Social Question

Demosthenes's avatar

What qualifies as "cultural appropriation"?

Asked by Demosthenes (6896points) February 5th, 2019

How would you define it?

What is the difference between cultural appropriation and plain old disrespect? Do the intentions matter?

Is it cultural appropriation when a white person has dread locks? When a white person runs a food truck that sells Mexican food?

Can a minority appropriate another minority’s culture or does it always have to involve the majority?

Does cultural appropriation clash with the concept of a multicultural society? Seems like a tall order to expect cultures to live together but not borrow from each other.

I’m asking all these questions because I genuinely find the concept of “cultural appropriation” confusing. If someone who understands it better can explain it, that would be great.

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12 Answers

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, it used to be called “assimilation.”

But if I had to guess when it started being called “cultural appropriation” I’d say it started in the age of Jazz, when white people started copying cool black phrases and terms, such as “man,” and “cat,” and “cool,” back in the 20s and we never stopped because we wanna be as cool as black people! But we are jive turkey honkys and we can never be as cool as black people and most of us look silly when we try.

zenvelo's avatar

Cultural appropriation is adoption of a custom or characteristic as one’s own without acknowledgement of the dignity and ownership of the original culture.

Many people admire much of what is called “Aloha spirit” and the Hawaiian culture. To that end, people wear leis on special occassions, or wear Hawaiian shirts on Fridays.

But it is a bit of cultural appropriation for some white group to perform the Haka dance, even the Hawaiian version, without respect and dignity for how and when it is used.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, in the example I gave, how would one acknowledge that that way I am acting when trying to be cool, is by copying black culture?

stanleybmanly's avatar

Of course the “the intentions matter”. Your examples may well be cultural exploitation, but everything you deal with or consume from tacos through brie is about “cultural exploitation”. Food is a particularly pertinent category for debunking cultural appropriation as a negative. Out here, the best French and Italian food is turned out by Hispanics, while the sushi business, and Japanese restaurants overall are dominated by Chinese folks. It’s no slur on Poland if a black man dances the polka or worships Lawrence Welk, and no hip hop fan with any sense is gonna tell you that eminem “ain’t real.”

janbb's avatar

@Dutchess_III I disagree with you on several counts. Assimilation is different from cultural appropriation. Assimilation is when a minority group is absorbed into the majority culture by adopting its language and customs. “Cultural appropriation” is a term that is very likely less than 20 years old not from the Jazz Age. It refers to someone from outside a culture adopting or co-opting idioms fashions or customs from another group which is often, but not necessarily always, a minority. I do agree that your example of whites adopting black slang is an example of cultural appropriation but it wasn’t called that back then and was not seen as such a negative act as it has now become.

Back in the 90s when my kids were growing up, certain kids or types were labeled whiggers for trying to adopt the look and fashion of Black rap artists but the term cultural appropriation wasn’t used yet.

I have some ambivalence as to where the line should be drawn and when offense taken. I wouldn’t criticize a white person in cornrows or Rastafarian hair but some would. If a person wears lederhosen and a hat with a weather to a costume party, is that offensive?

I think what makes it cause for offense these days – and we seem to be particularly sensitive to it (at least some of us) – is when it is someone from the dominant culture aping the culture of a minority or oppressed sub-group.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I was not suggesting that the term “cultural appropriation” was used in the 20s. I was just giving an example of it.

janbb's avatar

^^ “But if I had to guess when it started being called “cultural appropriation” I’d say it started in the age of Jazz, when white people started copying cool black phrases and terms,”

Solon's avatar

The classic definition of cultural appropriation is taking something from a culture to which you don’t belong and using it for a purpose for which it is not made without understanding or respecting its cultural significance (often involving the treatment of something culturally significant as a mere accessory). The difference between this a plain old disrespect is that cultural appropriation is disrespectful, but it is not the only way to disrespect a person or their culture.

Intentions matter to the severity or blameworthiness of the act, but probably not to whether or not something counts as cultural appropriation. Similarly, the question of whether any particular instance of something (a white person wearing dreadlocks or running a Mexican restaurant) counts as cultural appropriation cannot be determined in the absence of context. So as tempting as it might be to have a singular judgment that dreadlocks on a white person are or are not cultural appropriation, the definition I gave does not allow it.

Let’s consider dreadlocks. Do they “belong” to any one culture? No, they do not. While the word originates from Rastafarianism, the hairstyle itself is nearly universal. The Egyptians wore locks, but so did the Vikings. And if we’re defining dreadlocks as just any kind of matted hair, then any human who went long enough without removing or attending to their hair would end up with them.

