I’ve always been critical of the concept of cultural appropriation. The prima facia case for encouraging unfettered cultural remixing was so strong that I simply dismissed cultural appropriation as just another canard social justice extremists used to feel superior. The simple fact that each person in the borrowing culture now enjoys the benefits of that knowledge or other cultural practice (without taking that benefit away from the source culture) means that there is a huge utility upside to cultural sharing. Thus, not only must cultural appropriation be harmful to be a valid criticism it must cause more harm than the benefits borrowing provides. While those who condemn cultural appropriation would point out that not all borrowing is appropriation distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable borrowing (at least by the dominant culture) is sufficiently vexed that if people internalized a norm against cultural appropriation as desired it would deter them from borrowing even in many cases that wouldn’t qualify as appropriation. If people who want to build off something they see in another culture, e.g., incorporate aboriginal rhythms into their music, have to check with the source culture or a panel of experts before experimenting with it they won’t bother to do so.
Moreover, the fact that cultures don’t have sharp boundaries (or well-defined views on what is acceptable) makes the whole concept suspect. For example, a cultural practice could spread from India to England while every person in the chain of transmission only adopts practices from what they see as their own culture. However, the facts about the chain of transmission don’t seem to plausibly affect whether the practice is harmful as usually most people won’t even be aware of the chain of transmission.
However, when I saw an article claiming to explain why cultural appropriation is harmful I figured I should give the arguments against cultural appropriation a fair shake. Not only were they incredibly unconvincing they actually persuaded me that the concept/criticism of cultural appropriation actually works to exploit the very least privileged for the sake of the slightly more privileged. I tried to find other articles but they weren’t any more persuasive (at least unless you read the last article as redefining cultural appropriation to simply mean borrowing without citing that culture as an influence). I accept that the defenses of cultural appropriation I consider here may not be the best ones available so if you know of better arguments please inform me. However, given that these seem to be the best arguments generally available to the public I think it’s fair to say that, should they prove unconvincing, the public should repudiate the idea of cultural appropriation until a more convincing justification can be found.
The TL;DR version of this article is simply: feelings of frustration/resentment because the proceeds from borrowing aren’t distributed in the most fair way don’t actually identify any harm. You might think it would be better if we compensated cultures we borrowed from or if past injustices were rectified but, given that isn’t pragmatically possible, it doesn’t mean that we are better off not borrowing these practices at all. Moreover, many of these intuitions about compensation seem to flow from a pernicious modern attitude regarding intellectual property naively applied to cultures as if they were individuals. Ultimately, pursuing these feelings of aggrievement doesn’t actually right the wrongs of past oppression but does make things worse for those who are alive today, especially the least privileged members of the least privileged groups. For a more in depth refutation I will go through the arguments in the first (most complete) article point by point.
Definitions and Limitations
Helpfully, this article offers the following definition of cultural appropriation:
cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
There are several serious problems with this definition. First and foremost is that it describes an overall state of affairs that people would universally agree is bad (oppression is almost by definition morally bad) but it is invoked to criticize only one aspect of that behavior. To give an example of how this can be misleading consider the following definition:
- Homicidal Familial Appropriation
- Homicidal familial appropriation occurs when one man (or those acting on his behalf) murders another and then appropriates the dead man’s family (marrying the widow, raising the children as his own etc..).
I think we can all agree that Homicidal Familial Appropriation is a bad thing and ought not to occur. However, the moral harm stems from the murder and, while it might strike us as distasteful, its not clear that stepping into the dead man’s shoes is a further harm. Indeed, in times past where the widow and orphans might face serious hardship or even starvation in the absence of a male protector/provider it might even be morally unacceptable not to marry and care for the widow after the fact.
To make this point more clearly imagine that you and another man (sorry but if you identify as female you’ll have to come up with your own murderous hypothetical) are romantic rivals for the same woman but she marries him and bears his child. You’ve accepted your loss with dignity but when your rich, powerful father hears of the situation he has your rival assassinated without your consent. Now that would surely be a tragic situation but the harm has already been effected and it would simply compound the tragedy to refuse to marry the widow and raise your rivals child. Indeed, even your rival himself would (if he weren’t dead) no doubt prefer that outcome in such a situation. The point is that merely because the definition describes a situation in which one person/group unacceptably benefits from a wrong done to another person/group its not appropriate to infer that choosing not to eschew the benefit would have made the situation better.
