The problems with the concept of “cultural appropriation”

TL;DR

While having a concept of “cultural appropriation” helps describe a moral wrong that is otherwise hard to describe, I argue that there are so many issues with “cultural appropriation” as a single concept that it is best to abandon it altogether.

Cultural appropriation refers to a set of problematic behaviors where members of one culture adopt cultural elements belonging to a different group of people. Here, cultural appropriation is analogous to the act of appropriation more generally: to “appropriate” something is to unilaterally declare it is yours so that you can make use of it — kind of like eminent domain except it can be done by private actors instead of the state. Here, the thing that is being appropriated without permission are cultural practices — music, religious symbols and practices, clothing, hairstyles, slang, aesthetics, and so on.

The intent of the term “cultural appropriation” is, I believe, to highlight a form of further harm that can occur when there are two groups that have a large power differential, which itself is frequently a result of a history of severe oppression. Because of this large power differential, members of the hegemonic group are able to claim the cultural practices of the marginalized group as their own with little to no cost as there is very little ability of marginalized groups to prevent this from happening. This unethical behavior can continue to occur long after the severity of the oppression has declined from its peak.

However, cultural appropriation as a concept seems to me to have experienced quite a bit of concept creep and it’s unclear whether this is the understanding most people have of cultural appropriation. Rather, it seems to have taken on a meaning more like “a person outside the group taking a cultural element from the group without permission and using it insensitively.” Various acts, whether it’s sports teams using Native Americans as their mascots, white artists mimicking black dances or AAVE in their music, or Westerners wearing traditional Asian clothing — all get mentally filed under the same phenomenon because they seem to fit that same pattern. I’ll discuss these examples and others in more detail below.

However, there are several problems with having such a broad concept of “cultural appropriation”. For now I will set aside the very basic issue that the notion of ownership of cultural goods that underpins the concept of “cultural appropriation” is controversial and not without its own set of problems. I will assume for now that cultural practices can be owned by groups, which entails some rights to control how those cultural practices are used and by whom, because to me (and I think many others) this notion is intuitive and feels right. However, even if I do this, I still see several issues with the way “cultural appropriation” is used: (1) cultural appropriation is not just one phenomenon but applies to a large set of phenomena ranging in severity from a complete non-issue to very bad; (2) when the different phenomena are wrong, they are wrong for different reasons; and (3) those reasons are often unrelated to the act of cultural appropriation itself and therefore the solution to cultural appropriation often involves something different from stopping people from engaging in the behavior of cultural appropriation.

To demonstrate these issues, I will start by going over several examples of things that have been called cultural appropriation and discussing where the harm of each of these practices comes from.

Examples of cultural appropriation

White people wearing Native American headdresses

This one is a pretty paradigmatic case of cultural appropriation, which is also helpful to look at because it can be bad for quite a big set of reasons.

First, there is an aspect here of stereotyping and misunderstanding — big, feathery headdresses are brought out when people want to dress like a Native American, because people have a simplified, stereotyped, children’s story image of what Native Americans look like and what they wear. The big feather headdresses are only used by a specific set of Native American cultures and by a subset of people within those cultures (more on this in a moment). To see something very unrepresentative of your culture being held up as the stereotypical image of your culture demonstrates the lack of knowledge and engagement people have with your culture. I wouldn’t call this a harm, exactly, but it is annoying/upsetting. Note that this aspect is a bit orthogonal to the issue of cultural appropriation — cultural appropriation does not necessarily have to be simplistic and based on shallow, surface-level understandings of cultures (although it often is).

Second, the feather headdress has specific cultural meaning, one of respect/honor/formal praise. Within the cultures it comes from, people who wear the headdress had to have earned the right to wear it. Therefore, not only is there the aspect of cultural ignorance and insensitivity touched upon above, but there is also an aspect of sacrilege (defined broadly) here — when the cultural significance or meaning of an object is perverted or destroyed when worn unknowingly by outsiders who don’t ascribe the same meaning to it.

Third, probably the two most frequent contexts in which people wear these headdresses in the U.S. are (1) Halloween, and (2) as mascots in sporting events. Both of these are festive kind of events, where white people don these outfits mostly as a form of amusement/entertainment. “My culture is not a costume” has very understandably become a rallying cry in response to these phenomena since the context in which people wear Native American regalia is frequently as a special occasion “show” after which they take off the costume and go about their normal life. Again, there is an element here of shallowness of engagement with a culture which can be insulting. Additionally, while I don’t think entertainment/shows necessarily have to involve mockery, there is certainly much more danger of them getting into that territory. See also: blackface and minstrel shows, which very much are a form of mockery and comedic stereotype that have the effect of denigrating marginalized groups of people, although are often seen as “harmless”/”good-natured”/”well-meaning”/”complimentary” by the people who put on the performance.

