Resources On What ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Is and Isn’t

Devyn Springer
Sep 11, 2018 · 12 min read

“Cultural misappropriation distinguishes itself from the neutrality of cultural exchange, appreciation, and appropriation because of the instance of colonialism and capitalism”

First: Cultural appropriation, or “appropriation that occurs across the boundaries of cultures” (Young), is when “members of one culture (outsiders) take for their own, or for their own use, items produced by a member or members of another culture (insiders).” In this formulation, and most definitional observations, appropriation itself is not an inherently immoral or even unusual occurrence. In fact, most art involves appropriation of some form. However, it is the power dynamic which alters the moral standing of the act of appropriation. Uneven or unparalleled power dynamics, in which an act of culture appropriation can be broken down into various subcategories such as object appropriation, style appropriation, content appropriation, motif appropriation, and subject appropriation, create a space in which appropriation becomes questionable, and both intentions and commodification must be examined.

While appropriation is not specific to art, that is typically the appropriation which dominates the most space in public discourse. Artworks are only one thing within a large range of works that could be considered culturally appropriated. Human remains, archaeological finds, anthropological data, scientific knowledge, genetic material, land, religious beliefs, and a range of other items have all been considered subject to ‘cultural appropriation’ (Young). However, when discussing the appropriation of art, attached to it is the ideas of appropriating clothing customs, lingual specificity, and visual aesthetics.

And as cultural exchange and appreciation are increasingly living, breathing around a thin line between cultural appropriation, there are generally many strong and obvious arguments which could be made in both directions. For me, based on the historical theft inextricable from colonialism and [cultural] imperialism, I believe whiteness itself is the extra-factor in cultural exchange that must be hyper-examined, while I strongly believe cultural exchange and appropriation between fellow marginalized communities can be a point of strength. When I was a child, my grandmother was close friends with members of the Indigenous community (Shawnee tribe) in the parts of Kansas and Oklahoma where she lived, and when I visited her in the summers we were often invited to observe various private meetings, events, and rituals. Markings, clothing, special headdresses, and other visual aesthetic items were occasionally placed on me as a child, ones that did not associate with my own ethnicity or culture, but that I was allowed to where in the context of the event and relationship which was built. Later, while writing a flash fiction column for my high school newspaper, I would recall these events in my stories. This is a form of cultural appropriation — benevolent, inspired, and within the context of granted permission, harmless. However, given the direction the conversation surrounding “cultural appropriation” has taken in the past few years, this purely well-intentioned act, even within the given permission of acceptance, would be viewed as a malevolent act.

Because of this, and other examples of cultural upset which seem to be boundless, this is why I have began to urge for the use of the term “cultural misappropriation” as opposed to a constant use of “cultural appropriation.” Cultural misappropriation distinguishes itself from the neutrality of cultural exchange, appreciation, and appropriation because of the instance of colonialism and capitalism; cultural misappropriation occurs when a cultural fixture of a marginalized culture/community is copied, mimicked, or recreated by the dominant culture against the will of the original community and, above all else, commodified. One can understand the use of “misappropriation” as a distinguishing tool because it assumes that there are 1) instances of neutral appropriation, 2) the specifically referenced instance is non-neutral and problematic, even if benevolent in intention, 3) some act of theft or dishonest attribution has taken place, and 4) moral judgement of the act of appropriation is subjective to the specific culture from which is being engaged.

As Jessica Metcalf put it:

“Cultural appropriation happens every day, especially in the world of fashion. It’s the loose idea of borrowing, sharing and being inspired by other cultures. Cultural appropriation in this sense is an awesome thing. We learn, and we grow. Cultural misappropriation is a land of darkness. It’s a place where one culture (most often one that has an historical record of oppressing other cultures) engages in the unauthorised taking of some aspects of another (most often a minority) culture.”

If the dichotomy between the two is accepted, which I strongly urge us to begin that process, we can easily distinguish between acts of cultural violence and acts of cultural interest, appreciation. Moreover, if we accept that the brunt of our identities, like race, gender, religion, etc. are social constructs (they are), then our cultural staples as well are communal social constructs, or cultural constructs. If we want to imagine a future where identities based in social constructs are repealed and eventually abolished, rendering them powerless to discrimination, we must begin to illustrate ways where cultures and cultural phenomena can stand in place for said identities. And, above all, this unraveling of colonial identities and the weight of inequity they carry is closely tied with decolonization — physical, theoretical, and metaphysical decolonization must precede the point of repealing identities, because we cannot begin to unravel identities which were founded on and still exist within the context of the settler-Native binary. We must first repeal the settler state itself. This thinking must become our future of envisioning culture.

With that in mind, moving towards a space where collective cultural experience can occur often, and a return of neutrality to appropriation takes place, we can also move towards a space beyond many identity labels. But this can only be done by, as previously stated, returning the neutrality to “appropriation” and instead shifting towards being specific in our indictments of misappropriation.

