Making Sense Of Cultural Appropriation

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Cultural appropriation refers to members of a larger, wealthier, and more powerful group taking ideas, art, and artifacts from people of a historically oppressed and marginalized group. It is important to put it this way because the words “cultural appropriation” confuse and mislead people about the issues involved in this act.

The exchanges, influences, and fusions that occur between different cultures constitute a natural phenomenon that cannot be stopped. As a black American writer and reader of books, I not only read Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, but also Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, and Hans Fallada; and I incorporate particular artistic ideas from the latter novelists in my own work. No other American writer—white or black—would quibble about appropriating whatever they find useful in Russian, French, or German authors because we are all part of a common literary and cultural heritage that goes back to the Greeks, and that first great book of Western civilization—the Iliad.

Cultural appropriation is nothing like what I’ve described above. It is about something more troubling and at times quite sinister. I will give an example of each.

Adele is one of the wealthiest singers in the world today. Her success rests on the kind of rhythm and blues singing pioneered by black Americans. The objection here is that while such singing is now main stream and the individuals who first did it are now celebrated they never had a chance to make the kind of money Adele is making: in other words, a white woman has taken an artistic creation of a marginalized group and made a fortune from it. I only lay out the objection; I do not say it is without weaknesses. I nevertheless feel the force of the argument and have some sympathy with it.

A more sinister example of cultural appropriation involves Native American images and artifacts. There is of course the controversy over the Washington Redskins. And lately there has been tremendous, and I think legitimate backlash, against so-called sexy Indian costumes produced by Victoria’s secret. One in particular includes the feathered headdress worn by models at fashion shows. The real headdress is a well-known and recognizable part of Native American culture. What most people don’t know is that it has a deeply spiritual significance and is worn only by certain members of a tribe, who have earned the right to wear feathers through honor-worthy achievements and acts of bravery. It is just plain wrong and disrespectful for a scantily-clad underwear model to parade it before cameras.

Where do you draw the line between expressing a legitimate interest in a culture and tradition different from your own and caving in to the thought and speech police who are out to suppress free expression? This is a tough question to answer. But I will make these two suggestions.

First, do nothing to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Black face is never okay, nor is imitating or giving renditions of so-called “black speech”, or that of Latinos and Asians. Employing the symbols and dress of minority peoples for strictly commercial gain is not okay. However, I see no reason to wear such items for personal use, as long as you know what they signify.

Second, try to understand the issue from the other side’s point of view. Yes, some people go too far in their accusations. But remember that cultural appropriation is mostly about power. White runway models wearing cornrows is not really the issue; the issue is the absence of black runway models with cornrows. Cultural appropriation is seen by many not as exchange but theft: the people themselves are ignored while their cultural inventions are used to make rich people even richer.


About Christopher Reid

Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.

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