In praise of cultural appropriation
The mixing and meshing of different cultures is something to celebrate.
No sooner did Beyoncé appear as a Bollywood actress in Coldplay’s new video ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ than the Twitterati piled in to accuse her of committing a crime against Indian culture. It seemed that everyone with a Twitter account felt entitled to make pronouncements on what Beyoncé should or shouldn’t wear. ‘The Coldplay video is beautiful. It’s artistic and stunning. But Beyoncé wearing “Indian style” jewellery and clothes in NOT Okay’, tweeted one white, opinionated woman. Others, too, got stuck in to condemn Beyoncé for her crime of cultural appropriation.
But in this mini-culture war about who can and can’t wear Indian fashion accessories, even Beyoncé’s critics risked provoking outrage. White denigrators of Beyoncé were attacked by Omise’eke Tinsley and Natassja Gunasena for failing to understand that the video provided a ‘rare opportunity to see how much and how beautifully blackness is part of South Asian culture’. As far as they were concerned, it was okay for Beyoncé to appropriate Asian culture, but not okay for white folk to criticise her. ‘Is it because Beyoncé is black?’, they asked, hinting that the charge of cultural appropriation was too sacred to be left in the hands of mendacious white folk.
Today, the charge of cultural appropriation has become a means to police people’s taste, their choice of clothes, the food they consume, even the way they dance or sing. Not since the pre-modern era has there been so much energy devoted to the micro-regulation of people’s appearance and behaviour. Charging movie stars, singers and celebrities with cultural appropriation has become a regular feature of the 21st-century entertainment landscape.
Indeed, in the world of entertainment, the crusade against cultural appropriation often acquires a nasty personal edge. White models and actresses who wear their hair in cornrows, for instance, are slammed for exploiting black culture. Iggy Azalea, the white Australian rapper, was attacked for her ‘blaccent’. Selena Gomez was slammed for wearing a bindi. The list goes on.
Fashion brands are also a favourite target of cultural crusaders. Recently, Mango was slammed because it failed to use an African model to promote its Africa-inspired clothes range. A similar accusation was levelled at Valentino for using white models in its own Africa-inspired fashion show.
The proliferation of cultural-appropriation claims is intimately linked to the expanding influence of identity and cultural politics. The merest hint of an act of cultural insensitivity courts moral condemnation. What’s worse, companies and institutions always roll over and apologise for their supposedly insensitive behaviour. Hence it took only 65 signatures on an online petition to get the organisers of Glastonbury to ban the sale of Native American headdresses. How Glastonbury will react to a petition complaining about its provision of Mongolian yurt accommodation for wealthy visitors is the next big question facing the festival.
That institutions, organisations and companies are so eager to please the cultural crusaders isn’t a surprise. For years now, companies and institutions have been flaunting their virtue by using hooray words like ‘empowerment’, ‘awareness’, ‘diversity’, ‘respect’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘sensitivity’. So when the Twitterati or petitioners suggest a company or an institution has been, say, insensitive or disrespectful, that company or institution feels obliged to give in. Take, for example, the case of a yoga class at the University of Ottawa in Canada. Following concerns that it was an act of cultural appropriation, the class was promptly suspended, and the teacher admitted the class was insensitive, ‘because yoga originally comes from India’. She even offered to change the title of the class to ‘mindful stretching’.
Universities, which already provide a hospitable environment for banning stuff, are allowing cultural crusaders to flourish. At the University of East Anglia in the UK, the students’ union banned a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros to students on the grounds that this act of cultural appropriation was racist.
With so much moral authority invested in detecting and exposing cultural appropriation, it is not surprising that examples of it now seem to be found everywhere. The global crusade against cultural appropriation has become a parody of itself. Late last year, irate students at Oberlin College in Ohio organised a campaign against their cafeteria’s cultural appropriation of ethnic food. Once upon a time, students moaned about the poor quality of cafeteria food. Now they condemn their cafeterias for the cultural appropriation of ethnic food. Apparently fried chicken, Vietnamese sandwiches, sushi and General Tso’s chicken are cooked in a culturally inappropriate manner. Commenting on the poorly cooked rice and the absence of fresh fish in the sushi rolls, Tomoyo Joshi, an Oberlin undergraduate from Japan, declared that it was ‘disrespectful’ to her culture.
