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Xenophobia or anti-oppression?
May 16, 2012 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Why is cultural appropriation bad?

Cultural objects and ideas flow from one place to another and have throughout history. We wouldn't have guns without the Chinese, rock music without African slaves, or the word "Wednesday" without the Norse. Why is it bad if a person who comes from a completely different culture wears a turban or has a kanji tattoo without background knowledge of either of those items? Do certain cultures own certain ideas?
posted by bumpjump to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
There's a difference between ideas being exchanged between cultures, having culture B add its own elements onto something from culture A, etc ...and having people just take things. For instance, kanji characters: "Well, the dude at the tattoo parlor said it would bring me strength, and it looks kinda cool right?" Yeah, okay, that actually means something to an entire culture, and you can't just take it out of context because you thought it looked nice / wanted to be special / whatever. The things that have been shared tend to be recognized as valuable across a culture, not just based on the whims of an individual. There's a huge difference between appreciation and appropriation, is what I'm saying.
posted by estlin at 7:59 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cultural appropriation strips depth of experience from the final appropriated item; it seizes text while ignoring subtext and history. So if a suburban white dude appropriates gangsta rap, for example, he's grabbing the surface-level product of years of attempting to alleviate personal suffering without experiencing the suffering itself.

Good and bad can be applied depending on how judgey you're feeling, but the basic form that cultural appropriation takes is ganking an easy surface-level symbol without working through the underlying process that the appropriated people used to get to that symbol. Like stealing a little kid's karate trophy and saying it means you're a karate champ; lots of people will think it's a dick move.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:05 PM on May 16, 2012 [44 favorites]

I think purpose has a lot to do with it, and also the relationship that the appropriators have with the appropriated.

For example, I feel that cuisine appropriation is very rarely seen as problematic in the way that jewelry, body modifications, and spiritually significant rituals, symbols, and objects are. If one culture invents a particularly tasty or functional way of preparing food, you'll see it spread all over. Similarly, appropriating words for new concepts is far more convenient than coming up with a new local word for that concept. English is the perfect example of a language that freely appropriates words from other languages.

Where appropriation is most problematic is when there is a significant power imbalance between those who lay original claim and those who appropriate.

For example, although much of jazz, blues, and rock originated and flourished in black culture, much of it had to be consumed first through a white filter. Which is to say, early on white performers routinely got paid more to perform music that black musicians had written. This to me seems unfair, and there are significant problems with this form of "appropriation".

Similarly, for some it has become "hip" to appropriate signifiers of poverty even if you are not actually poor. At this point it is so passe that it is harmless, but I can't help thinking that paying $100 for a pair of jeans that is torn up is sort of a slap in the face to someone whose jeans are torn. Similarly, people who have means but choose to "slum" it might rub the actual poor the wrong way.

Recently, there has been a fairly strong (and, in many ways, overtly sexist) backlash against "nerd" or "geek" girls who, it is argued, are self-identifying as geeks because of the apparent appeal of the subculture while not being actual participants. There's a pretty strong resentment, and even though we're not talking about traditional cultural appropriation, at least not from a cultural group that has a clear identity, it still reflects the same emotional context: something deep and meaningful to us is being exploited by others for shallow purposes.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:11 PM on May 16, 2012 [14 favorites]

I feel like a lot of cultural appropriation also involves the fetishization of the original culture and its people. Think about Westerners that use Asian/Oriental attributes in their music videos and fashion shows. The point isn't that they're paying homage to Asian attire or customs; they're bastardizing it to make money and sell sex. That shows a tremendous amount of disrespect, as well as only a surface level understanding of what those cultures are actually about.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:11 PM on May 16, 2012 [10 favorites]

One objection to cultural appropriation is that it is exotifying; the appropriating culture takes the sexy, mysterious, fetishized -- or just plain old stereotypical -- aspects of a culture and uses them in a context that perpetuates the othering of the people who belong to that culture.

