When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We’re Missing The Point

By Ijeoma Oluo

Lead image credit: Alannah Giannino

A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on a panel discussing a play I’d seen the week before. The play, Disgraced, is a very interesting and extraordinarily problematic piece dealing with race, religion, and gender. Sitting onstage in front of a majority white Seattle audience, there was so much we could have been discussing on that panel.

But we were discussing cultural appropriation. Only cultural appropriation.

See, in addition to everything else going on in the play, one of the lead characters, a white woman, happened to be an artist who was “fascinated” with Islamic religious art and had adopted a lot of the imagery into her work. So in a play filled with horrific assumptions on race and religion as well as gratuitous violence against women — we were focused on this woman’s preoccupation with Islamic art.

What a waste of time for everyone involved. What a lost opportunity.

I say this not because I think that cultural appropriation isn’t real — it’s very real. I say this not because cultural appropriation isn’t harmful — it’s very harmful. I say this not because I don’t think that people who appropriate the culture of those less privileged and refuse to stop when confronted with this fact aren’t assholes — they definitely are.

I say this because we’ve structured discussions around cultural appropriation in a way that actually upholds the White Supremacy that makes such appropriation possible.

Let’s think for a moment about what cultural appropriation is. Cultural appropriation isn’t just the misuse of a group’s art and culture — anybody can do that; it’s just called shitty art. Cultural appropriation is the misuse of a group’s art and culture by someone with the power to redefine that art and, in the process, divorce it from the people who originally created it. To use the ever-tired example of hip-hop here, a shitty black rapper is just a shitty rapper who fades away into obscurity, leaving behind nothing more than a trail of never-played mixtapes dispersed outside of nightclubs. A shitty white rapper wins Grammys and is held up as an example of what good rap is.

What elevates the shitty white artist above both the shitty artist of color and the talented artist of color is not the artist’s act of making art itself; it’s the system of privilege and oppression that values the work of a shitty white artist over talented artists of color.

In an equal and open exchange of ideas, in an equal and open world, cultural appropriation doesn’t exist. In a world in which audiences appreciate and actually listen to different cultures, art divorced from its cultural roots holds no appeal. In a world in which there are no hierarchies of skin tone or religion, a shitty artist of any color fades into obscurity.

Like so many other systemic problems — police brutality, say, or a lack of diversity in film and television — cultural appropriation is a symptom, not the cause, of an oppressive and exploitative world order. And yes, these symptoms do reinforce the systems that created it (police brutality will reinforce the supremacy of Whiteness through fear and violence, therefore helping to enable more police brutality), but ridding society of any of these individual factors does not touch the systems of oppression that created it.

Now, I’m in no way arguing for ignoring issues like police brutality. I’m instead arguing that, as with cultural appropriation, we focus more on the causes of police brutality.

When well-meaning white people say, “Help me define cultural appropriation so I know what to do and not to do,” what they are actually saying, even if they aren’t aware, is, “Help me understand how to continue in this system of privilege and oppression without feeling bad.” And in our discussions, we provide these ground rules — we provide this path to continue along in a world that continues to privilege Whiteness at the expense of People of Color. Those who refuse to care about their acts of cultural appropriation and those who care only about not stealing the work of those less privileged are actually still part of the same system — the former are just bigger assholes about it.

When we talk about the latest whitewashed historical film and the gross racism of its creators, we need to also talk about the lack of diverse writers, directors, and studio execs. We need to talk about the audiences who will see such films, rather than simply asking, “Where the brown people at?” We need to talk about the disparity in the purchasing power of potential audiences, which causes studios to prefer one group over another. We need to talk about the economic system that creates that disparity. We need to talk about the cultural hierarchy and the exclusivity of Whiteness that tells white audiences that they cannot relate to brown characters. We need to talk about why that may be true. We need to talk about the history books that lead people to believe that everything great in human history was created by Whiteness.

A world in which white people no longer make films whitewashing the history of people of color will still be a world run by white people. But a world in which white people can no longer successfully make a film whitewashing the history of people of color is a world changed.

Similarly, cultural appropriation should be called out — each and every time, without hesitation or apology. But the list of people and systems that need to be called out should go broader and deeper. We need to call out our entire system, as well as our hearts and our minds. This is not as daunting as it may seem at first glance. Yes, it is a bit more work to address underlying systems than the brightly lit symptoms of that system. But fighting to change the history textbooks in your kid’s 7th grade social studies class to reflect the true and diverse history of our world will go further in rendering cultural appropriation a relic of the past. Instead of (or more accurately, in addition to) requesting a list of ways in which to not appropriate other cultures, concerned white people should be investigating ways to dismantle the very privilege that makes their appropriation of other cultures possible.

Racists, homophobes, classists, misogynists, and other powerful bigots stand not on the platforms of their ignorance and hate, but on a socio-economic hierarchy that will continue to prioritize them over some and under others in the simple and unwavering advancement of itself. The system is its own means and ends. It will do little to simply remove one of the players from its place on the ladder — the system has reserves to put in its place. To change the hierarchy, we must take a sledgehammer to the pillars that make the system itself.

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