A Few Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

I was just thinking about “cultural appropriation” recently, in the wake of the New York Fashion Week controversy and a conversation or two with some white dudes who didn’t seem to get why I referred to some kinds of appropriation as “problematic” or why nobody was angry about Mary Poppins.

It’s not something I have studied in any great depth, but I have used the verb “to appropriate” in my own writing to refer to Africans taking, borrowing, adapting, and altering cultural objects or ideas from Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. Usually what I meant was something being taken, adapted, and used in a new way. For example, several groups of people in Africa, like the Masaai, are known for the colorful designs of beads they wear. These were originally made with “local raw materials” (like shells) but were later replaced by glass beads, and eventually plastic ones, imported from Europe.

But I don’t think that’s what people are talking about in more recent discussions of “cultural appropriation.” I was using the word to refer to a kind of organic evolution of cultures blending – with one taking something from another and “appropriating” it for their own uses, almost how languages appropriate and borrow words from each other.

In these newer conversations, I think people are talking about one of three quite distinct things: 1) stealing and at times taking credit for an idea or style from a particular community, particularly one that has historically been disadvantaged or oppressed; 2) objectifying members of a historically oppressed community and treating their identity as a caricature or a plaything; or 3) confiscating sacred symbols from such a community and using them in ways that strip them of their sacred value – again, in a way that objectifies those people. Personally, I kind of see the first as theft and the second two as objectification, but maybe that’s just semantics.

But wait – why isn’t Mary Poppins an example of cultural appropriation?

This question was rather flippantly posed to me with reference to Dick Van Dyke putting on an English accent, but I think that would be more accurately framed as a question of whether or not it is racist (rather than a question of cultural appropriation). But Dick Van Dyke isn’t appropriating anything, he is pretending to be literally British – in a way that offends a lot of British people, apparently. Think, I guess, of Laurence Olivier in Othello.

The difference here is, there is no history of Americans enslaving, colonizing, segregating, and otherwise telling British people that they are naturally inferior to white Americans. There is no history of British people in America being refused the right to vote and, in the same era, having to endure countless popular plays and movies where Americans put on phony British accents and pretended to be British people in order to make fun of how stupid and lazy and inferior they were. If such a history were to exist, then Mary Poppins would be extremely problematic. And racist. Othello presents a different set of problems, one of which is that I’m sure there were plenty of black actors that would have liked to play Othello. But even today, we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have black heroes be played by black actors.

Here’s John Oliver on the whitewashing of Hollywood.

Cultural appropriation is something different – it is not someone playing a character and pretending to be a person they’re not, nor is it a person from a historically privileged class playing a stereotype of a historically oppressed group (like Dick Van Dyke or Al Jolsen, respectively). Cultural appropriation – the kind that is seen as bad, rather than organic or consensual – I think – consists of one or more of the three actions I describe in the fourth paragraph of this post. Personally, I think “cultural appropriation” is unavoidable as long as cultures interact with each other (which, of course, they always will).

The bottom line, I think, is that it boils down to what’s behind it. Is it objectifying people? Is it taking a style that you did not invent and passing it off as your own (and perhaps making lots of money off it as a result)? Or is it a fair creative exchange based on mutual respect? Is it a cartoon character you’re playing, or do you really deep down appreciate the art or style because you empathize with that community?

I’ll close with three short videos and two articles to help you contemplate this. And then hopefully it will be a bit clearer why, for example, I think Dick Van Dyke and Miley Cyrus are not doing the same thing.

New York Fashion Week

Here’s what it looks like when cultural appropriation is done right

Cultural appropriation vs. appreciation

This article made it painfully clear what was wrong with Cyrus’ VMA performance in 2013, and I highly recommend this as well.

UPDATE: For an even more nuanced take on cultural appropriation, listen to this interview with the hosts of The Stoop on NPR’s Code Switch: what do Africans think of African-Americans “culturally appropriating” their stuff?

UPDATE 2: This was a really interesting take on language, music, and cultural appropriation in Disney films.

Happy reading/listening!


About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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