Some kanji tattoos could be seen as a case of this. Some (not all) people who have a kanji tattoo get one because they think that the writing is mysterious and mystical, an attitude that has its roots in a long, long history of exotifying the East. The fundamental similarities between Japanese writing system and English (and Japanese-speaking and English-speaking people) writing get glossed over. Japanese people use their writing to make grocery lists, too.

In some cases, cultural appropriation is actively offensive to the culture whose ideas have been taken--not because the people taking them are malicious, but because they are clueless. For example, sacred prints used for exclusive celebrations worn by just anybody, or sandals with a picture of Ganesha on them.

I think it's important to note that:

(a) Cultural appropriation is complex, and even people who consider themselves to be against cultural appropriation have a wide range of opinions on it;

(b) Cultural appropriation is not a blanket term for all adoptions of new ideas from other cultures.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:13 PM on May 16, 2012 [13 favorites]

I believe it's an issue of meaning. Often, when an object is appropriated, it is placed outside the cultural environment that produced it. Lacking any context, the broader meaning and emotional content of the object can be lost. This can be disrespectful to the "original" culture in two ways:

1. It can ignore many of the meanings and emotions that object may have for a lot of people - people who are the cultural progenitors of the object.

2. It can stereotype and reduce whole cultures to one-dimensional, facile "trinkets" for western consumption. So in effect, it's a kind of racism.

Examples of this might be, me - a white Australian - painting my body with aboriginal markings. Now, to me, those marking may represent a number of different things, say: an aesthetic ideal (something that looks good), or an association with nature or something savage (popular - but not necessarily correct cosigns of "aboriginality"). However, to an aboriginal person, different markings may have radically different meanings. Some markings may only be used for funeral rites, or at births; some may signify a transition to adulthood; whatever. It doesn't really matter what they signify but those markings have a different context to an aboriginal person. When they see me wearing markings, they could very well feel:

1. That I am reducing something profound/sacred/meaningful to decoration.
2. That I demonstrate no knowledge or interest in aboriginal culture, I do not care to inform myself before dressing up in such a way, and aboriginal culture is not "worth" more than casual adoption.
3. Upset that something with a heavy emotional content is being "profaned", essentially, out of context.
4. Associate my use of those markings with a history of white people using those markings in a derogatory, ignorant way, with the specific goal of marginalising and mocking aboriginal culture.

I think your confusion may stem from not appreciating the difference between say, pastiche, and appropriation. And it's true there is no firm line between the two, but a good question to ask is, "Does the culture of the appropriator have a history of using the appropriated culture's objects as tools for entertainment or exploitation without adequate understanding or credit?" If the answer is yes, think twice. It's impossible to talk about appropriation meaningfully without analysing the power relations that lie behind it. A lot of your examples are explicitly lacking these power relationships or concessions to cultural objects/context.
posted by smoke at 8:13 PM on May 16, 2012 [13 favorites]

To add a Hamlet-esque follow up on my assertion that "bad" is not the root of what this question's about: There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so, but that ain't mean that I won't get the SHIT beaten out of me for wearing a dashiki in Harlem, even though I look SEXY AS HELL in 'em. An objective view of "bad" is only a defense against an imagined interlocutor; the basic issue here is that people get mad if you're overly-blithe about their symbolic heritage, particularly if you've got a massive amount of privilege cementing your position in the dominant ideology.
posted by Greg Nog at 8:29 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

What Kutsuwamushi said is right. Nobody owns ideas. When people are appropriating in a bad way, they're first exoticizing the culture, and then they're trying to lay claim to some of that exoticism by buying something. The tattoos of Chinese characters are a good example.

In all of the tattoos I've seen, the characters are terrible renderings of the orignal characters. Chinese penmanship and calligraphy have a rich history and can be breathtakingly beautiful. There's a proportion, experience, and artfulness that come through when someone writes the characters properly. And it looks terrible when someone gets a tattoo made from something copied off the web.