Cultural crusaders strike moral poses about the consumption of samosas, kebabs or curries. Numerous commentaries and guidelines have been produced on the now thorny subject of the cultural appropriation of the food of ‘marginalised people’. Those interested in the self-righteous mindset of the food-police might enjoy ‘The Feminist Guide to being a Foodie without being Culturally Appropriative’.
It is tempting to interpret the demands of ‘back-off my culture’ as a self-interested means of establishing ownership. For example, the criticism of holding yoga classes in universities is linked to the ‘Take Back Yoga’ campaign launched by the Hindu American Foundation in 2008. This campaign is all about who gets to decide what is and isn’t yoga in a commercialised Western setting.
But the policing of culture is not simply fuelled by economic or sectional interests. Culture has been politicised to the point that almost any custom or practice can be exploited to make a statement about the scandalous behaviour of those causing offence. Declarations about cultural appropriation constitute a claim to moral authority. They are about who gets to decide what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour.
Today, the rhetoric of cultural appropriation provides people with a script for the public performance of sanctimony. When someone tweets that the appearance of a pop star is culturally insensitive, it draws attention to his or her awareness and thoughtfulness. The cultural crusaders’ tone is that of unrestrained indignation. It doesn’t even require a particularly grave act of insensitivity to produce a reaction of self-righteous outrage. For what’s really important in this performance of piety is not the nailing of the offender, but the demonstration of virtue.
Who owns culture?
Cultural appropriation used to be an esoteric term deployed by a tiny circle of academics committed to exposing ‘cultural colonialism’. In those days, appropriation referred to the plundering and exploitation of colonised cultures. The idea of cultural colonialism was always a confused one that encompassed both Western domination of colonial cultures as well as the tendency to appropriate some of the exotic features of African, Asian and Latin American societies.
Concern about cultural borrowing and appropriation emerged with the rise of identity politics during the 1980s. One of the consequences of the declining influence of Enlightenment and universalist values was the growing salience of particularist cultural sentiment. Identity politics celebrated the distinct, stand-alone essence of particular cultures. This emphasis on the unique and irreducible essence of cultures called into question the commensurability and universalism of human experience and promoted a heightened sense of the differences between cultures. It also encouraged a divisive particularism, and, its basis, a particularist epistemology.
A particularist epistemology is based on the premise that only people who are members of a particular culture can understand that culture. Cultural knowledge becomes dependent on cultural experience. Hence it was asserted that there was a ‘woman’s way of knowing’, an ‘African way of knowing’, a ‘Western male way of knowing’. This anti-universalist approach towards the appropriation of knowledge drew on the 19th-century conservative reaction to rationalism, which argued that particular identities had to be understood in their own terms and not as part of some abstractly conceived universal human pattern. The mystique of the particular elevated difference and encouraged the deepening of divisions between cultures.
In the 19th century, as today, the valuation of a particularist epistemology is coupled with the claim to possess the authority to speak on a particular culture’s behalf. In practice that means that only members of a particular culture can speak on its behalf. As a result, it was claimed that only feminist theoreticians had the epistemological authority to write about women. Similarly, it was suggested that only black people had the right to write about black history and that only Native Americans could tell the stories of their people. This insistence that there is unbridgeable difference in experience and understanding between different groups of people served to legitimise and entrench divisions. Culture itself, which enlightened thinkers perceived as a fluid and constantly interacting and changing phenomenon, was now rendered rigid and fossilised
It was in the context of the fossilisation of cultural identity that the issue of cultural appropriation became politicised. The main beneficiaries of the 1970s and 1980s fossilisation of culture were the cultural entrepreneurs who now possessed a monopoly to speak on a specific culture’s behalf. In the past, the policing of cultural boundaries was associated with reactionary cultural warriors determined to uphold the purity of their culture. Its most extreme manifestation occurred in Germany during the interwar years, when ‘alien’ Jewish artists and writers were attacked for falsely representing the culture of Germany.
