A Note about Cultural Appropriation

One-liner: cultural appropriation is a form of cultural oppression where the borrowing culture effectively interferes with the originating culture in such a way as to determine their identity for them.

I originally wrote this for Facebook, where one of my friends posted an article from a Real News provider. They made a comment that used two logical fallacies to misrepresent what "cultural appropriation" is, and thereby dismiss the concerns of the protestors discussed in the article. I was upset by how they trivialized a problem I consider to be very important, so I wrote about what cultural appropriation is and why it's bad. The article they posted isn't important, but I thought I would take the time to write here about cultural appropriation, since I haven't yet.

My friend's comment started with a typical rhetorical gesture: "[oh, so] by extension Canadians [cannot do] anything that was not invented by [our] own culture." Of course, this is foolish, and I highly doubt that anyone who truly understands cultural appropriation will believe this. Someone taking this position is unaware of cultural borrowing and cultural influence, which both exist, and which are both helpful and productive strategies for how power works in society.

There are two key indicators that an instance of cultural borrowing/influence is probably actually an instance of cultural appropriation.

  1. The borrowed practice is missing its originating contextual practices and beliefs but is still used to represent "how they really do it," and
  2. the borrowing culture exerts greater cultural power than the originating culture.

These are necessary but not sufficient: there are some situations where both of these indicators are present but there is still no (harmful) appropriation. However, by the time innocuous cultural borrowing becomes harmful appropriation, there has already been irreversible cultural damage. Let's work through this by addressing some of the common rebuttals to these two indicators.

Some people at this point think "oh so it's unfair, and that's why you don't like it?" It is unfair, but that's not a big deal. Lots of things are unfair in life, and that's just part of how the world works. Yes, I believe in making the world more fair when possible, but we're not at a point where it's worth worrying about unfair things simply because they're unfair.

One might also think, "oh so it's just ignorant to do something without knowing how it came about?" It is ignorant, but that also doesn't really bother me. Borrowing a cultural practice without its context is neither harmful nor beneficial, in and of itself. In fact, I would contest that the majority of cultural practices in the world are carried out without knowledge or concern of their origin, and that this is not (again, in an of itself) a harmful thing. For example, do you know why the dinner table should be set with forks to the left of your dinner plate? I don't even care.

They key to understanding likes in the clause from above: "the borrowed practice is... used to represent 'how they really do it.'" Cross-cultural practices tend to be modified somewhat to suit their new situations. When the borrowing culture fails to educate itself on the originating cultural context, the borrowing culture uses their idea of the cultural practice as a representation for how the practice is carried out in the originating culture. What this really means is that the borrowing culture is disallowing the originating culture from speaking for and representing themselves. (It also leads to white people going on yoga quests to India, only to discover that Indian people don't do what white people think of as "yoga.")

One might still argue against this, saying that "anyone reasonable, who stops to think for a minute, would clearly realize that they can't truly understand another culture without living in it for several years." I dispute. Anyone reasonable, who has ever read a comment section on YouTube, must clearly realize that so-called "reasonable" people don't exist. But even then, it's not a big deal. Speaking where I am from White English Canada, I don't really care if White English Canadians misunderstand what yoga is and why it exists. When it's contained like this, it's true that you're only potentially harming yourself. But this takes a shallow view of how cultures work in the world, and it's rather selfish too: if it doesn't harm "us," who cares?

The problem is the fallout of the two key indicators above. Here's a clearer definition.

Cultural appropriation is when:

  • a practice is borrowed without the contextual practices and beliefs of the originating culture, and
  • the borrowing culture uses their context-free version to represent "how they actually do it," therefore
  • the borrowing culture excludes the originating culture from representing itself, and because
  • the borrowing culture exercises greater power than the originating culture, therefore
  • the borrowing culture's representation of the originating culture begins to overwrite the originating culture's representation of itself.

I admit the last point is a bit of a leap, but it's been well discussed and is now taken by cultural scholars to be truthful. (See Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and others). When this last step happens, when the more powerful borrowing culture uses its influence to interfere with the originating culture's self-identity processes, this is not a conscious decision made by anybody. It's an unfortunate possible outcome of cultural borrowing. But it's still oppression, it's still colonization, it's still negative, and it can still be prevented by the borrowing culture.

But what to do?

There's the impractical strategy: borrow a cultural practice, obfuscate its source, tell everyone you invented it, and it can never be used to represent the originating culture for as long as nobody discovers where it's from. That's still unfair, but hopefully you can agree by now that "unfair" is an acceptable improvement when the alternative is oppression and colonization. Of course, in 2015, in the part of North America where I live, this isn't viable. Chances are, if I claim to invent a new dessert with lotus seed paste and an egg in a thin wheat flour pastry, it won't take long for somebody to realize that it's moon cakes.

Thus we have the practicel strategy: borrow a cultural practice, and make sure that everybody doing it in the borrowing culture has an idea of where it's from, why it was invented, and how to do it. It's usually acceptable to change the practice too, as long as there are sufficient reminders of how and why the borrowed practice is different from the original. I know this sounds like a lot of work, and it is certainly a lot of responsiblity. This is the burden of being born into (or living in) a culture that exerts a relatively large amount of power and influence in the world, if indeed you are committed to making the world a more equitable place to be.