However, apart from attempting to tie together the use of cultural material with past oppression it is noteworthy how little this definition does to either pin down what activity is objectionable or what makes it objectionable. Indeed, if anything it creates further confusion about why cultural appropriation might be wrong. After all, from an intuitive point of view, it is hard to imagine that somehow Americans adopting yoga is bad in a way that Japanese adoption of yoga in a similar fashion wouldn’t be despite the lack of any past Japanese oppression of the Indians. Indeed, this definition would seem to suggest that even if a false historical account had convinced every living person that the Japanese and not the British had been responsible for oppressing the Indian people it would still be wrong for British derived cultures to adopt yoga but not the Japanese despite the fact that the effects would be indistinguishable from those in a world in which it really had been the Japanese doing the oppression.
While it is not, in itself, an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation I think defining a concept to ensure it only applies to the group you feel warrants criticism is a red flag. If your goal in using the term cultural appropriation was to pick out some natural class of behaviors that are wrong in the same way such a restriction would be unnecessary and invite the kind of criticism I gave above applying the concept in counterfactual situations. It might turn out that cultural appropriation happened (almost) exclusively in such circumstances because that’s the only time all the preconditions for the supposed harms are present1. However, baking such a criteria into the definition itself suggests a recognition that the speaker will not be able to describe the practice they object to in a way that others will agree only applies to those practices they wish to condemn and is attempting to sneakily avoid tough questions about what morally distinguishes the apparently similar behavior of non-dominant cultures. Again, this isn’t an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation but it does suggest a degree of skepticism may be appropriate.
Allegations of Moral Harm
So setting aside the issue of a precise definition of cultural appropriation for the moment what arguments does this piece offer to show cultural appropriation is morally wrong?
- “It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression”
So here’s what’s at stake for the Native people: The term “redsk*n” comes from the time when the colonial and state governments and companies paid white people to kill Native Americans and used their scalps or even genitalia (to prove their sex), aka “red skins,” as proof of their “Indian kill.”
Yes, its wrong to offend native Americans by trivializing the long history of oppression and poor treatment at the hands of other (mostly white) Americans. But what this shows is only that its wrong to offensively trivialize violent historical oppression.
To the extent this is your concern it would be more effective to simply drop talk of ‘cultural appropriation’ entirely and simply tell people not to be dicks. Lots of people, like myself, who are strident opponents of the idea of cultural appropriation think that its offensive and unacceptable (morally not legally) to call an NFL team the redskins. The only reason to bring up the label ‘cultural appropriation’ in this context is to borrow the reprobation we rightly feel for offensive/insensitive behaviors and apply it to instances of cultural borrowing that we don’t feel are justifiably viewed as offensive nor think trivialize historical oppression. Thus we are still in search of any reason to view cultural appropriation in general as morally wrong.
- “It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People”
In the San Francisco Bay Area, I witness people taking what they like without wanting to associate with where it came from all the time. Here, recent transplants to the area write Yelp reviews in search of “authentic Mexican food” without the “sketchy neighborhoods” – which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.
This isn’t so much a moral argument as an expression of frustration/disgust. Of course seeing people openly enjoying the fruits of mexican culture while remaining prejudiced against Mexicans might be infuriating but that doesn’t show it is wrong. It’s not like those newcomers would be less prejudiced or Mexican-Americans any better off if white Americans didn’t eat burritos. Just the opposite in fact.
A major factor underlying many people’s fear/distrust of minorities is a lack of any positive setting in which they interact with minorities. If your only experience with mexicans is seeing videos of them running from the border patrol on fox news and seeing the mexicans lingering on the streets around 14th and mission to sell drugs2 of course you will be inclined to be scared of them. Indeed, a serious problem in policing is the fact that while on the job police tend to encounter people up to no good and if that is there only contact with minorities it can instill powerful biases. But every person who sits down at a mexican restaurant and has a pleasant interaction with a mexican waiter or owner of the restaurant is a little less likely to be racist and the owner and employees of that restaurant are a bit better off.
One might try and suggest this might justify enjoying mexican food purchased from mexican owned establishments but doesn’t defend the sale of burritos by non-mexican establishments. However, I need not prove that this actively benefits minority interests only note that it doesn’t contribute to racism or prejudice. Indeed, taken seriously, this complaint would be a reason to abandon language itself for that is the ultimate reason it is possible to express appreciation for a culture while being prejudiced against its people. However, I would argue that even eating burritos sold by whites makes some contribution to reducing racism (if nothing else it makes individuals who might never otherwise have considered going to a mexican owned restaurant do so).
More broadly, I would point out that if the public ever internalized the notion of cultural appropriation as the advocates desire it would eliminate many of these benefits. The mere uncertainty about whether something qualified as cultural appropriation would discourage them from eating at mexican restaurants regardless of who owned them. Even in the implausible case in which people aren’t too lazy to throughly check who owns the restaurant they plan to eat at insisting on mexican ownership of a restaurant serving burritos would substantially reduce the resale vale of mexican restaurants and make it that much harder for Mexicans to get loans to start them. In short, while the actual cultural appropriation doesn’t further any of the harms raised in the argument accepting cultural appropriation as a genuine harm does.