Fourth, all of these aspects are in the context of a history where Native Americans were intentionally genocided (see, among many things, the Trail of Tears), and where conscious attempts were made to wipe out Native American and First Nations cultural practices and force members of these societies to assimilate into a different society, for example with Christian missionary schools that separated Native American children from their parents and subjected them to poor living conditions, a practice which has only been discontinued relatively recently (within living memory) and so of course continues to have effects today. The fact that people would later embrace and take on elements of Native American culture (not just the headdress but also things like dreamcatchers or taking elements of Native American mythology) because it is interesting and cool and unique, when those practices were previously targeted for annihilation… is ironic in a painful kind of way. Here, there is an aspect of adding insult to injury — the injury has already happened in the past by a different group of people, but we all inherit the conditions it resulted in today, which includes a situation where Native American cultures have become interesting playthings, and the people who practice those things have very little power or ability to stop people from using their culture this way, two direct consequences of a program of genocide and forced assimilation.

White rock-and-rollers becoming famous off an African-American musical genre

A remarkable thing about African-American history is just how many modern genres of music have come out of the African-American community or which that community had outsized influence on: jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, soul, ragtime, swing, R&B… It’s an extensive list. Despite the success of this black musical tradition, its origins in black communities has been somewhat obscured or obfuscated. Part of this is because of cultural appropriation in the sense of white artists adopting the music and presenting it as their own property. Part of it seems to be just a general phenomenon where praise/accolades/credit tend to disproportionately flow to members of high-caste groups even in communities that are dominated by lower-caste members where high-caste members are a minority (for example, high-status fashion designers tend to be male even though fashion as a field is women-dominated). Part of it also seems to me a history of segregation in the U.S. where there is incentive to “clean up” music styles to hide from white audiences their origins in black communities.

I’ll talk about each of these in turn. The first and most egregious is when white artists are influenced by black artists and don’t give proper credit or are not open about who has influenced them. This isn’t as common anymore, but like with other examples of cultural appropriation, it is easier to do this when the group you are pilfering ideas from is marginalized and largely unable to police this behavior. In cases like this, part of the racism of cultural appropriation here is that it has become an issue of plagiarism. Plagiarism is when someone does work that draws upon someone else’s work, but does not properly acknowledge that influence. Plagiarism is interesting in that it is not necessarily illegal but it is a particularly unethical action to take in communities that value originality — creative fields (including music) and scientific fields are among such communities.

For example, rock and roll was a music genre that came out of black music communities. However, many of the most famous early rock and rollers, such as Elvis and the Beatles, were white, while the earlier black artists who inspired them such as Big Mama Thornton, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. are much less well known. In some cases, part of the reason behind this disparity is because artists did not properly acknowledge their inspirations and did not point people toward the original artists of the songs they covered.

However, sometimes what is going on with these cases is that the white artist actually does give proper credit to the black artists who inspired them, but what happens is more like the media/people/public lavish their attention on the white artist while letting the black artists’ work sink to obscurity. This is also racist but in a different way than the ways I’ve discussed up to this point. Here, there is more like a psychological attention disparity that is the consequence of living in a society that tends to see certain groups (e.g. white people) as being more laudable, virtuosic, genius, or worthy of attention than other groups of people. Here, the source of the harm is not any bad behavior by the artists themselves but because racist society tends to reward white artists for doing the same thing black artists do.

White artists who use their greater cultural cachet to move marginalized groups’ art into the mainstream make such art harder to ignore and sweep away.

Yet another thing complicating the issue of appropriation of black music is that white artists who are openly influenced by black music tend to have the effect of desegregating the music world, which can be an anti-racist act. When white artists adopt black music (and even moreso when they become popular from it), they do several things: (1) they make a statement that black music is interesting and worthy of emulation/mimicry, (2) they expose more people to black genres of music, thus universalizing and normalizing black art forms, and (3) they frequently collaborate with black artists or create art in dialogue with them. All of these things challenge a white supremacist status quo that would like people to believe that white art is superior and worthy of emulation and which discourages race-mixing and cultural exchange. As a result, black-influenced white artists have tended to draw flak from conservatives and racists. This is not necessarily all bad for the artist, though — societal disapproval can make an artist interesting and popular among countercultural youths. The use of black music therefore simultaneously serves the potential purpose of signalling something about the artist to an audience, which can benefit the artist.

And now, regrettably, I’m going to talk about Miley Cyrus and twerking — or more generally, her appropriation of black music and dance to shed her “former Disney Channel star” image. This is regrettable simply because I find the whole issue of what Miley Cyrus does with her music to be intrinsically boring/uninteresting. But I’ll talk about it because I thought the general reaction to the whole affair interesting. If we take a look at Miley Cyrus’s twerking and use of black music and dance more generally, under the above lenses, we find that most of them don’t apply. Plagiarism — everyone knows that twerking is a black dance style, so it’s unlikely for this to be an issue. Attention disparity — I don’t think anyone is going to be praising Cyrus for her twerking skills or holding her up as exemplary of the genre either… Mockery — hard to know for sure what Cyrus’s intentions were, but this seems like imitation/trying to get in on a trend rather than mockery. Signalling something to the audience — let’s put a pin in this one and return to it later. It’s also possible that people think that there is something intrinsically wrong about adopting music and dance styles that come from another culture, even if there are no other problematic elements going on. I strongly disagree with this position, as it basically says that cultural mixing is per se wrong; wrong in all cases. I have strong cosmopolitan commitments that makes me reject this moral evaluation of cultural appropriation.