Moreover, the characters chosen for tattoos can be oddly inappropriate or incorrect. Either it's a word that doesn't quite have the connotation that the wearer thinks it means ("peace" comes to mind as one that gets mangled a lot). Or the sentence just doesn't make any sense at all. It's just a bunch of words thrown together without following grammatical rules. Remember how English speakers make fun of Asian people for using Engrish? The tattoos with Chinese characters are just as bad, and you can't take them off as easily.

I think it's most telling that Asian people don't have these tattoos. Tattoos tend to be associated with gangsters to begin with, and even then the style of tattoo is very different.

So the tattoos say, "I think Asian culture is exotic and mystical. And I'm willing to spend $200 to permanently mark up my body, but I don't actually know anything about the culture. Because otherwise I probably wouldn't have this tattoo."
posted by Mercaptan at 8:33 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a blurry area. Very little is static in human relations, interaction leads to influence, sharing and usurping. The problem is that often usage takes way context and meaning. African American culture is often usurped and used by whites usually with no credit being given to where it came from originally. See Elvis Presley. Or whites that do pottery and pass it off as Native American, when it's been copied from traditional patterns.

At the same time, Elvis made the music his own and words like bro, peeps, homies are part of American vernacular now. The wide availability of porn has a lot of women getting Brazilian wax jobs. (Not quite the same thing but it's true nevertheless.)

Using Greg Nog's example, there's a big difference between Vanilla Ice and Eminem, one's a usurper and one was influenced by and decided to embrace a new art form that resonated with him. Rap music is created around the world now and for many, it's a music form for disenfranchised and alienated people. Rock and roll is created around the world, what part of that belongs to Elvis or to American blacks? I would say it belongs to everyone.

Many things have cultural significance that are copied without regard for that significance. And some things are copied because of their cultural significance. Where, when and how it's done offers up many shades of gray.
posted by shoesietart at 8:33 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Why is cultural appropriation bad?

The theoretical construct for why cultural appropriation can be considered bad is to look at it as an analog to colonialism. Colonialism was the process of foreigners coming into a region, taking the land away from the native owners, stripping it of its resources, and then selling the manufactured products back to them.

Looked from a certain angle, use of cultural traditions and artifacts can be viewed through the matrix of colonialism, and one can argue that it is just as destructive and exploitive of a process. Arguing against cultural appropriation is mostly the domain of people who buy into this sort of theory. Maybe you buy into it, maybe you don't. It's a way of thinking that allows you to consider the process of cultural appropriation in ways you might not have thought of before. You can decide whether it's a moral offense akin to theft, silly, or just part of the process of cultural experience.
posted by deanc at 8:33 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

No culture "owns" any idea and anyone can incorporate any idea into their life without feeling they stole it. From an outside perspective, as others have said, other people may assume things and act accordingly based on their personal understanding of that idea. But actively avoiding or ignoring an idea because you don't feel the culture you've been brought up in "understands" it or brings justice to it is just silly.
posted by fishmasta at 8:35 PM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

We had a thread a while back about hipster appropriation of American Indian culture, where I wrote a comment explaining why some Indians get pissed at such things.
posted by LarryC at 8:50 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

[please do not paraphrase other people's words uncharitably. You are welcome to take this to Metatalk or email. Answer the OPs question, do not get into a debate in this thread. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:15 PM on May 16, 2012

On top of what other people have said, I think it's wrong if people from the culture you are appropriating from are offended and upset by it. Why would you want to offend and upset people if you don't have to? And if you choose to anyway, I would hope that your reasons for overriding other people's hurt feelings are better than, "But I thought it was kind of fun."