- “It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color”
For example, standards of professionalism hold back all kinds of people who aren’t white men. As a Black woman, there are many jobs that would bar me if I wore cornrows, dreadlocks, or an afro – some of the most natural ways to keep up my hair. So for me, wearing my hair naturally is a meaningful declaration that I believe in my natural beauty. It’s risky to make this declaration in a society that says I must aspire to whiteness have value.
Again we see the harm (behaviors/appearances identified with minority groups are viewed as unacceptable/unclassy) conflated with a behavior which merely makes that harm salient (white people borrowing it). Indeed, the most plausible way we will get to a society which accepts these minority behaviors/appearances as mainstream is by allowing whites to adopt them. That is unfortunate but what’s morally relevant is the results. Ultimately, which is the better world: one in which white people don’t adopt minority styles/behaviors and that difference continues to be used to oppress them or one in which white people borrow those styles/behaviors and they are no longer used to oppress? Furthermore, given the choice between sending the message to black girls that “the way you look is ugly and inappropriate” or that “the way you look is so good that white women are trying to adopt it” I’d choose the later.
Again, the choice isn’t between the world as it is and the magical world without discrimination where afros, dreadlocks etc.. on blacks are seen as appropriate professional dress but between the world as it is and the world where whites never borrowed these fashions and they never gained acceptability. While the message that mainstream acceptance depends on convincing whites to adopt your style isn’t great its a hell of a lot better than the message that mainstream acceptance is impossible. Indeed, given the social and professional roles occupied by whites insisting that they not adopt black derived fashions/behaviors would be to doom many important black cultural figures to niche influence not to mention impeding the slow steps toward less racial animosity.
- “It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor”
- “It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For”
I take this to be the core of the complaint. It feels wrong when you see some white woman benefiting from selling some crap based on native american spirituality while native americans languish in poverty and suffer from discrimination. However, this doesn’t in any way show that the cultural appropriation itself makes anyone worse off.
It is often the misfits and oddballs who come up with the most important ideas. History is littered with stories of misunderstood genuis and people who were treated abominably during their lives only for their great cultural contributions to be recognized latter. Surely we don’t believe that the world would be better if we eschewed their contributions because they were treated poorly. So why would the situation be any different when the creator is a member of a racial/ethnic group that is oppressed rather than someone who merely happens to socially marginalized? More generally, I would simply dispute the very idea that whoever comes up with new ideas somehow deserves or is owed the profit on those ideas. It is a good way to incentivize innovation but doesn’t seem to have much going for it as a morally mandate.
Of course, we can all agree that one should give appropriate credit, e.g., if you’ve borrowed your musical style from black performers say so. However, that doesn’t in any way imply that it would be better not to borrow that style at all.
Lets consider for a moment what the world would be like if white musicians had never borrowed from black music culture or if white studio executives refused to profit from distributing black music. It would be a world even more divided than our world today. The many black artists who profited and have been idolized by teens of all races would never have gotten their chance. Rock music would have been relegated to a racial ghetto and used as further justification for racism rather than bringing folks together.
Yet again while cultural appropriation may make the unfairness of past oppression and continuing injustices salient if anything it works to ameliorate these harms not enhance them.
- “It Spreads Mass Lies About Marginalized Cultures”
For instance, if you think about the real story of Pocahontas, having your daughter pretend to be her on Halloween is pretty disturbing. The real Pocahontas, whose given name was Matoaka, was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman (not John Smith, by the way), and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at the age of 21.
Ok, don’t spread misinformation about marginalized cultures. Got it. Now what does this have to do with cultural appropriation. When it is/isn’t ok to sugarcoat history is an important issue but it isn’t cultural appropriation.
- “It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes”
As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”
Umm, no. In virtually all cases of so called cultural appropriation no one is pretending to be a different race. But yah, if you see someone perpetuating a racist stereotype call them out on it but this has nothing to do with the issue of cultural appropriation. Indeed, the example cited in the article of Katy Perry dressing up as a submissive asian woman in her performance isn’t even a case of cultural borrowing at all.
Having a half-asian wife I’m well aware of the issues surrounding the fetishization of oriental women. It’s a complex topic that I won’t address here because its not relevant to the issue of cultural appropriation.
- “White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing”
Again, this explains why members of marginalized groups might get upset about cultural appropriation but doesn’t explain what makes it bad. The whole hope of a less racist, less bigoted future rests on abandoning a race based us versus them attitude and this complain stinks of race based score keeping. We should all be glad that we live in a better time now and no one is punished for the practice anymore. Of course its easy for me to say that and I don’t begrudge those whose cultures were oppressed their feelings but it doesn’t make the argument against cultural appropriation any more valid.
