There are a number of issues around cultural appropriation which I see continuously bog down discussion. I think they revolve around some crucial issues undergirding the whole concept of cultural appropriation, so I think we need to “get back to basics” somewhat.
Before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Andrea Smith, particularly her article ‘Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence’, printed in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide as being very influential to my thinking about these issues.
I disagree with a lot of the common definitions of cultural appropriation around. Cultural appropriation isn’t simply the “taking or borrowing of some aspects of another culture from someone outside that culture”. Cultures throughout time have traded, adapted, and borrowed artefacts, symbols, technologies and narratives from one another. The issue isn’t the aesthetic and material mingling of cultures, hybridity, or that human creativity crosses cultural boundaries. Those are aesthetic and perhaps moral issues, separate from the real political issue of cultural appropriation.
A lot of the time cultural appropriation is also called ‘cultural theft’. But cultures aren’t tangible things that can only be possessed by one person. Culture is made up of shared ideas, skills, traditions, styles, images, that circulate through a particular society. Cultures are heterogeneous — people who are part of the same society can be part of different cultures, which influence each other — and they change over time.
The problem isn’t that cultures intermingle, it’s the terms on which they do so and the part that plays in the power relations between cultures. The problem isn’t “taking” or “borrowing”, the problem is racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The problem is how elements of culture get taken up in disempowering, unequal ways that deny oppressed people autonomy and dignity. Cultural appropriation only occurs in the context of the domination of one society over another, otherwise known as imperialism. Cultural appropriation is an act of domination, which is distinct from ‘borrowing’, syncretism, hybrid cultures, the cultures of assimilated/integrated populations, and the reappropriation of dominant cultures by oppressed peoples.
What’s being appropriated in *cultural appropriation* isn’t the things themselves — the images, stories, artefacts, themes, etc. — it’s the capacity of people of oppressed groups to determine the meaning, scope, usage, and future of those things. Cultural appropriation involves taking over peoples’ control over representations of themselves. Cultural appropriation is an attack on cultural autonomy and self-determination, backed up by historically constructed domination.
I think it’s important to start by outlining a political definition of cultural appropriation rather than an aesthetic one (centred around “borrowing” and the particular things being “borrowed”). Too often, skirmishes around the politics of knowledge and authenticity obscure the real problems with appropriation. When conversations about appropriation occur on white peoples’ terms, they usually centre on these abstract issues, and the counter-claims of art and creativity, which are supposed to transcend everything else.
Anything that depoliticises the definition of cultural appropriation as being about cultural “borrowing” erases the reality of how cultural appropriation has come into being and operated. It’s the “colourblind,” i.e. race-aversive and power-aversive, version, that sanitises the history of cultural appropriation.
What white people always erase is that cultural appropriation has historically been accompanied, and enabled, by violence. From weavers’ fingers to genocidal rape, the violence built into cultural appropriation is undeniable.
White people most often neglect to mention that their own privilege — their material wellbeing and the wealth of the community around them — is derived from that violence. White privilege is a direct result of racial subjugation. Many of the centuries-old heirlooms of whiteness are products of cultural appropriation, as Shailja Patel’s rendition of the history of “paisley” fabric illustrates.
So if an act becomes cultural appropriation by virtue of its being an act of domination, how can we tell if the act is dominating?
This is the difficult part, because racial domination is built into the ways that white people and people of colour relate to one another (or, according to your perspective, it might be the easy part since domination is so pervasive as to make virtually all acts of cultural “sharing/borrowing” appropriative — I don’t agree with this viewpoint). We are living in a system of domination in which individual acts not only reinforce the domination, but are also informed by it whether the people taking those actions intend to dominate or not.
For a start, there’s a hell of a lot of material exploitation involved in cultural appropriation. At its basic level, this involves white people making profits from cultural products created by people of colour and peoples of the global south, often by using loopholes in property, copyright and intellectual property laws. Instances such as the publishing of books about Native American spiritual traditions, production of fake artefacts, and conducting of lessons and workshops by white New Age spiritualists claiming to be authentic are straightforwardly appropriating the symbols, designs, narratives, technologies/medicines, and practices that Native American people have worked to produce.
There’s also often considerable superexploitation — exploitation over and above the ordinary exploitation of labour, which involves whites taking advantage of different living and working conditions, brought about by racism and colonisation, for people of colour — involved in these processes. For instance, in Ishmahil Blagrove’s film This Is Our Country Too, about the Northern Territory intervention, actor David Gulpilil is shown explaining the exploitative nature of the Aboriginal art industry, where white gallery owners purchase paintings cheaply from local artists (Gulpilil mentions that the going rate is $20 per painting) and sell at a high price, pocketing the difference. The racist segregation of towns in the Northern Territory make it difficult for Aboriginal people to find other employment, so gallery owners can pick and choose between artists’ work.