If your question is more "why would people from the culture you appropriate from be offended or upset?", then there are a few different answers. As well as the implications of ignorance and low valuation of the other culture that other people above addressed, there are the following:

- sometimes, e.g. with Aboriginal Australians and white Australians, the indigenous community has very little left. Their language is gone, their children were stolen, their land was taken, and they may have been exploited in many other ways. It is only natural that they hold on fiercely to the symbols, rituals and objects they DO still have.
- in cases like that, and also colonial situations in general, or anywhere there has been historical exploitation, another instance of a person from the majority/powerful culture using something from the minority/less-powerful culture acts itself as a symbol and reminder of the historical events. It's analogous to the way that, in modern day Germany, it is not possible or appropriate to treat vandalism of Jewish synagogues the same way one treats vandalism of Christian churches. It doesn't matter what the intention behind the vandalism is; one has to be taken more seriously than the other because of the historical context.

But yeah, on the whole I think it comes down to the fact that the powerful majority doesn't get to determine how an oppressed minority feels about stuff. Even (especially) if it doesn't seem to "make sense". That is just a sign that the powerful people need to reconsider their understanding of the situation.
posted by lollusc at 9:38 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

We wouldn't have guns without the Chinese, rock music without African slaves, or the word "Wednesday" without the Norse.

Imagine how it feels to have been on this site since nearly its inception, and to have someone say "we" in a way that clearly excludes you. That's what cultural appropriation feels like.
posted by anildash at 10:26 PM on May 16, 2012 [12 favorites]

OP here. Thanks for all the answers, I was definitely wondering more about why people get offended by it.

anildash when I said "we" I meant "a member of the human species" so I'm not sure how I might have excluded anyone with that statement. Also, I identify as a person of color (my parents immigrated to the US from India and my sister was born there) and I was raised as a turban-wearing Sikh so if you want to talk about exclusion I definitely know a thing or two.
posted by bumpjump at 10:40 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Cultural appropriation is bad in part because the very use of the term "cultural appropriation" means that you are already looking at culture transmission in a negative light, and accept a political analysis of power and dominance where if you're a part of the dominant culture you are unable to learn from or adopt any other culture.

It also sometimes, but not always, comes from a place of ignorance around exactly how much of culture is passed back and forth without being a colonialist "theft."

Viewing culture as dominant is itself problematic, especially in America. There is no "European" culture, for example, to even be dominant, and viewing it as monolithic is problematic. There are individual countries and regions, which spread their ideas to other areas and in turn take ideas from other areas.

One example: after World War II, many Japanese filmmakers adopted the traditional "Western" and transformed it into an interesting and engaging filmmaking style relating to a new portrayal of samurai, that was then, in turn, later taken and adopted by American filmmakers also transforming these concepts. Cultural appropriation? No. Cultural transmission.

English folksongs to Scottish-Irish immigrants to Appalachian banjo "murder ballads" spreading far beyond the original descendants? Not cultural appropriation, even if the person learning those banjo songs today has no idea of the context of how the 17th century song came about.

Japanese adoption and transformation of English Victorian fashion, behavior, and manners that has been happening? Not cultural appropriation, because ideas cannot and do not belong to any one culture, and also simply /do not remain/ with any one culture, ever. Every time cultures meet, they transmit pieces of themselves. They do not remain unscathed.

This is difficult in part for those who wish for whatever reason for their culture to remain insular, unaffected by external influences. There are valid concerns about the proportions of those transmissions. There is a "risk" is of those cultures losing a unique identity and being absorbed into a larger whole. (See: America) But to think everything is cultural appropriation, even when misunderstood, even devoid of context, I think is just wrong.

The incorporation of languages goes both ways. Ever listen to Korean rap? The adoption of an originally African-American form of music is also combined with an adoption of some of the language. Many songs contain a little bit of English-just enough to be "cool." The same thing happens with music from many different areas of the world. (Watch Eurovision for an hour if you want to see great examples of this.) So yes, there are English-speaking people getting bad translations of kanji tattooed on them. As well as bad translations into Latin, and French, and Greek. And there are Romans and French and Japanese and Greek people getting t-shirts with mistranslated English on them. And everyone laughs at everyone else. We transmit, and we somehow survive. We transmit, or our culture dies.

