a society with deep and entrenched political issues. At this point in our analysis, we can point out why there was outcry against her: for too long marginalized communities have been unable to get either positive representations or representations they control. And here was a “famous” author who seemed to be defending the very circumstances that brought this about. But we can also see why this isn’t a knock-down argument: the political aspect is not the only worthwhile goal available. The freedom of the artistic process is certainly something most of us can also get behind. And indeed, the best responses to this controversy tried to come to term with both aspects.

As for the discussions to decide what should count as cultural appropriation, who should be a part of it? Obviously members of the marginalized group will have to be involved, but it seems absurd for only group members to participate because the anti-vaxer problem will reassert itself. All we can say here is that although ultimately everyone will have to be engaged, the oppressed have been silenced and misrepresented for a very long time. The terrain of the ideal debate is too complicated and diverse to try to map out in any more detail through abstract speculation. (See Habermas’ Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic Constitutional State for more theoretical considerations).

One issue that we have dodged until now is an assumption made that there is a single meaning for what counts as a certain culture. We can safely speculate that for any symbol that is taken seriously by someone in a culture, we can find someone else within that culture who will reject it as unimportant. (We could try some argumentative jujitsu and try to wall off these dissidents, but surely this will not do). The sacred objects that are venerated by majorities might be sneered at by skeptics within a culture. The traditional clothes of some might be rejected in favor of “Western” ones by others. We can try to deflect by claiming that these issues will have to sorted through further discussion, but given the non-monolithic nature of cultures the truth remains that one meaning will have to be elevated over others. Whose? Saying no meaning should be privileged will just mean that the entire group (wherever the boundaries) will have to give up claims to autonomy. or break itself up into a ridiculously large number of smaller groups, maybe even one for each individual. This isn’t tenable either, if we think group identities as group identities matter. The solution seems unclear.

I began this post by talking about how I had doubts about the defensibility of the concept of cultural appropriation, and I think that challenge has at least been met. There is a framework and compelling reasons to take the idea of cultural appropriation seriously. However, in the final analysis someone someone might very well reasonably claim that other considerations outweigh the benefits of using “cultural appropriation” as tool of analysis. Or maybe we could end up concluding that even if we think the idea is great in theory, in practice there is no cultural feature that we can apply it to. Or maybe it will turn out that a majority of the community is actually alright with sharing and the transformations this may cause. Or maybe we decide all cultures should just stay apart (unlikely, but 2016 is turning out to a roller coaster of a year). I hope what I’ve said here can act as a framework or at least a starting point to think about this topic in better ways. The Great Work begins.

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