Social Justice Usage
Fordham University Law Professor Susan Scafidi defines cultural appropriation as follows: “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” Very often those who appropriate culture of another group profit from their exploitation. They not only gain money but also status for popularizing art forms, modes of expression and other customs of marginalized groups.
New Discourses Commentary
Though defined more broadly above, in practice the concept of cultural appropriation refers to a person from a dominant racial or ethnic group using an element of culture from a minority racial or ethnic group, especially as a way to profit (either monetarily or in cultural capital, i.e., by looking cool). This can range from hairstyles to religious symbols to music to language to food to dress. As with all issues in Social Justice, cultural appropriation must be understood in terms of the underlying systemic power dynamics that Theory assumes define material reality and our existence in it. This is why only dominant groups can culturally appropriate, which is seen as a kind of stealing from those already oppressed, while minoritized groups have the dominant culture forced upon them.
Cultural appropriation is regarded as unjust and deeply offensive for a number of reasons. Firstly, it can be experienced as an inauthentic, cheapening, parodying, or mocking use of something that has cultural meaning within the minoritized culture but not within the dominant culture (usually white, Eurocentric, and/or Western). This has often been claimed about the use of the Hindu bindi, for example, which has spiritual meaning, when applied as a mere fashion accessory. Secondly, it can be understood as a kind of colonialism in which something that has been or is created by one group is then popularized and exploited by another who get credit for it. This has been claimed about blues music (thus rock and roll) and yoga. Thirdly, it is seen as indifference to the item as a cause of racism. This has been claimed about dreadlocks, which have been the object of scorn by white cultures, then being appropriated by them as a means of being fashionable or “unique.”
The idea of cultural appropriation depends upon the belief that cultural artifacts are something that can be owned by the people associated with those cultures rather than things that people do that other people can appreciate, value, dislike, make use of, or disparage however they want without making any implications about the people most centrally involved in their cultural production. It depends further on the idea that those who hold systemic power in society, when making use of those artifacts, cannot fully understand the underlying knowledge(s) or traditions that went into them (or do not care about them) but can use their power to profit off them or to remove their cultural significance to the minoritized group. Within the view of Theory, minoritized groups can essentialize their cultural features as a means of asserting their value or disrupting the existing hierarchy of power (see also, strategic essentialism).
One problem with the concept of cultural appropriation is that it is a very Western concept and is not often shared by members of the cultures allegedly being appropriated. Asian people, in particular, both East and South, are likely to regard the use of Asian dress, food, and music positively as a compliment on their cultures, not a form of theft. (This attitude often extends to first-generation immigrants to Western countries from Asia as well, but it frequently reverses in second-generation ones.) At the root of what this difference in attitude exposes is the fact that the question of whether something is cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation is highly subjective. Under the Social Justice approach, the winner of any such disagreement is often declared to be whoever is most offended.
Objections to cultural appropriation often miss their targets as well, given the subjective nature of cultural appreciation. For example, the objection that white people are appropriating aspects of culture that they have previously been scornful of or prejudiced against disregards the likelihood that these were almost certainly different white people.
The concept of cultural appropriation can become very limiting when applied to the world of art which it frequently is. Cultural sharing has always been central to the vitality of art, but as more and more styles, artifacts, and tropes become identified as belonging to a certain culture, artists have to work hard not to offend. There is also the concern that some aspects of culture can be very useful. We veer into the worst of the silliness when it is argued that white people have no business in practicing yoga for flexibility or learning Spanish for travel or work.
Authentic; Colonialism; Dominance; Essentialism; Eurocentric; Exploitation; Injustice; Knowledge(s); Minoritize; Oppression; Power (systemic); Race; Racism (systemic); Social Justice; Strategic essentialism; Theory; Western; White
Source: The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice (Routledge Handbooks in Philosophy). Taylor and Francis, pp. 358–359.
Ironically, as federal officials actively worked to destroy Indigenous cultures, anthropologists invaded Native communities to document their languages, music, dances, and ceremonies before they ‘vanished’ altogether. The hermeneutical consequences of these appropriations were massive and enduring. Indigenous peoples lost the authority to interpret their own history and culture, as well as their authority to protect themselves from further appropriation. Indigenous peoples lost physical possession of vast amounts of their cultural heritage, and they were also subjected to the imposition of alien hermeneutical schema. Indigenous peoples were foreclosed from participating in the creation of epistemic practices and excluded from the institutions where meaning is made. The interpretation of Indigenous culture shifted to the expertise of anthropologists within museums and academia, and Indigenous peoples became the objects of the epistemic practices of anthropology. Needless to say, this history is replete with instances of testimonial and hermeneutical injustice, and Indigenous peoples continue to suffer from participatory prejudice and informational prejudice as they seek to repatriate cultural objects within domestic and international forums.
The wrong of cultural appropriation is rooted in imbalances of power. Whether a particular case is most saliently understood as one of silencing, exploitation, misrepresentation, or offense, what ultimately makes particular instances of cultural appropriation wrongful, and thus what grounds objections to them, is the way in which they manifest and/or exacerbate inequality and marginalization. Call this the oppression account of cultural appropriation.
Revision date: 7/8/20