Saying that cultural appropriation is bad is to create a limited and ever-shrinking group of gatekeepers to ideas. It is to penalize people who share them and people who adopt them. It is to declare that there is only one true way an idea can form, and to block its development. And it is stagnation. Stagnation is death.
posted by corb at 12:52 AM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

To expand upon deanc's excellent comment: crudely put, the impulse behind European colonialism is "those people over there have something we want. Let's go get it." It's often been predicated on a nagging sense that European culture lacks something: some indefinable "exotic element." Traditional European cooking is perceived as bland; clearly it needed spicing up with some cinnamon, cloves, chilli, or peppercorns. Clothes and dinnerware were drab, yet "exotic" dyes and ceramics could be had from the mysterious East. The only local beverages were wine and beer, but those people over there had tea, coffee, drinking chocolate. And what's more natural to put into those new beverages (once imported to the metropolitan centre) than cane sugar?

But what happened with colonialism was the conversion of those new Western appetites (largely manufactured by Occidental traders and retailers) into incredibly deadly and exploitative economic systems for the mass-production or extraction of these "exotic goods," and the transformation of the world in order to facilitate these "trade" networks. This is obvious, of course: I don't need to explain it to you.

Once you see history through this lens, it becomes clear that Oriental culture is exploited and appropriated by the West in the same way as other, more tangible trade goods, and for the same reasons. There is this sense of psychic absence, as though traditional European music, dance, and forms of personal adornment were lacking or deeply embarrassing in some way. Think of the scorn heaped (usually unthinkingly) by White people trying to prove their hipness on "indigenous" white culture: Appalachian or Celtic folk-music, for instance, or, more recently, indie-rock. These things won't do. Black/Oriental/exotic people from elsewhere have much cooler culture. Let's go get it. They have a natural rhythmic sense—a "beat"—that White people lack. Clearly, we must appropriate the beat from them if we are to be complete people who possess the cool.

Of course, this Orientalizing discourse is just as racist and exploitative as other forms of commodity colonialism. And in recent years, it's led to a kind of plantation model in culture, where those elements widely believed to define the non-White identity (athletic ability; rapping prowess) are fetishized, and non-White populations encouraged to concentrate on mass-producing them at the expense of, well, anything else. So there's that.

Another, more simple answer as to why (some) White people find cultural appropriation offensive is that they find the imported elements threatening in some way, invasive even. The figure of the White person "gone native" has always been a source of loathing (and horrified fascination). The "wigger" or tribal-tattoo-bearing hipster could be seen as the modern manifestation of the tattooed castaway: an emblem of almost gothic horror that "we" must resist and ridicule, but one to which we can't resist in some way being drawn.
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:01 AM on May 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

An example of cultural appropriation is (sometimes) the way museums exhibit objects that are sacred to the culture they sprang from, or excavated from tombs which were meant to be sealed for eternity. To the people who still live in those cultures, it looks about as tasteful as digging up your granny and displaying her in a museum would look to you.

Off the top of my head, here is a shallow interpretation of some of the scenes from Witness: local thug smears ice cream in face of passively resistant Amish man. Harrison Ford, in Amish garb, beats the crap out of the local thug. Audience... cheers? I guess. At end of film, villains die a variety of violent deaths, and it's their own fault, and serves 'em right with the kind of redemptive violence that mainstream audiences expect. Because we like the stuff about baking your own bread and everything, but that nonviolence thing is just impractical. The centuries of thought and commitment that went into the formation of a community that tried to embody particular values, gets glossed over by a culture that doesn't even seem to know there's anything to understand. Maybe that's a shallow interpretation of the movie and if I watched it properly I would see it differently, but I was too busy culturally appropriating it to strut my stuff here to really pay attention.
posted by tel3path at 4:49 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