So then how did dreadlocks become part of the cultural appropriation conversation? In part, it comes from the perception among many black people that dreadlocks were treated as a bad thing until white people started adopting them. But it also comes from the perception that most white people who wear locks did so because of the associations with black people (associations that harmed black people, but that mostly seemed to help white people). It’s the second part that starts to look like cultural appropriation, but the underlying problem is actually one of asymmetrical respect. Sure, white people who wear dreadlocks might lose respect in the eyes of some. But they also gain a degree of social cachet that was not afforded to those from whom they go the idea by the dominant culture.

Returning to the definition I gave at the beginning, it also follows that a minority culture can appropriate another minority’s culture (even if it is usually a case of a dominant culture appropriating a minority culture). It also follows that there is no conflict between recognizing cultural appropriation and fostering a multicultural society. Appropriation (by this definition) is not the only way of interacting with (or borrowing from) another person’s culture, after all, so there is no reason why one could not have a multicultural society in which everyone treated other people (and their cultures) with respect. Most people invite others to participate in their culture in various ways, and some elements of culture are by their very nature to be shared. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating and borrowing from other cultures when done respectfully. But we do have to remember that we are not the sole arbitrators of what counts as respect.

Demosthenes's avatar

@Solon Thank you for your answer.

It seems to me that there are quite obvious examples of literally appropriating someone’s culture (let’s take the extreme example of the Nazis taking the eastern religious symbol of the swastika, altering it, and making it their own). Most other examples, however, involve a person who has no disrespectful intentions but is accused of being disrespectful because either they are perceived to not understand the culture significance of what they are using or be incapable of using this cultural item without being disrespectful (because they do not belong to the culture). It’s the latter type that I find most “troublesome”. An example: a white woman traveled to Japan and stayed with a Japanese family. As a parting gift, the family gave her a kimono. She then posted pictures of herself wearing the kimono online. Some people (including the Japanese family) liked the pictures, others accused her of cultural appropriation. (This is a true story, by the way). That brings up the question of “arbiters of respect”, because who gets to decide that what she did was disrespectful? The Japanese family didn’t think so. In fact, many of the people criticizing her were white. You can’t get “approval” from an entire culture because cultures aren’t a monolith.

The burrito example is admittedly a little more tenuous, especially as these examples are almost always drawn from one place, Portland, Oregon, where people seem to really go nuts over these kinds of things. I remember the story of two white women who ran a Mexican restaurant. They spent time in Mexico and learned recipes there, but were accused of “appropriating” it when they came here and cooked those recipes. I find that hard to understand because Mexican food is not “suppressed”, there’s no stigma against it…are white people only supposed to make hamburgers? It’s hard not to just dismiss this as silly.

Solon's avatar

Intentions have virtually nothing to do with whether or not something is disrespectful. The Nazis didn’t appropriate the swastika because they wanted to defile it. They appropriated it because they wanted to seize its symbolism for their own. In fact, the Nazi appropriation of the swastika was probably less shallow than so many other instances of cultural appropriation, yet you have no problem recognizing that it was wrong.

Meanwhile, your one “troublesome” example of cultural appropriation doesn’t meet the definition I offered at all, and so is entirely irrelevant to anything I said. At best, it is an example of why it is rarely productive to police the behavior of others on behalf of people who have not asked for your help. This is why so many people who are deeply involved in issues surrounding what is, for better or worse, referred to as “social justice” complain just as frequently about self-proclaimed “allies” as they do about the problems they wish to solve.

Sometimes people get things wrong, but that is orthogonal to the question of what is right. The existence of quack doctors doesn’t discredit medicine any more than the existence of crank pseudoscientists discredits the field of physics. Similarly, the errors of overeager “allies” on Facebook or teenagers on Tumblr discussing ideas beyond of their depth does not discredit the ideas they are attempting—however poorly—to apply.

The irony here is that focusing so much attention and criticism on these peripheral contributors is itself to apply a more basic set of concepts—those of logic and reason—in just as poor a fashion as the original targets of the attention and criticism themselves. A strong argument focuses on the best counterarguments, not the worst. Pointing at things that don’t count as cultural appropriation and throwing one’s hands up in confusion is not reasoned argument but intellectual surrender.

Demosthenes's avatar

@Solon The question is “what qualifies as cultural appropriation?”. If you say that example is not cultural appropriation, then great. My bringing it up was not an attempt to prove that cultural appropriation is non-existent, but to do what the question set out: discover what qualifies as cultural appropriation. I specifically brought it up because I did not think that it was, but as someone who isn’t well-versed in “social justice” terminology, and having been told that it was cultural appropriation by people who were, I thought it was worth bringing up.

zenvelo's avatar

The most egregious examples of cultural appropriation seem to be adoption of Native American symbols and practices without any real understanding of the significance in the aboriginal belief sus tem.

It’s like motels in the fifties that made motel rooms out of plaster tipis, and had a totem pole out front with a thunderbird at the top with a wing shaped like an arrow pointing to the office. Or sports teams with Native American mascots.

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