Before I go on, I want to raise a few other considerations about the whole Miley Cyrus twerking performance: the performance that featured Miley Cyrus’s twerking was very uncomfortable for multiple reasons. (1) There were a lot of… let’s say, questionable creative decisions throughout that whole music act, from Cyrus’s stuck-out tongue and very weird costume, to the teddy bear costumes for the backup dancers and other children’s toy props, to Cyrus’s frankly not very good twerking. In a word, the whole performance was incredibly cringe. (2) Miley Cyrus twerked against Robin Thicke in a way that simulated sexual intercourse, during the song “Blurred Lines” which has always drawn criticism for the way the narrator character confidently asserts they know someone else wants sex while acknowledging the existence of “blurred lines,” an attitude that fits neatly in the toolbox of sexual assaulters. Cyrus was 20 years old at the time, and a former Disney Channel star who (like many people chosen to be Disney Channel stars) has a very youthful-looking babyface; Thicke was 36. There are a lot of reasons why this incident would make people Uncomfortable. Maybe not all those reasons are good ones, and people aren’t getting uncomfortable for the same reasons, but I feel confident that the combination of the above easily led to “discomfort” being the most common emotional reaction to the performance.

The feelings we have when we observe racist and cringe things often overlap: discomfort, embarrassment, annoyance or anger, a vaguely negative, uneasy emotion, etc. Because the feelings overlap so much, it is easy to take emotions we normally recognize as cringe and reinterpret them as righteous anti-racist moral fury.

Note that these considerations aren’t related to race or cultural appropriation, but the racial and non-racial aspects of this situation are both things that would generate negative or uneasy feelings. And there is clearly a racial/cultural appropriation aspect going on here. One thing that I think is very common is that people will combine “you did a racially insensitive/sketchy (racist) thing” and “you made me feel uncomfortable” and without really reflecting will pin the full extent of those discomfited feelings on the unease of racism and go all in on that explanation, while not really self-reflecting on what exactly caused the unease. I think it’s important to tease out how much of the discomfort is coming from aspects like cringe and discomfort with sexual imagery, especially ones involving a former child star. This is not to say that there wasn’t a racist aspect here at all, because there was — the presence of racism doesn’t remove the more generically cringy aspects, and vice versa, the presence of cringe doesn’t remove the racist element. Sometimes things are both cringe and racist.

In addition, the other bad habit I think that people have is centering their explanations for their negative emotions on the action someone took that first generated the negative emotions (the stimulus), rather than reflecting on other things that might contribute to that negative emotion (the attitudes/values of the person observing the stimulus; the larger context in which the stimulus happened). As a result, I think the discourse around Miley Cyrus’s twerking revolved too much around the question, “Were Miley Cyrus’s actions personally wrong?” which fits very neatly with the question “Is Miley Cyrus guilty of cultural appropriation?” which is a way of framing the issue as being about individual actions where someone is individually guilty or innocent, and that instigating person (the stimulus) takes on the full weight of all of our negative emotions.

I think this is a bad, but common, way to think of cultural appropriation. It becomes an issue of mere individual behavior rather than about systems, history, and a concrete situation of inequality. In terms of where I think Cyrus is personally blameworthy, I already discussed above that I don’t think she fell into some of the bad aspects of cultural appropriation like plagiarism, absorbing disproportionate attention that doesn’t get paid to equivalent black artists, mockery, sacrilege, stereotyping, etc. The one thing that is left is that I do think she purposely used a sexual dance that came from the black community, as well as other parts of black music, in order to shed her squeaky-clean Disney child actor image. But even this thing should immediately raise some questions about the wider context of U.S. culture: Why is using black music and dance effective at this goal? Is this the most expedient route for achieving this goal? And if so, what does that suggest about larger cultural facts about the U.S., which Cyrus had no role in creating but which she certainly exploited? To be honest, it’s unclear to me what the moral value of exploiting a pre-existing system of racism is, especially when compared to the moral value of that pre-existing system of racism itself. But, to me, the badness of Cyrus’s actions relies critically on there already existing a situation of racial badness that is much bigger in scale and more severe; without the latter, there would be nothing wrong with the former. And insofar as the concept of cultural appropriation encourages us to focus on the smaller thing while ignoring the bigger thing, I think it leads to bad analyses. I do think there is something uncomfortably racial (including racist) about Cyrus’s actions here, but it’s also unclear to me why we should care when the larger problem seems upstream of whatever Cyrus is doing and would still exist whether or not she personally appropriated black music in order to remake her image and redirect her career.