The main factor that divorces cultural misappropriation from mere acts of ‘poor taste’ and ‘cultural insensitivity’ (which is a liberal buzzword that should always be used cautiously) is the ability of commodification. Not that artifacts, visual markers, clothing, and art are simply problematically appropriated, or worn/displayed, rather that the dominant culture will likely always have the ability to profit from these things. Under capitalism, settler-colonialism, and white supremacy, whiteness will maintain a relation to the means of production, the market, and business in general which will always favor itself. Anything which is adopted into the superstructure by the ruling class will therefore be used to sustain and reproduce the very inequities which maintain their hegemonic positions, and thus our cultural bearings become wrapped in this hierarchical equation of substantiating and reproducing whiteness, capitalism. Thus, the ability of the dominant (white) class to profit from another’s culture — selling Native headdresses as costumes, repacking hip-hop into a white body, statuettes of Ganesha and Buddha sold in excess — exists as a particular problem within capitalism.

Cultural [mis]appropriation then becomes an inherent problem of capitalism, the system which not only allows but encourages this very commodification of culture (and everything). Because commodification is heavily encouraged by the alienating and ultimately competitive core functions of capitalism, misappropriation is thus also encouraged; and because the advents of commodification, competition, and exploitation and all praised as successes under the capital system, we see members — both marginal and otherwise central — of our own subjugated communities readily engaging in the misappropriation process for their own gain.

The aforementioned power dynamic becomes about the power to sell, to strip of meaning and history an item or event for the sake of a dollar, and the ability not of individual white people to wear dreadlocks but an industry and economic system to turn that to profit. The white person wearing dreadlocks may be entering their body into an ugly act of cultural insensitivity, or what even could be perceived as a micro-occurrence of the legacy of colonial theft, but does not necessarily oppress me. However, the system surrounding that act, which will give them a job above me if we had the same hairstyle, or that will create and market hair products for white people to have that hairstyle, or will institutionalize a hip-hop subculture geared towards other white people with likely musty dreadlocks: that system oppresses me. That is the system of capitalism intersecting with cultural misappropriation.

Excerpts from James O. Young’s “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts

“Both aesthetic and ethical arguments have been advanced against the practice of cultural appropriation of art. One can argue that artworks that are the product of cultural appropriation are bound to be aesthetic failures. Alternatively one can argue that acts of cultural appropriation are immoral. Aesthetic and moral objections could be combined. The aesthetic failure of certain artworks may cause them to be wrongly harmful to members of a culture. (The work may, for example, misrepresent the originating culture in a harmful way.) Some of these objections are, as we shall see, undoubtedly telling in particular cases. Many acts of cultural appropriation are, however, morally unobjectionable and some of them result in artworks of great aesthetic value.”

As the word ‘appropriation’ was originally used, no moral stigma was attached to it. One did not necessarily act wrongly when one engaged in appropriation. In its original use, the word usually referred to taking something from nature. An individual who picked an apple in the wild was said to have appropriated it. The apple was in a state of nature, that is, without an owner. Most philosophers have thought that anyone who appropriates an apple from a state of nature does not act wrongly under most circumstances. Some appropriation, of course, is suspect. If I take as my own an apple that belongs to you, and I do so without your permission, then a prima facie [based on the first impression; accepted as correct until proved otherwise] reason exists for thinking that I have acted wrongly. (Note, we have only a prima facie reason for thinking so. I may be justified in taking an apple from your orchard, without your permission, if only by doing so can I save the life of a child.) Some acts of appropriation are permissible, while others are not. The same can be said about acts of cultural appropriation. It is easy to identify some instances of cultural appropriation that are plainly unobjectionable. A tourist from Japan walks into a shop in Darwin or Santa Fe and buys a painting by an indigenous artist. In such a case, almost always nothing objectionable has occurred. This is an example of benign object appropriation. (I assume that the artist voluntarily chose to sell the work. He was not coerced overtly or by financial circumstances. I also assume that the art dealer had the authority to sell the painting.) Or suppose that an artist receives from a competent authority freely given permission to use stories or songs that have been developed in a culture. We would have a case of unobjectionable content appropriation. On the other hand, it is easy to give examples of appropriation that are obviously wrong. Consider, for example, the appropriation of the great works of art produced for the Oba (King) of Benin. These works of art included a series of magnificent bronzes produced for and only for the Obas of Benin over a number of centuries. Perhaps unwisely, the struggle of the Edo people (as they call themselves) to maintain their independence included the ambush of a British vice-consul. The ensuing punitive expedition of 1897 resulted in the seizure of virtually all of the bronzes. These are now found in museums and private collections around the world. Many are in the British Museum. (Some were sold back to Nigeria after it became independent. The present whereabouts of these bronzes is unclear.) As is universally believed by international jurists, and is besides pretty obvious, works of art are not lawful plunder or spoils of war. British soldiers may have been justified in confiscating the weapons of the Edo, but they had no business stealing their sculptures. The appropriation of these sculptures was morally equivalent to a bank heist.

An act of cultural appropriation could be offensive for a variety of reasons. It might be sacrilegious. The manner in which outsiders have used materials may be inappropriate by the standards of insiders. For example, symbols with religious significance might be used disrespectfully.