To expand upon deanc's excellent comment

To clarify, I don't actually agree all that much with post-colonialism theory or where it's applied. I just wanted to point out where people are coming from when they're making a moral case against what they consider to be cultural appropriation.
posted by deanc at 5:19 AM on May 17, 2012

To clarify ...
Oh sure; I don't mean to put words in your mouth. I just wanted to acknowledge your comment for raising of the issue of postcolonialism in the first place.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:27 AM on May 17, 2012

To get a better viewpoint on it, think about it like this: how would you feel if someone at work started copying the way you dress. Not so bad if you work in construction and they also wear Carhartt gear. But it would be a little different if they copied your yarmulke because it looked cool. Or if an atheist went around wearing a crucifix because they think it looks bad-ass.

Mary: "Why are you wearing the same stuff I am wearing?"
Poseur: "Because I thought it looked cool! You're awesome!"
Mary: "But this ring was my dear departed grandmother's, and this necklace was made by my kids! You are copying meaningful things just because you like the way they look!"
Poseur: "I know! Everyone has been saying how much I look like you!"
Mary: "But I wear them because they have meaning to me. When I see the same stuff on you, it dilutes that meaning for me."
Poseur: "You should feel flattered!"
Mary: "I guess I do a little, but I feel even more hurt at the loss of my individuality."
Poseur: "I don't get it! Tons of people are buying the same necklace from my Etsy shop!"

Or consider the use of Native American signs and symbols as sports mascots. "We use it because Chief Illiniwek was a fierce warrior! We respect his fierceness!" To which a Native American might say "ok, yeah, I guess, but he was only a warrior because his land was being taken by your ancestors. We aren't exactly proud of losing those battles. Your use of his image reminds us of bad times and the very real effects of them that are still being felt to this day." When the student says "chillax, bro, we're all good now! Muck Fishigan!" it solidifies the insult.
posted by gjc at 6:20 AM on May 17, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's bad only if you're appropriating something from someone whose ass you've kicked before.

Or from someone who's kicked YOUR ass before. It's called "bowing down to cultural imperialism" then.

But it depends on the context. One of the defining texts of the Brazilian Modernist movement of the 20s is the "cannibal manifesto" (pdf) — it advocates cultural appropriation as "eating your enemy" and the construction of a culture based on digesting and remixing influences from abroad. It's hugely significant in Brazil to this day.
posted by Tom-B at 9:07 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the most annoying thing about cultural appropriation is the idea that something isn't cool until white people do it, and that even when your culture does something cool, you're never going to get credit for it.

So for example, you have native american tribes who are desperately trying to retain their culture, their language, not to mention jobs & land etc, and no one cares that the local government wants to build a sewage treatment plant on their holy mountain. That the original names of their lands, mountains, rivers, and have all been replaced by european names.
And then suddenly, some white guy is charging a $1000 a head to do a *insert your tribe name here* sweatlodge (which your tribe never even did), where outright lies or just misinformation about your language and beliefs are being spread.
It's speaking for someone else's culture instead of letting them do it. It's ignoring that there may be a deep well of expertise in an area, and by taking a small part of it with no context, you are getting it all wrong, often offensively wrong, and that that, in popular culture, is replacing or substituting any actual knowledge about your people.
It's like presenting yourself as a 'neo-traditional Radiologist' and then occasionally spouting some words from a medical textbook, and wearing a surgeons outfit (because it looks cooler), and then having people disrespect actual Radiologists.

Eh, this is a bit of a hasty post, so sorry I'm not citing better examples.
But, not all cultural adoption is abusive. To say that no 'white people' can ever look into parts of other cultures is to imply that other cultures are valueless, or worse, that the dominant culture isn't a culture, which implies it's just fundamentally the way you are supposed to do things, and that other ways are wrong.

I think a good marker for cultural appropriation versus adoption is, where are the information sources about this cultural thing? Is it experts from the original culture, or people from another culture who obviously aren't experts, but are somehow the 'media spokespeople' for this?
posted by Elysum at 10:53 PM on May 20, 2012

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