Sep 152015

I’ve always believed that Humanity improves when cultures are allowed to mix and mesh. As such, “cultural appropriation” never made much sense to me. Where it’s meshing, it’s good, and where it’s racism, it’s bad. Why are some people conflating the two? So I was pretty happy about these two articles:

To the new culture cops, everything is appropriation

Reflections on Cultural Appropriation

I got some push back.


What is Cultural Appropriation anyway? I’m still not sure it’s even a thing. I don’t view the borrowing between cultures and mixing of cultures to be bad. I think it’s actually a positive for all parties. Does it impoverish other cultures if our teens start love the hell out of soccer, and start calling it “futbol”? Or does it give us more in common, make us more able to relate to each other, and enrich all sides?

I even suspect that it acts to weaken racists. If a stodgy old man can deal with his daughter or granddaughter wearing dreadlocks, he may have to come to admit that when he frowns at the black lady at his office wearing dreads he’s doing it because he’s racist and not because there’s anything wrong with dreadlocks themselves. His white granddaughter may very well be doing good by wearing dreadlocks rather than by shunning them.

And if I may bring up Hollywood – it’s been said that American Mass Media (primarily movies, TV, and music) has been the greatest force for exporting modern liberal values. While there are lots of fundamentalist types who think this is horrendous, I for one think that the spreading of liberal ideals is a great thing. Do we want to put a stop to THAT cultural appropriation, and tell people they can’t consume our media and must remain as foreign and segregated from us as possible? Why on earth would we want that?

I was informed that cultural appropriation is when the dominant group(?) adopts something from a minority and says “When people of my group do it, it’s cool. But when people of the culture that first introduced it do it, it’s not OK.” Like doing Yoga, but discriminating against Indians when hiring, or denigrating them for talking funny. I was given this example:

This is a made up and silly example, but maybe it could help: Let’s say Polish people *really* love cabage, and no one else knew about it. It this scenario, they’ve been enjoying cabbage for centuries, it’s a big thing to them. But… They’ve been fired from jobs for bringing cabbage for lunch. They’ve been run out of town for talking about cabbage publically. They’ve been tried in court for even smelling like cabbage. For centuries they have been negatively affected because the dominant culture is anti-cabbage for no real reason (it’s really just a convenient shortcut to be anti-Polish.)

Flash forward to now. All of those negative consequences are still there, just not talked about. Polish are still fired, shunned, etc. for their cabbage activities. But, the dominant culture has figured out how awesome cabbage is. (It is!) They’re having cabbage-meetup and cabbage-fests and cabbage-cleanses. So not only have the Polish suffered for centuries, they *still are* suffering, while watching the people around them eat cabbage, get media attention for it, etc. Do you see why that would be hurtful to experience?

Yes. But I think it’s stupid as hell to reply to this by saying that white people can’t eat cabbage! Please, share my love for cabbage! You see how awesome cabbage is now, right? So stop being a fucking racist. The way you describe it, claiming “cultural appropriation” rights sounds a lot like revenge. Which, in fairness, I totally get. I feel the desire for vengeance too sometimes.

To take a less made-up example, I sometimes wish that pro-lifers were denied abortions, and creationists were denied antibiotics. But in the end, I realize that’s horrible. When a pro-lifer is raped and wants to abort, I full support her right to do so, even though I kinda in the back of my mind am thinking “You should be forced to live by the shit you tried to force on my loved ones.” Because despite my desire for vengeance, I know that’s bad.

And to extend the metaphor further, even if I did think that pro-lifers should be denied abortions, I wouldn’t say that all Christians categorically should be denied abortions, because I know that lots of Christians are very much pro-choice! Denying it to all of them is even worse that just denying it to just the ones who in a poetic justice way “should” be denied.

So no, I don’t want cabbage denied to all white people. At best I only want it to denied to those who denigrate me for loving cabbage. But the solution is to fix racism, not to make up terms like “cultural appropriation” and say anyone who loves cabbage has to be Polish or else they’re appropriating imperialist oppressors. If Cultural Appropriation is “Hey, I like what you’re doing. You’re going to suffer if you keep doing it, but I get to do it all I want,” then I want to stop the “you’re going to suffer if you keep doing it” part.