White people wearing traditional Asian clothing

My last two examples both belong to a class of cases that often gets lumped under the cultural appropriation umbrella, but which also shows the limits of cultural appropriation as a concept. First, the phenomenon of white people wearing traditional Asian clothing: every so often, you will see people complaining about e.g. pictures featuring white people wearing traditional Japanese, Indian, Chinese, etc. clothes. The context for this can be extremely varied: they are tourists participating in something touristy; they are attending e.g. an Indian wedding; wearing a dress to prom; wearing something they bought in an Asian country for everyday wear; and so on.

There are some potential ways this can end up in iffy territory. One is when this sort of costuming takes on an element of yellow/brownface/stereotyping/mockery. Same as with the Native American headdress case, donning another culture’s clothing can involve a shallow, surface-level understanding of that culture based on stereotypes; such adoption of clothing can be accompanied by a performance of racial stereotypes that can range from naively, unintentionally racist to intentionally mocking. Also somewhat like the Native American headdress case, it is sometimes easy to wear Asian clothing incorrectly. To use an example I’m familiar with, it is easy to wear Japanese kimono in a way that looks sloppy, or in a way that changes the meaning of the garment (left-over-right is proper everyday wear; right-over-left is how you dress corpses). Also, there are a lot of Western clothes that are labeled “kimonos” that are just NOT kimono or kimono-like, including clothes in the style of non-Japanese Asian countries, which is culturally and politically insensitive (given Japan’s long history of invading and colonizing various Asian countries) and in some cases outright racist.

However, not all clothes are as fussy to wear or potentially culturally/politically-fraught as this example. And moreover, unlike in the Native American case, there generally isn’t a religious meaning or honor associated with wearing the clothes from Asian countries — it is just normal everyday or slightly formal wear, which outsiders are welcome to wear. Even in the kimono example I gave, even when you wear clothes from another culture wrong, the issue isn’t so much disrespect and sacrilege as cringe/embarrassing. It’s the awkward feeling you get when you see someone do something you know is a mistake but they are not aware enough to be able to see their own mistake. (Being a tourist is always cringe. But it’s fun nevertheless and I think everyone should be a tourist at least once in their life and as often as they like.)

Another key difference between the Asian clothing and Native American headdress cases is that white people — in particular, white Americans specifically — have a very different relationship with Native Americans than they have with the Asian countries where these clothing traditions come from. The treatment of Native American groups has been especially horrible, and Native Americans are a very small, still-oppressed minority within larger American society that has very little power in the larger government/society. While there is a history of colonization between America (and other European countries) and various Asian countries, the situation is still very different, with those countries not having been subjected to anywhere near the same level of extreme oppression (a very long history of genocidal programs, broken treaties, political repression, neglect, etc.), and with those countries still being able to maintain their own significant sphere of power/hegemony and cultural influence (and having oppressed minorities of their own, internally).

Unlike with the Native American headdress case where I think the considerations clearly cut toward “never do this thing,” the considerations in the wearing Asian clothes case cut in the complete opposite direction, which is that I see it as entirely harmless. The worst that could be said is that it is often cringe. But I should stress that being a cringe human being isn’t a moral failing, even when the source of the cringe is cultural ignorance, which, yes, can be racist. Like with the case discussed above, negative feelings of discomfort combined with a clear racial dimension or culturally insensitive aspect are not necessarily indicative of a wrong, and especially not indicative of a wrong that bears the full moral weight/responsibility of historical racism. When wearing Asian clothing is bad, it is bad for reasons (e.g. mockery, minstrel show, perpetuation of shallow or denigrating stereotypes) that do not necessarily follow from the mere fact of wearing another culture’s clothes. However, the concept of “cultural appropriation” implies the opposite — that the very act of adopting/taking someone else’s culture is itself a moral crime regardless of method or context.

Actually, I go one step further: I think Westerners wearing Asian clothes is actively good and that Westerners eschewing Asian clothing en masse is a crime against fashion and therefore makes the world overall worse. Traditional Asian clothing, like many non-Western clothing traditions, is in my opinion much better than Western-style clothing. I don’t mean this as an opinion of non-Western superiority; I mean this more in the sense that it’s a bad idea to let Puritans design your formalwear and then to stick with that general clothing template for centuries. Just… never do this thing.

White people wearing black hairstyles such as dreadlocks, cornrows, box braids, etc.

Finally, kind of in between my first and third examples is the practice of white people wearing black hairstyles. This is something that gets labeled as cultural appropriation. However, I only see one, perhaps two, ways in which this behavior is troubling, and only one of those is directly the fault of the person engaging in the behavior. Many of the considerations brought up above do not apply:

Sacrilege – Unlike with the Native American headdress case, and like with the Asian clothing case, there is no religious/spiritual meaning to common black hairstyles, so this is not a factor. Mockery – It is possible for people to adopt black hairstyles as part of a performance of blackness — blackface. However, for the vast majority of cases that get called cultural appropriation, the person is just styling their hair that way for everyday use, which does not constitute mockery or a minstrel show or a form of entertainment. Even more so than in the Asian clothing case, it is unlikely for people styling their hair this way to do it as a form of mockery.

