When is culture appropriation OK? To borrow an idea from natural selection

In my mind, there’s definitely a spectrum of when it’s OK for one culture to borrow from another. This ranges from “definitely not OK” (whatever the fuck The Color Run is), through “not so sure” (white people and dreadlocks) to “almost certainly fine” (non-Hindu people doing Yoga).

What’s the driving intuition behind this? This might be helpful: does the act or one culture borrowing from another cause it to out-compete the original, and ultimately diminish it some way? One key mechanism of evolution is natural selection, where organisms exchange traits with each other to pass down to the next generation. As a result, certain populations may become stronger than others, preserving the trait (having sharp bits? bright colours? opposable thumbs?), while displacing the weaker populations, even if they incorporated an useful trait from them.

It’s useful to think of a similar dynamic with regards of cultures. They are evolve while co-existing in an ecosystem. In many cases, one culture borrowing from another enriches the one or both, without obvious harm to either (did you know that Marco Polo turned Chinese food into PIZZA AND PASTA? Now PIZZAHUT is huge in China. What a time to be alive!!!), while in others, elements are borrowed, but the source culture group itself is marginalised as a result (people dig aboriginal Australian art and BOOMERANGS but the actual people? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).

Let’s put this to the test:

  • Native American war bonnets: no one really know what the deal is with them, but they certainly look cool. In the meanwhile, the culture itself is struggling to survive. Music festival fashion 1; Native American traditions 0. Probably not OK.
  • Iggy Azalea: “I’m so fancy…” Song of the summer, good party tunes, but Atlanta based black musicians (especially female ones) still struggling to get main stream traction. Probably not OK.
  • Eminem: white rapper, gets more attention than black rappers… but also elevates the profile of (black) Detroit Hip Hop scene. Unsure, leaning toward a go.
  • Half the world being obsessed about Swedish furniture, but it seems this is not seriously eroding the Scandinavian identity. Seems fine.
  • The 1960s American hippies’ love of India: globally, India culture definitely seem to have became more popular, and those a lot (most?) fans are quite superficial about it, I’m not sure if this harmed how India people experience their own culture (it seems to be moving along fine). Probably OK.

Some weirder cases:

  • Asian Nazi-chic fashion: totally stealing the sick SS look (Hugo Boss designed those uniforms), of course. But it’s probably not affecting actual neo-Nazis much. (Question for another time: which cultures deserve to be preserved?)
  • Dubai building skyscrapers after the fashion of American, European and Asian mega-cities: don’t think Chicago, Frankfurt or Shanghai are losing much status as a result. Meh.
  • Weird (mis?)use of Judo-Christian imagery in the seminal 1995 anime Neo Genesis Evangelion — Think those religions are established enough. They’ll be OK.
  • Chinese characters used by westerners at Tattoos: maybe a bit silly, but the 1 billion native speakers mostly don’t care.
  • Americans suddenly getting into K-Pop: all the better for K-Pop.

Drawing an overall pattern here:

  • Dominant cultures borrowing from vulnerable ones is likely to be problematic. If your culture is “western”, tread carefully.
  • Strong, growing cultures can be borrowed a lot more freely without harm.
  • Distant and non-dominant culture groups borrowing from each other are unlikely to harm each other much, and may even raise the profile of the one or the other.
  • [Controversial one]: if the source culture is close to dying for various reasons, it might be better for it to live on within another culture.

Caveat: even if an act of appropriation/borrowing is not directly harmful to the source culture, it can still be racist/bigoted.