I was told:

I too would love to see a dismantling of the systems of systemic oppression, but until we’re there you should understand that you get to do something that they don’t because you’re a part of that system. Saying “in a perfect world this wouldn’t be a problem, so get over it” sounds like a bad approach. It’s not revenge to say “maybe hold off on taking our culture until after you stop punishing us for the same behavior that you’re doing.”

To which I again totally agree. How far does this extend? Am I responsible for the behavior of others, or only my own? ie: if I’ve never denigrated anyone for liking cabbage, and treat cabbage-lovers as I would anyone else, can I eat cabbage? What if I’m not Polish myself, but I was adopted by a Polish family at age 6? Can I move out of a state that has anti-Polish laws to a state that has Polish-equality laws, and eat cabbage there? Or is it better to stay in my anti-Polish state but fight for Polish-equality laws?

In reply:
I don’t have great answers, because I’m the epitome of privileged, and will never have my culture appropriated, but I encourage awareness. We can be aware of our privileges, we can listen to those that are affected, and we can try to engage with those around us.

I realize that’s the “wise” answer, but I need a useful answer, not a wise one, because I want to be able to A) eat cabbage, and B) not be viewed as a monster by Polish people. And in this case, please feel free to swap out our euphemisms for real things that may happen in my life. ie: it’s actually important to me to know if I can use the c-word in my writing.


Then we got to the icky, sticky mess at the center of all this:

if I wanted to grow my hair out and get dreadlocks, I should probably talk to a few dozen of my black/African American friends and see what they say. If I don’t have a few dozen friends of a group that I want to pull from? That should be a giant flashing warning sign. How can I believe I could be respectful without feedback from knowledgeable people?

Even if you were adopted by a black family, and grew up in a black neighborhood, and all your friends say “fuck yes, you of all people are legit allowed to do that”, you know what will happen? You’ll be accused of “tokenizing” your black friends/family, and culturally appropriating the dreadlocks. You’ll be accused by people who don’t know you or your history, but they will see you are white, and that’s all they need. They will win, and you will be a monster. That is my problem with cultural appropriation.

think about people in the following Venn diagram:

( oblivious/privileged ) (correctly offended) (incorrectly offended)
While you might never please the ones on the far right (incorrectly offended), it’s the ones in the middle (correctly offended) you’re probably really concerned with.

And the thing is… no, it’s not. I believe that the “correctly offended” people will generally be very small, because I have faith in my education and upbringing to keep me from doing most things that are horribly offensive. I know that I will sometimes be offensive out of ignorance, and I further have faith that those who are correctly offended will help me to see when I’m ignorant and help me to overcome this. I’ll grow, I’ll apologize, and things will be ok.

No, the group I’m actually worried about is the “incorrectly offended” ones, because they can be far, far larger. And they are the ones who don’t care about you, your background, or your apologies. They are the ones who are willing to go to whatever measures they can to try to destroy someone socially. They are the ones who use “cultural appropriation” as a weapon. They are the reason I think it is by-and-large a BS claim, and people should stick to “You are being racist” rather than vague claims about my social background and the circumstances of power structures in my (local?) area.

  13 Responses to “What even is Cultural Appropriation?”

  1. Lots to agree with here, but I disagree with your interlocutor that dominant culture can’t be appropriated. Consider…
    Coolio: See You When You Get There, and
    Sweetbox: ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’ – with bonus points for ripping off No Woman No Cry.

    You could argue that classical music isn’t the dominant culture, which is an argument I can accept, but I can’t see them being able to make within their view of the world.

  2. I also have trouble understanding cultural appropriation, but I think I have two potentially useful comments anyway:

    First, you say that you’re more worried about the incorrectly offended than the correctly offended. I think this misses the point: you “should” (which is of course hard to define) be most concerned about not offending the correctly offended, instead of defending yourself from the relatively toothless attacks of the incorrectly offended. This is especially the case because it is impossible or extremely difficult to appease the incorrectly offended, but you can avoid the correctly offended.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree with this point (who gets to define what offense is “correct”), but I think I agree with the main point that in this kind of situation you should be mostly worried about not hurting the people who are vulnerable to your ability to hurt them.