The place where I see issues:

Plagiarism – There’s been plenty of times when media directed mainly at white people (e.g. lifestyle magazines) will present hairstyles such as cornrows as something new and unique without reference to the fact that it’s a common black hairstyle — they often give the hairstyle an entirely new (made-up) name in order to hide the connection further. This is obviously unethical. At best it displays an astounding amount of ignorance; however, I think in most of these cases, it isn’t ignorance but rather an intentional effort to mine other cultures for something valuable and then monetize it while not acknowledging the original source — paradigmatic cultural appropriation, which is closely tied to the practice of plagiarism/theft. Note, however, that not all cases of white people wearing black hairstyles falls into this category.

Adding insult to injury – Hair styling occurs in a context where black hairstyles are viewed as “unprofessional” — a racist idea that straightforwardly leads to things like employment discrimination, black people feeling pressured to treat their hair to make it more straight, etc. When white people then go on to wear their hair in black hairstyles, just for fun, it reminds people how unfair the situation is — the same behavior in white people and black people is rewarded in one group and punished in the other. Note that this isn’t the fault of the white person styling their hair. And unlike the case with black music, white people usually don’t derive much societal benefit from styling their hair this way (at best, I would say maybe some of their friends might compliment how nice their hair looks, if that — that’s the general level of benefit we’re talking about here). So in this case, there aren’t really benefits flowing to a member of a hegemonic group unfairly — it’s more like the marginalized group is being unfairly punished for innocuous behavior.

Another consideration to keep in mind with white people adopting black hairstyles is that biological variation means that there are many white (or non-black more generally) people whose natural hair is curly to the extent that black hairstyles are a pragmatic way to style their hair. You don’t need to be black in order to find black hairstyles like afros, cornrows, or dreadlocks practical and appealing. Arbitrarily telling that group of people to not use a hairstyle that works for them because it “belongs” to a certain ethnicity or ancestry is a bizarre demand that goes against practicality.

The issue with the concept of “cultural appropriation”

Hopefully, the previous examples have demonstrated some of the issues I have with the concept of “cultural appropriation” and how it gets deployed as a tool of analysis to label various phenomena. In more detail:

Some “cultural appropriation” is innocuous

If we define cultural appropriation in its broad sense of “a person outside a group taking a cultural element from that group without permission and using it insensitively”, at least some things that people label as cultural appropriation are entirely harmless, warranting at worst an eyeroll while the appropriate response overall is just to move on with one’s life. By “innocuous”, what I mean is that these particular cases have no ability to harm people other than by causing temporary emotional discomfort. They are non-harmful. In these cases, labeling them as “cultural appropriation”, which implies a harm/moral wrong, leads to behavior that actively makes the world worse.

Of course, other cases of “cultural appropriation” are actually very severe. But the fact that both entirely innocuous and clearly morally wrong things are filed under the same label is a bit troubling.

Cultural appropriation can be wrong for many different reasons

When cultural appropriation is harmful (which it often is), it can be wrong for many different reasons. Just some examples:

  • Does the cultural appropriation occur in the context of one group taking cultural elements from a severely oppressed minority group, after said oppression has left the second group weak and largely unable to prevent this from happening? Does the cultural appropriation happen in the context of a history of punishing that second group for practicing their culture, while socially rewarding people of the first group for doing the exact same thing? If so, this is adding insult to injury.
  • Is the cribbing from other cultures properly acknowledged and credited, or is it intellectually dishonest? If the latter, this is a form of plagiarism.
  • Is the portrayal mocking? Is it naively perpetuating thoughtless stereotypes? Is it portraying the group in a flattened, dehumanized way, or even an actively negative, pejorative way? If so, then this is an example of mockery/minstrel show and possibly black/brown/red/yellowface (depending on how many physical traits of the group are adopted by the performer for the sake of the performance). This consideration is also quite a thorny one because it can be hard to accurately intuit what someone’s motives/intent are. Or more like, I believe it is actually usually pretty easy to understand from aspects of a performance and from how a joke is constructed what the intention/intended effect of a joke is but my life experiences have taught me that despite this, you can always rely on a large contingent of an audience either genuinely or in bad faith arriving at the wrong conclusion. So unfortunately, I don’t really trust people’s judgment on determining the line between mockery and earnest-but-ignorant mimicry because inevitably there will be people who take a case that is clearly mockery and insist that it’s “just a joke” (while not being able to recognize that the joke itself has something denigrating as its premise) or “it’s satire!” (of what? there is no explanation) or otherwise, having no understanding of what the issue or the history of the mockery is, err on the side of caution and declare it harmless and well-intentioned; and conversely, there will be people who take a clearly well-intentioned case and read it in the most bad faith possible or discard context entirely in order to distort the situation into their own reading of it.

All of the above reasons are fairly independent of each other — one can easily be true while another is false. I argue that, because most of the wrongness of cultural appropriation is actually tied up in these case-specific context-sensitive details, anything that focuses on cultural appropriation as a wrongful, blameworthy act in and of itself actually obscures rather than enlightens what has gone wrong in a situation.