The first sort of argument focuses on what I have called subject appropriation. This argument begins with the premise that outsiders who engage in subject appropriation are bound to misrepresent insiders and their culture. These misrepresentations can be harmful in a variety of ways. Most obviously, outsiders could create or perpetuate harmful stereotypes that hurt members of a culture. For example, old Hollywood Westerns represent Native Americans as cruel and mendacious. Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) so grotesquely misrepresents members of North American First Nation cultures that I will not let my children watch it. Distorting stereotypes could harm members of a culture in several ways. Members of the culture could be subjected to discrimination in employment or education. This could, in turn, give rise to economic problems that make it difficult for a culture to sustain itself. Most insidiously, insiders could begin to see themselves as others see them and their culture can be distorted.

Even if an act of cultural appropriation is not harmful, it might still be wrong. The act could be, in Joel Feinberg’s sense of the word, profoundly offensive. An action is harmful if it is a direct setback to someone’s interests. Acts of theft are clear cases of harm. To deprive people of property that is rightfully theirs is to harm them by hindering them in the pursuit of their ends. If people are deprived of their culture, they are also, perhaps more seriously, harmed. An act of cultural appropriation may, however, not deprive insiders of their culture. Their artistic practices may not be distorted by the activities of outsiders. Still, insiders may find acts of cultural appropriation offensive. When one is offended, one is put into a temporary state of mind that one finds unpleasant, but one suffers no long-term setback to one’s interests. Insiders may be put into an unpleasant state of mind when they are aware that outsiders are appropriating their culture. They may be appalled, disgusted, insulted, or outraged. If certain acts of appropriation are an affront to their culture, we may say that the actions are profoundly offensive

Excerpts from my essay “You Can’t Beat Pablo If Ya Work Ain’t Sellin: Appropriation, Truth, and Capitalism

To discuss cultural appropriation we need to discuss art, capitalism, hegemonic thievery, and exploitation.

That a more dominant, or hegemonic, culture is able to commodify and profit from a marginalized or minority community’s culture is an effect of capitalism, and only occurs by the dominant group erasing the historical context through which the culture exists. When I see white women wearing Bob Marley bikinis and white people, in general, taking my Jamaican culture and purchasing it from stores like Hot Topic and Spencer’s, and other likely sweatshop-made clothing brands, I understand this can only occur in a vacuum of the historical context of my culture. The irony of seeing elements of Rastafarianism, Jamaican nationalism, and overall Caribbean aestheticism, most of which exist as some form of Black counter-culture against colonialism and white supremacy, is almost laughable. If white people understand things like dreadlocks as an often symbolic attack against whiteness and respectability itself, then it is only through the desire for commodification that they can soundly continue to wear them.

Currently, our capitalist society says that because Picasso’s art profits more than the work of African “tribal” or “primitive” art, it is more important. The case study of Picasso, who became a household name and million-dollar entity, allows us to see capitalism position itself as a ruthless, individualist system where the true artist’s work can easily be stolen once art becomes commodified. The complete commodification of art and culture erases cultural significance a majority of the time, leaving appropriation easy to the hegemony. We can see Picasso’s thievery, and the thievery of several other European-dominated arts movements from the people of Africa, as a hegemonic thievery, one that by design creates a “winner” and “loser” hierarchy in the art world based on profitability.

“Strategic Anti-Essentialism”

Strategic Anti-Essentialism (also sometimes called “cultural anti-essentialism”) is a term rarely used nowadays, but lies at the root of the “cultural appropriation” debacle. Strategic anti-essentialism is a term which was conceived by popular Black studies scholar George Lipsitz to describe the strategic, meditated, or calculated use of a cultural form outside of one’s own, to define oneself, one’s group, or community. As Wikipedia paraphrases Lipsitz:

“Strategic anti-essentialism can be seen both in minority cultures and majority cultures, and are not confined to only the appropriation of the other. However, as Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not to perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.”

To break down the term “strategic anti-essentialism” we have to understand it in three easy parts. The first is “strategic” — that is, that some act is taking place intentionally, consciously, and strategically. The second is the “essentialism” portion. Essentialism refers to the idea or belief that a set of characteristics, whether they be visual or otherwise, are essential to a set group; that these essential characteristics make a people who they are and is part of some personal predisposition. And third, the “anti” portion asserts that someone is strategically going against whatever essentialist narrative or myth has been placed onto them or their community. Thus, straetgic anti-essentialism is conjured as a purposeful method of disrupting myth, memory, stereotypes, and cultural inclinations, and you can see how an unequal power balance disrupts this strategy. There can be both strategic anti-essentialism and strategic essentialism, especially within the cultural identity of marginalized peoples, as a means of shared gendered, cultural, or political identity in antagonistic against a dominating culture/power.

Links For Further Assessment:

Beyond Bindis: Why Cultural Appropriation Matters

Settler Colloquialisms, Part One: Expressions of Colonialism in Everyday Interactions

A Much-Needed Primer on Cultural Appropriation

Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation

Podcast Episode 3: Cultural Appropriation

Edward Said, “Culture and Imperialism”

A Piece of the Pie: On Aesthetics, Cultures, and Identity

Devyn Springer

Written by

African/African Diaspora studies. Artist. Writer. Educator? Organizing outcasts who likes Outkast and fried chicken.

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