Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural appropriation, cultural appropriation, cultural appropriation. Some is good, some is bad…” OK, maybe shoehorning this song as an intro for every issue was a bad idea…

I am going to make a couple of political posts. I know this stuff is not my strong suit and is not particularly interesting, but please bear with me.

I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so I believe that words have the meanings that they are commonly understood to have by the society that uses them. I have often had semantic arguments where when I say “this means X” and mean “it is generally accepted to mean X”. Then the other person says “this means Y” when they mean “it should mean Y”, and we both get frustrated because I think the other person is factually mistaken and they think my value system is irredeemably wrong.

Now, however, I am starting to understand how my interlocutors feel. Or like the people in the social justice movement feel when they want to define the meaning of racism in general society differently than is commonly understood. And it has to do with cultural appropriation.

Or not with cultural appropriation, but with the term “cultural appropriation”.

Because “cultural appropriation” could be a useful term for a certain negative action that should be avoided (e.g. blackface). Instead, it has come to mean the use of minority cultural artifacts by people of a different (usually dominant) culture. But this isn’t a particularly useful category of event, nor is it something that should be avoided.

This leads to confusion. It leads to cancelling yoga classes at U Ottawa and protesting Chinese-American food in the Oberlin cafeteria. And then this leads other people to write that cultural appropriation is great. But having yoga classes and Chinese-American food is not bad. And there is a type of cultural appropriation that is decidedly not great.

Using elements of other cultures is, as the “pro-cultural appropriation” crowd have it, actually really good. It avoids insularity, and, as Timothy Burke pointed out during the Halloween costume debate, arguing against it involves enforcing a creepy cultural “purity”. “If you’re white, don’t rap, because that’s black culture and you’re white”: who said that – a white supremacist who thinks black culture is inferior, or a radical who thinks it would be cultural appropriation? If your proposed solution is identical to the solution of a person who thinks the underlying problem is diametrically opposite, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it should at least give you pause. It reminds me of the KSP tradition never to play Vysotsky (as a demonstrative show of respect), and also to never play Rozenbaum (as a demonstrative show of contempt).

Moreover, cultural exchange is going to happen, because we do not live in closed-off bubbles. But whereas members of a dominant culture can choose to participate in only dominant-culture events, this same regimen is not possible for those in a minority culture. Enforcing cultural non-appropriation, you are enforcing that cultural exchange only happens in one direction, i.e., in the direction of assimilation. If the majority has to avoid minority cultures out of scruples about cultural appropriation, this actually becomes a strong pro-hegemony force.

So when is cultural appropriation bad? It seems to me there are three concepts which have a special way of presenting themselves when cultural artefacts are involved: (i) ignorance (ii) mockery, and (iii) fraud. Ignorance in many cases is not malicious, but it’s worth it to point out and ask for better. Mockery can be a useful tool, but in dealing with minority culture, you often have mockery combined with ignorance. Making fun of the way Chinese sounds by going “ching chang chong,” or doing blackface isn’t serving a useful purpose as mockery. It is just bad. Cultural fraud is where a KKK member pretends to be Cherokee and writes about growing up as a Cherokee for who knows what reason and it becomes The Education of Little Tree. That book is intentionally deceiving its audience about culture, and that is bad. It would be useful to have a shorthand for why these are bad things. I think the phrase “cultural appropriation” could be a good one. Too bad it has come to mean something different.

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2 Responses to Cultural Appropriation

  1. “I know this stuff is not my strong suit and is not particularly interesting”

    On the contrary, I found this post to be quite interesting and entertaining. Well done!

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