In many cases, the harm of cultural appropriation is downstream of a previous harm caused by different actors

As I think some of the cultural appropriation examples I detailed above illustrate, the badness of cultural appropriation is heavily dependent on the power relationship between the two groups involved. A member of one group adopting the practices of another group is worse when the two groups have a history of the first group heavily oppressing the other and when the two groups coexist in the same society with a very large power differential between them (for example, positions of power, wealth, and prestige are overwhelmingly occupied by members of the hegemonic group; one group owns a disproportional share of property and wealth; caste systems, laws, or practices are in existence; sheer number differences where one group is smaller and highly marginal in the larger society; etc.).

There are many reasons why a fraught history and large power differential make cultural appropriation worse. First, there is the adding insult to injury aspect where the cultural appropriation is a minor harm in the scheme of things, but the phenomenon has the effect of bringing up a whole litany of past injustices. So even if the act of cultural appropriation isn’t a big deal, it comes with some big deal baggage. Second, a large power differential itself makes the harms of culturally appropriating worse — it is more likely for members of powerful groups to get positive attention and be able to monetize the practices of marginalized groups than it is for members of those marginalized groups to do so (plagiarism/attention disparity). In other words, a large power differential allows members from the hegemonic group to suck up the money and credit that can come from cultural practices — a redistribution of cultural capital from the weaker and more powerless to the more powerful. Third, large power differentials tend to lead to situations where oppressor groups are only exposed to stereotyped images of oppressed groups and habitually engage in denigrating, mocking behavior toward the oppressed group (stereotyping/mockery), although neither of these are necessarily the case in all cases of cultural appropriation.

By contrast, the issues with cultural appropriation diminish the more the groups have equal power, and when members of different groups generally do not interact on a daily basis, especially in an oppressor/oppressed sort of relationship.

In other words, at least in some cases, the same behavior can be harmless or harmful depending on the history of the two groups involved. As mentioned earlier, while the cultural appropriator bears some guilt and responsibility for the insensitivity of their usage or the benefits they can personally extract from other people’s cultural practices, they do not bear the full responsibility for the power-unequal situation they inherited and which is the context where their actions take place in.

Note that I don’t subscribe to a fully atomized, individualized notion of justice where there is no moral imperative for people to correct past injustices that they did not commit but still benefit from, even if only in a relative way (meaning: they are better off relative to people who(se ancestors) were at the receiving end of injustice and oppression; but they are not necessarily better off than an alternative version of themselves who inherits a world where the harm/oppression never happened). I believe that sometimes people are morally obligated to correct or make amends for a past injustice they had no part in — although I do think such a moral obligation is better when it doesn’t come from a place of (collective) guilt but rather a positive place of moral conviction and desire to do all in one’s power to build a better future world.

In short, just because people are not fully responsible for the situation they inherit (the full weight of oppression which in some cases leads to harms associated with cultural appropriation), that doesn’t mean their actions can’t be wrong or that they don’t need to consider carefully the effects of their actions on people today and whether it exacerbates power differentials. However, I also think it is a mistake to conflate the context and the harms associated with the context that cultural appropriation takes place in with the harms of cultural appropriation, full stop. By focusing on cultural appropriation as the per se harmful, morally wrong act to be avoided, we are implicitly ignoring the historical context and relations of inequality that, upon being rectified, would render cultural appropriation a morally harmless act. By having a concept of cultural interaction that frames the act as unavoidably an act of theft (which is what the phrase “cultural appropriation” does), it ignores the upstream factors (the historical injustice, the wider social context) while condemning the downstream factors (the act of cultural interaction — exchange, adoption, theft). In this way it obscures the roots of our strong feelings of discomfort and sense of injustice and displaces the culpability of those feelings onto a single person rather than onto the racist environment we constantly swim in. For example, take a white person wearing dreadlocks or cornrows in a society where racism and oppression of black people is severe and black people are discriminated against for their natural hair. That white person is neither responsible for nor participating in that system of racism, though their actions certainly bring those issues to the foreground (i.e. makes them salient). To blame that person for styling their hair is foregrounding the minor (or non-) issues while backgrounding the serious issues. This behavior is understandable in that it is hard to fix those historical and systematic injustices, while it is easy to correct a single person’s behavior. But this myopic focus on acts of cultural appropriation merely hides/suppresses things that remind us of social inequality and systemic racism (like white people with dreadlocks) while doing nothing to fix that inequality and those broken systems. What a strong focus on cultural appropriation often amounts to is the suppression of the symptoms that make us uncomfortable rather than curing the illness itself, which by all rights should make us much more uncomfortable.

Cultural exchange is a good part of any cosmopolitan culture

Whatever you think about my analysis about the harms (or lack thereof) of different types of cultural appropriation, there is another important consideration to keep in mind that counterbalances some of the harm of cultural appropriation, which is that cultural exchange comes with its own set of benefits. Insofar as the concept of “cultural appropriation” renders certain forms of cultural partaking, influence, indulgence, etc. as inherently harmful, it itself runs the risk of inflicting damaging side effects by discouraging or punishing positive forms of cultural exchange. It is important to also keep in mind what is being lost when people try to prevent cultural appropriation.