Indeed, I think the article itself nicely illustrates why cultural appropriation is a net benefit.
A touching moment in this discussion with South Asian yoga teachers from South Asian Art & Perspectives on Yoga and America (SAAPYA) shows one woman’s tearful explanation of how the elders in her community don’t have access to the yoga studios dominating the industry of a practice so important to them. As Susanna Barkataki writes, dividing yoga from its true roots and purpose, and from the people who had to fought to keep it alive, means “eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India.”
Step back and think rationally for a moment. In which scenario do you think there is more money, space and interest devoted to keeping traditional yogic practices alive: the one in which California is covered with yoga studios and the Beatles travel to India to consult spiritual gurus or the one in which yoga remains some weird stuff smelly Indian beggars do? I think the answer is obvious. Indeed, the widespread enthusiasm for yoga around the world is generally viewed as providing India with considerable soft power. Unsurprisingly, members of oppressed groups have discovered the same thing that Americans did when they exported American entertainment: having your cultural products consumed by people in other countries grants you considerable power and influence.
- “It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People”
claiming that the dominant culture has a right to take freely from disempowered groups sounds a lot like the lie of the “white man’s burden” from the past. Colonizers used this concept to claim they had a “duty” to take land, resources, and identity from Indigenous people – trying to justify everything from slavery to genocide.
No, that isn’t what emphasizing the importance of feeling free to make use of whatever ideas/concepts/fashions are available communicates to me. Indeed, I don’t think white people consuming/producing rap, doing yoga or engaging in bullshit native-american spirituality generally sends any of the soul-crushing messages that those arguing against cultural appropriation take them to send. However, to the extent such messages/impressions are harmful then it seems convincing others that this is the message being sent whenever whites engage in cultural borrowing would be manifesting the very harm which advocates claim to be trying to alleviate.
More generally, this point simply can’t provide initial justification for the moral harm of cultural appropriation. Absent an initial showing of harm to marginalized people one can’t claim that accepting cultural borrowing is prioritizing anything over justice for marginalized people.
Ultimately, what would the effect of taking claims of cultural appropriation seriously. I’ve argued above that if we literally followed out the logic of their complaints we would live in a world with a great deal more racial suspicion missing many of the things which make modern life so good. Moreover, its not merely members of the dominant racial/cultural group who would suffer. Blacks would equally well be denied the fitness benefits of yoga if there weren’t yoga studies all over the US (the fact blacks currently make less use of yoga than whites doesn’t change the fact that they still benefit) and native-american teens would be just as lacking in rock-n-roll as white teens. More generally, the overall increase in societal wealth as a result of the non-linear interplay of freely borrowed ideas benefits everyone, those at the bottom often the most.
However, thats not really the world which those who raise complaints about cultural appropriation would bring about. Practically speaking whats at issue isn’t really when its ok to borrow from another culture but who gets to decide. Looking at the behavior of those who take cultural appropriation seriously (and who haven’t defined the concept not to apply to them) its not that they borrow any less from other cultures but rather that they give veto power to eminent members of the culture who accept the notion of cultural appropriation.
This is problematic for a number of reasons but most ironically because it fails to consider the interests of the least powerful members of marginalized groups. Simply dividing the world into privileged and non-privileged cultures and ignoring the power structures within marginalized cultures is an exceptionally privileged and narcissistic way to understand the complexity of human culture. As a practical matter adopting the vocabulary of cultural appropriation hands power over the use of cultural inheritance to the members of that culture who have already gained a substantial degree of power/acceptance by mainstream society, e.g., the native-american academic or the black activist, while yanking it away from those who could benefit from it the most. The unrecognized black rapper who can’t support his music by selling CDs to white teens and the impoverished native-american who can’t send their daughter to college on money earned from cheap Indian trinkets sold to tourists are equally entitled to the fruits of their culture but the narrative of cultural appropriation denies this to them.
- For instance, one might imagine a definition of cultural appropriation that identified the harm as stemming from a sense of loss of cultural dignity or self-direction/control. On such a definition it would be very difficult for a dominant culture to ever be subject to such a harm (though one might imagine some sci-fi scenario in which it happens) but that fact would flow naturally from the definition rather than being baked into the definition. ↩
- No, I’m not making baseless assumptions here about what they were doing. Based on personal experience I can attest that the majority of people who you see lounging about in that area are involved in some way in the illegal drug trade and many of them are mexican. As a past customer I can hardly hold that against them but it is understandable why people would view drug dealing gangmembers as scary. ↩