Once upon a time, individuals who wrote novels were called novelists. In our time, the novelist is fast being displaced by the ‘Irish author’, the ‘gay novelist’, the ‘woman writer’, the ‘Nigerian storyteller’ or the ‘Native American essayist’. When book prizes are dished out, what matters is not the quality of the writing, but the cultural origins of the writer.
In the 1990s, the question of who could write about which culture raged. For example, in 1992 a debate erupted in Canada about the cultural appropriation of voice in fiction and non-fiction. The Canada Council entered the fray and defined cultural appropriation to mean ‘the depiction of minorities or cultures other than one’s own, either in fiction or non-fiction’. The focus of the discussion was on who had the right to tell and voice the stories of First Nations cultures. The Writer’s Union of Canada defined cultural appropriation as ‘the taking – from a culture that is not one’s own – of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge’. Advocates of identity politics explicitly questioned whether a non-Native could write stories about First Nations people.
Today the issue of cultural appropriation is no longer just about who has the right to speak or write about a culture, but about trivial matters to do with who gets to wear Indian earrings or eat satay chicken. This expansion of moralising about culture is the inexorable consequence of identity politics. Differences in taste and habits are no longer seen as a personal matter: they are interpreted as political statements.
The reverential and self-righteous tone of cultural crusaders echoes that of traditional religious moralists. Writing on the Everyday Feminism website, Maisha Johnson graciously informs her readers that ‘I am not saying you automatically can’t enjoy Mexican food if you’re not Mexican, or do a yoga-inspired practice if you’re not Indian’. What she wants her readers to perform is the culturally sensitive equivalent of a little prayer. As she states, ‘I am encouraging you to be thoughtful about using things from other cultures, to consider the context, and learn about the best practices to show respect’. That’s another way of saying that before you bite into your burrito, say thanks to Mexico.
The principal achievement of the crusade against cultural appropriation is to turn every form of cultural interaction into a site for conflict. This idea of appropriation has as its foundation the conviction that culture is the sacred property of its moral guardians. It is based on the premise that unless cultural artefacts, practices, rituals and even food are used in a reverent and respectful manner, then something akin to religious sacrilege has been committed. Such a pious attitude towards culture does not merely apply to religious rituals and symbols; it also applies to the most banal features of everyday existence, such as the label on your shirt or the snack you are eating.
The constant demand for respect and culturally correct behaviour actually serves to desensitise people to the distinction between rituals and practices that are genuinely worthy of respect and those that can be taken in one’s stride. If the demand for respect for everything becomes automatic, then making distinctions between truly important practices, such as a religious ritual, and trivial ones, such as eating a curry, becomes complicated and even meaningless.
It is perfectly legitimate to attempt to defend or rescue a beleaguered culture. But the attempt to police people’s behaviour through the drawing of culturally correct boundaries has little to with a genuine attempt to activate a cultural renaissance.
History has shown that cultural appropriation has brought tremendous benefits to humanity. The Romans, who appropriated large chunks of Greek culture, understood that their civilisation was the beneficiary of their defeated rivals. Christianity appropriated the Jewish Old Testament and Islam assimilated many of the ideals of the religions that preceded it. Later, in the Middle Ages, Christian Europe revitalised itself through embracing the science and learning of Muslim scholars. This story of cultural appropriation continues to the present day.
The development of religion, philosophy, science, the arts and technology is the cumulative outcome of communities borrowing, copying and appropriating aspects of the cultures they encounter. All cultures appropriate, and, in return, are appropriated. People and their cultures are the products of a diverse range of human experiences. Human progress is a story of cultural appropriation. Contrary to the outlook of 21st-century reactionary cultural crusaders, the appropriation of culture is not a zero-sum game. Unlike physical wealth and various forms of material possession, a culture and its practices are not reducible to things that are taken away when someone else uses them. The adoption and embrace of particular cultural practices does not deprive anyone else of the ability to use them. The way a culture is interpreted by others might irritate those born into it, but that’s another issue.
Throughout history the most successful societies have been the ones that were open to cultural exchange and borrowing. The most genuine way of respecting another culture is by borrowing and assimilating its achievements.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His latest book, Power of Reading: Socrates to Twitter, is published by Bloomsbury Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)