Cultural appropriation is usually justified, even advocated, on the grounds that it creates “understanding” or relationships with peoples of the global south/people of colour. Not only is this justification false, it’s downright misleading about the kinds of relationships that cultural appropriation involves, and what’s really “understood” about people of the global south and people of colour.
However, as huge as the profit from expropriated arts and skills is, it’s all too easy to miss the non-monetary/non-economic benefits that white people can gain from cultural appropriation. I think you can conceptualise these benefits, broadly, as “cultural/symbolic capital” (although that concept primarily refers to class-based cultural status difference, not racial/colonial difference).
Historically, white colonisers have gained enormous prestige by engaging in cultural appropriation (particularly where it involves outright theft or murder). From the import of luxury items like textiles and jewellery, to the expropriation of human remains (many of which are still in the British Museum!), cultural appropriation has long been bound up in the systems of imperial control. Many of these systems have continued, in the form of international trade/finance agencies, trade agreements, and trading patterns which subject post-colonial nations to various forms of neocolonialism.
“Globalisation” and “cosmopolitanism” tend to be buzzwords used to describe the changed regimes governing international mobility of people, goods and services, but those terms tend to gloss over both the economic inequalities generated by neocolonialism, and the cultural inequalities, i.e. the exploitation and oppression.
White people continue to get enormous prestige from appropriating from subordinated cultures. Whereas the people of those cultures are stigmatised, exotified, and patronised, if not subjected to physical violence, for practicing their culture, white people selectively taking on aspects of these cultures often gain a great deal of fame and praise. This is the operation of white privilege, whereby whiteness is considered to be the norm, and to transcend the “backwardness” of indigenous cultures. The work and lives of peoples of the global south/people of colour is transformed into an emblem of the white person’s worldliness and cosmopolitanism, i.e. it builds on and reinforces their symbolic capital, usually raising their status with other white people.
Cultural appropriation has enormous ideological influence. The culture of modern imperialism has been such that colonised peoples have never been considered entitled our own knowledge — either about ourselves or knowledge we produce about the world around us. We are talked about but not with. Expertise about us has been made into its own niche industries from which we are excluded. Cultural appropriation is a way of asserting the dominance of knowledge produced by the politically and materially dominant over subjugated people. It is asserting that the versions of the stories about colonised and dominated people are the valid ones.
Control over knowledge and knowledge production is an important part of control over resources, and peoples’ choices and behaviour. In that context, being able to assert that your knowledge about others is true confers a great deal of power over them. People with the authority to come up with representations of others influence how they are treated, what resources they can access, how they represent themselves, how they feel about themselves, and how they access resources (including others’ support).
Said’s concept of Orientalism is really useful here to describe how power relations between coloniser and colonised are reproduced through the politics of knowledge, especially academic knowledge.
Representations of majority world peoples/people of colour by white westerners are always already shaped by racism, because the world is a racist place. Idealisation, fetishisation and exotification of cultures, even when those things are associated with positive qualities, is still usually racist. It fixes representations of people into a very limited set of understandings, and in the context of imperialism and white supremacy, the cultures of people of the global south/people of colour have a history of being represented according to western imperialist imperatives and interests (which have changed over time, by the way, as those imperatives/interests changed). Those limited understandings limit the scope for people to act, as well as all the other limitations they face in the context of being subordinated through imperialism/white supremacy.
Knowledge of colonised peoples has always been produced by white Westerners to further the project of colonising. From ethnographic anthropology which created the ‘cannibal’ stereotype that precipitated mass slaughter of indigenous people of the Americas, to prurient dissection of the genitals of Khoi peoples in Southern Africa to determine the nature of their sexuality, to population surveys in colonial India which were used for divide-and-conquer policies, knowledge has been racialised for many centuries now.
Cultural appropriation therefore usually involves white people inhabiting derogatory stereotypes of people of colour/majority world people, while making use of images, styles, ideas, designs, stories, etc. that are sacred or important to the cultures of majority world people/people of colour. And frankly, where items that were made by racially subordinated people are used by racially privileged people in that way, it adds insult to injury.
Appropriation can also involve the direct exploitation of knowledge, such as with indigenous medicinal plant knowledge. Due to neocolonialism, many pharmaceutical companies are taking control of the intellectual property of indigenous peoples over medicinal plants, and using this information to commercially exploit the medicinal uses of those plants, without any significant returns to those indigenous peoples. Often, this results in conflict and power consolidation amongst certain people within those indigenous communities as well.
Okay, that’s my introductory-level explanation. If anyone reading this is confused about any of the terms I’ve used, please look them up before asking me or anyone else. I’ve got other posts in the works that further elaborate on these ideas, but they’re very much not for anyone who’s a beginner to these concepts.
Anyone making comments about why they just like anime/belly dancing/yoga/shamanic practice will have their comment deleted, and/or mocked. Because I just do not have the time.