First of all, high-quality art. Some of the best and most interesting forms of art have come about through the synthesis of different artistic traditions. European Rococo decoration is indebted to Chinese decorative arts; French Impressionism was similarly influenced by Japanese woodcut art; countless Latin dance forms came about through a mix of European and African dances; the same could be said of the extremely productive African-American music tradition as mentioned above. There can be problematic aspects about who gets credit or who is able to monetize these new art forms; but even in problematic cases, the whole world still benefits from the new art forms themselves.

Second, as mentioned earlier, high-status / high-prestige groups sincerely and enthusiastically adopting the art forms and cultural expression of low-status groups, especially when they are open, frank, and intentional about this influence, has the effect of hierarchy inversion — it takes the artistic traditions of a group that has been historically denigrated or assumed to be artistically barren or unsophisticated and relabels/reframes those art traditions as wonderful, desirable, and high-quality. Obviously, racists do not like it when people do this thing as it flips the worldview that racists want people to hold upside-down. When these low-status art forms become popular, they also unavoidably secure the place of low-status groups in an important and valuable art tradition, which makes racists’ jobs harder in the future as it becomes very difficult to extract any kind of “pure” tradition out of a web of rich mutual influence. (Except when people don’t study history and forget or try to erase the existence of this cultural mixing.) White artists who use their greater cultural cachet to move marginalized groups’ art into the mainstream make such art harder to ignore and sweep away. In short, cultural mixing — including the type that moves parts of marginalized culture into the mainstream — has an anti-racist effect.

Third, cultural mixing is the inevitable side effect of diverse, cosmopolitan communities. Immigrant communities and mixed-race families basically can’t avoid engaging in cultural mixing, and sometimes that leads to awkward mash-ups of people and cultures that seem incongruous, “wrong,” or inauthentic. In order to cultivate diverse communities and to cultivate cosmopolitan societies, we need to work past the idea that cultures should remain pure and the kneejerk reaction that people who combine multiple cultures in odd, unnatural ways are doing something suspect.

In addition to Alex McLeod’s piece linked above about the issues with believing that groups can own cultural practices, I am also very partial to this piece by Olufemi Taiwo in the same venue that discusses the entanglement and cultural mixing inherent in music that makes the way “cultural appropriation” is deployed with respect to musical artists very strange and uncomfortable.

This isn’t to say that the downsides or harms to cultural appropriation don’t exist, but that it’s a complicated phenomenon whose benefits and drawbacks have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis rather than there being a single moral value (in this case, negative due to the notion of theft inherent in the word “appropriation”) associated with the various practices that get put under the cultural appropriation umbrella.

Conclusion

Cultural appropriation gives a name to a real harmful phenomenon. However, it also has the tendency to group very disparate acts together under the same umbrella in a way that obscures why those acts are harmful. When it comes to evaluating acts that are sometimes considered “cultural appropriation”, it is important to be thoughtful and aware of exactly where the harm comes from because (1) sometimes acts that seem like cultural appropriation are actually harmless, and (2) it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to solve large, systematic inequalities resulting from a history of severe oppression by instead policing individuals’ behavior, and this is both unfair to the individual and a foolish act that leaves the larger problem ignored and unsolved. Just because it is easy and achievable to respond to cultural appropriation by correcting a single person’s behavior does not mean it is the proper or appropriate response. In any case, sometimes (not all the time) the right/most just action to take when responding to a case of cultural appropriation is to shrug/roll eyes and move on.

Another thing that is particularly relevant to the case of cultural appropriation is that some acts have elements that are both racist (in the sense that they involve some kind of race element and a combination of (at the mildest) ignorance, stereotyping, or insensitivity, or (in the worst case) mockery, denigrating depiction, theft, or disregard or disrespect for what other cultures value or hold important (sacrilege)) and cringe (that is, invoking feelings of secondhand embarrassment because someone is behaving a certain way in public that you (the observer) knows better not to do — again, very relevant when people are displaying ignorance but also applies to situations where someone is doing something attention-grabbing or is merely looking awkward, out of place, or like they’re trying too hard). The feelings that we have when we observe racist and cringe things often overlap: discomfort, embarrassment, annoyance or anger, a vaguely negative, uneasy emotion, etc. Because the feelings overlap so much, it is easy to take emotions that we normally recognize as merely cringe and reinterpret them as righteous anti-racist moral fury. However, sometimes the main thing bad about cultural appropriation is that they are cringe, and their badness doesn’t rise much above the crime of being cringe, which is not much of a crime at all. It’s important to understand that just because an act is racist does not mean that its consequences are severe or that we need to go to DEFCON 5 as a response. Again, sometimes the proper response to a racist act is to quietly disapprove and swiftly move on.

Finally, a concern for cultural appropriation should also be balanced by the recognition that cultural mixing is a normal and good part of the world, and that an obsession with cultural purity (something that is entirely unattainable) is frequently very damaging and harmful.

