What Does Cultural Appropriation Really Mean?

If all cultural sharing is inherently erasing and disrespectful, then American culture is inherently an oppressive, alienating force. You can believe that if you want to, but I don’t, and I think that’s incredibly simplistic and unnecessarily antagonistic. It comes too close to blaming Americans for being who they are, for inhabiting the world that they do, rather than blaming them for what they do.

The fact is, there’s very little in American culture that is original. So much of it is copied and pasted from different traditions and heritages, elements of the original modified and simplified. Americanization doesn’t have to be a destructive force. These cultural elements are reinvented for a new audience; the new practitioners make it their own by using it. They create something new and different; a clone, standing alongside the original, one that is owned by the wider culture, one that the original practitioners no longer have complete claim to.

This process can definitely be oppressive if proper debt is not acknowledged to the cultural source of the practice, if Americans claim ownership of not only the reinvented practice, but the original as well. Problems arise if more privileged groups refuse to incorporate into their appreciation of an art form the true price paid by members of a marginalized culture. (This discussion of white lindy-hop dancers comes to mind.) It’s even worse when incorporating someone else’s cultural practice does nothing to challenge a privileged person’s worldview. It shows someone willing to appreciate and love the fruits of someone’s culture but who completely ignores the processes in society which produced it. The examples are all around us; the white kids who listen to hip hop but shy away from actual black people. The hipsters who wear native warbonnets but who think “Indians should get over it.” When you divorce the art from the social and political struggle that lies behind it, that’s oppression, because that’s erasure.

But there has to be a way for privileged groups (or just different groups) to borrow from other cultures without it being appropriation. Otherwise, our culture makes no sense, and things start to become very boring, very quickly. When Americans eat Chinese food that resembles nothing like what most ethnic Chinese eat? When yuppies add yoga to their workout regimen? When blaxploitation films in the ’70s celebrated kung-fu and other Asian martial arts? When a family goes out for Tex-Mex food which is high on the Chipotle and low on the authenticity? When Asian kids listen to rap and hip hop? When Americans turn to Buddhism and meditation in order to find inner peace? The very existence of Eminem? Is this really appropriation, or is it cultural expansion?

I think one way that cultural reinvention can avoid being appropriative is if the borrowers stop trying for authenticity and instead embrace the newness of what they are doing. I’d like it so much more if Americans stop pretending that they are making a personal connection to “an ancient people and culture” when they do sun salutations. Or if they stopped borrowing superficial elements of Hinduism, like spewing nonsense about “chakkra” or “dharma” or handing out little Ganeshes everywhere they go. Problems emerge when privileged groups pretend that they are part of the marginalized culture instead of deeply indebted to and simply borrowing from that culture.

And a final note to any immigrants, who might be reading this:

We came to this country, and we have made their culture ours. I fiercely challenge anyone who questions my right to own anything produced here; I’m not appropriating anything when I drink Bud, or I go to a drive-in, or I listen to Bruce Springsteen. If a white or a black American converts to Hinduism, or starts practicing yoga, or teaches themselves how to play the sitar, and if they do it respectfully, how can I be opposed to that? They took something that comes from my culture and made it part of theirs, the same way I took something from their culture and made it part of myself. We’ve become closer, made it easier for me to be American, and I refuse to believe that there’s something inherently dirty about that.

No, it’s not an even playing field, and those who have been here longer have cultural privilege. But individuals carrying out the process of Americanization – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We’re creating something new, and it’s a collaborative (and beautiful) process.

Just because unexamined privilege and racism exist doesn’t mean the work should stop. We need to work around it, that’s all.

3 replies on “What Does Cultural Appropriation Really Mean?”

Maybe its just me and my inquisitive mind, but when I see instances of what could be called cultural appropriation, I want to learn more. If I may borrow Soitgoes’ example of earrings – If I saw dream catcher earring and thought they were beautiful, I’d want to learn more. Why are they made like that, what is their purpose, what lead the people who created them to do so? This almost always leads me to learning more about a culture I of which I was previously ignorant. Then, being the info-geek I am, I’d feel compelled to share this information with the next person I see wearing dream catcher earrings.
But, then I love to learn about different people and cultures and societies that are foreign to me and learn the how and why of other peoples lives.
I hope I’m not the exception.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly in terms of fashion. I’ve seen lots of people wearing, say, dreamcatcher earrings and being called out by SO-101 types (who are usually white) for cultural appropriation. It’s really hard to judge something like that because we have no way of knowing someone’s cultural background just by looking at her. Additionally, what if someone has studied a different culture and decides to incorporate aspects of it into her life in a thoughtful and beautiful way? I agree with you: it shuts down the learning and communication processes if we decide that things are offensive on behalf of cultures that we don’t belong to.

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