4 thoughts on “The problems with the concept of “cultural appropriation”

  1. For purposes of transparency: I am a member of a hegemonic population (USian, white, cisgender woman, heterosexual-passing, average body size, middle aged, upper-middle class), and I know that this status limits my ability to clearly see the effects of colonization and white supremacy.

    Experience tells me that you are likely a member of a hegemonic population as well, and therefore share the limitations I mentioned above.

    If I am correct, what is your intention with this article? Who is your intended audience? It has the feel of a persuasive paper — who are you trying to persuade? Who is centered here? Who benefits from this discussion?

    Have you considered that if the members of these populations needed terms other than “cultural appropriation,” they would be using different terms?

    One of my favorite online content creators is Portia Noir, a black woman on TikTok who volunteers her emotional labor to teach antiracism to clueless white people (and we are all clueless). A common reply she has when well-meaning white people question her intention or her word use is, “I said what I meant, and I meant what I said.” We have a lot we can learn if we can just shut up and listen and get out of our own way.

    We need to **believe minoritized people.** We need to listen to them and take them at their word. We don’t need to debate them or correct them or engage in whataboutism. We need to **trust that they know what they are talking about**. If there is something that does not make sense to us, it is not they who need to adjust their language or their tone. It is we who need to make that paradigm shift.

    Like

    1. Hi, thank you for the comment and sorry for the late approval and reply. I’ve gotten several comments over the past month or so, and sometimes it’s hard for me to know what to say so instead I just leave comments unanswered, so sorry about that.

      I can try to answer your questions first. I don’t often consciously think about an intended audience before I write something, although if I had to think what the audience for this post is, it would probably be people like you and others in the audience of educators like Portia Noir — people with progressive politics but who may be new and not particularly confident about reasoning through racial justice and other social justice issues, and probably not have much contact with people of color outside of online resources. I actually consider my role very similar to Portia Noir as you have described her, which is that I consider myself an educator, both in my work and my hobbies as well — in particular, in my free time, I write these blog posts focusing on social justice education as a major interest. The thing I am trying to accomplish in these educational resources is to push people from a very basic anti-racism 101 type understanding to a more thoughtful and nuanced anti-racism 201 type of understanding.

      For example, I think the anti-racism 101 concept here is what cultural appropriation is and that it is bad. The anti-racism 201 concept that I am trying to convey in this post is that people’s notions of cultural appropriation (having gone through anti-racism 101) are often overbroad and themselves infused with naively racist ideas. These ideas are: (1) the notion of there existing “pure” cultural traditions that are not themselves the results of extensive cultural mixing — I talk more about how this notion of cultural purity is a cornerstone of reactionary politics here and here, and (2) support for segregationist, anti-cultural mixing norms that inevitably have anti-immigrant and anti-cosmopolitan consequences. As someone who is an immigrant and who lives in a culturally diverse city with extensive culture mixing (and thinks this is a good, socially desirable phenomenon), I am very aware that both of these groups/phenomona (immigrant communities and cosmopolitan cities) are demonized by conservatives who fear loss of a “pure” culture, and I do not think the path to racial justice goes via backing such anti-culture-mixing norms. But, unfortunately, deployments of the term “cultural appropriation” and mockery of people who perform acts of cultural appropriation often veers into this racist territory.

      In addition, I think a shaky understanding of cultural appropriation and exactly what it is and exactly why it’s wrong has the negative (though race-neutral) effect of licensing a lot of bullying, social punishment, etc. of harmless, innocuous behavior, which I also find undesirable.

      I am not entirely hostile to the term “cultural appropriation” and the useful function it serves in describing how communities can be harmed, as I hope this post demonstrated. I just think that people need a more nuanced understanding of it — especially why exactly it is wrong (or not wrong) — or they risk falling into racist patterns of thought and behavior themselves.

      As I think you are very much in the target audience of this piece, I would be very curious to hear what you think about the points I bring up. Do you feel like this is a more detailed and sophisticated explanation of the moral wrong of cultural appropriation or do you feel like it is hostile to cultural appropriation without actually adding anything productive to the conversation? Obviously, my intent was the first, but it is hard to tell when I have failed at doing that.

      Like

  2. I really like this article! If I tried to properly express my thoughts on the different parts of your article, my comment would BE an article. So I just wanted to say ‘Thank You!’ I’m not sure if I agree with every single point (and interesting you used Miley Cyrus as an example considering the last few years), but you express a lot of my feelings regarding the term ‘cultural appropriation’ & how broadly it’s used. Both when it’s VERY CLEARLY cultural appropriation & on the other end, even when it’s only cultural sharing (which I agree – that’s not a bad thing. Cultural appreciation & sharing is good!) Anyway, I appreciate you writing this & I’ll definitely be recommending & mentioning to my family and friends.

    Like

    1. Sorry for the delayed reply/comment approval. I’m glad the write-up here is useful enough to send to others, even if there are some odd things here and there. That’s been a common response to this one — “Some of the points didn’t seem right but overall I appreciate the analysis.” Thank you for the comment!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s