    Second, I think I have a potential useful analogy for cultural appropriation. It doesn’t cover the points raised in this post much, but it covers other issues. Sometimes, somebody can borrow aspects of a culture and use them insultingly. This can especially be the case for symbols. A comic I read, not really about cultural appropriation, had a useful visual: “Other countries should turn the 4th of July into a drinking holiday, like we’ve done with St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo. Picture it! Foreigners, stumbling around in Uncle Sam hats and fake beards, drinking bourbon and Bud Light.”. As the comic pointed out, this is rather insulting; presumably, it is more insulting when coupled with the power to casually harm the people you’re doing it to. I am not particularly patriotic, but the visual can still help me get some idea what cultural appropriation might be about.

    • “Sometimes, somebody can borrow aspects of a culture and use them insultingly.”

      You’ve hit on something important here. It explains why I dislike the examples I gave, but love “What’s Opera Doc?”

    • As an American I find that idea hilarious and would absolutely support other countries in doing it. I don’t think offense should even be a consideration in the first place as no actual harm results (except for that inflicted by that individual on themselves- offense is never given, it is only taken), and there will always be people there to abuse you if you cow to them.

      • Offense can most certainly be given. If I, in full knowledge of modern culture and linguistics, started (extreme example deliberate) using the n-word in general, then I would be giving offense. I would be doing something that I knew would cause people great emotional harm, and almost certainly that emotional harm would be the intended goal.

        Saying that offense is harm that somebody does to themselves is like saying that sleep deprivation is harm that somebody does to themselves. It might or might not be true in the majority of cases, but if you go around playing loud music in an apartment building at 3 AM then you are still causing the harm of sleep deprivation to other people.

        On the object level issue, I would also not be offended by making Fourth of July an international holiday as described, but I found it useful as an illustration. If you didn’t find the illustration useful, see if you can replace it with some other prominent symbols you associate with deep meaning for your in-group (even if not for you personally).

    • I am with the other responders that I feel the 4th of July example would be awesome. :)

      But to get to your actual point – I don’t think that’s Cultural Appropriation, that just Being An Asshole (and possibly Racist).

      Blackface, for example, isn’t Cultural Appropriation. It’s racism, and insult. That’s part of my beef with “cultural appropriation”. Where it’s actually a bad thing, it is more accurately called racism, and should be treated as such. In the cases that it isn’t insulting or racist and doesn’t hurt anyone… why is it being treated as a bad thing? In those cases it’s cultural mixing, and it’s good.

  3. I would say that by saying ” I’ll grow, I’ll apologize, and things will be ok.” you are in a way showing that it is reasonable people (sorry but correctly offended is such a weird term I don’t want to use it) who sway you most and this could be worded as meaning “it’s the ones in the middle (correctly offended) you’re probably really concerned with.” Just a thought.
    Even though I have a white penis I do think that to some small extent I can understand this cultural appropriation thing. When I was younger playing video games, reading fantasy books (or any books for that matter) and playing warhammer fantasy, and all of these activities marked me as an outcast. At least in my corner of the world these activities were to be hidden as much as possible from all of the “normal people” if you didn’t want to be a social outcast.
    I read the Game of Thrones books as they came out. Now there is a bloody TV show and everyone thinks fantasy is cool and reads it and watches it and changes it. I find the TV show abysmal. Everywhere I look I see people get to enjoy and mangle what I love without having to do any of the suffering.
    What really grinds my gears though is the changes to what I like to appeal to a wider audience. Being shunned in highschool for my reading habits only to see a series I really enjoyed get turned into trashy TV show which everyone but me seems to enjoy.
    All of that aside I think in the long run it is better if things I like doing are normalised to the population at large. Better that everyone gets to enjoy Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and *shudders* even Twilight… maybe, without the shame and the guilt and the teasing etc. Nothing can fix the mental anguish I felt being teased as a young boy, I can only hope that current day analogues of myself suffer less.

    • > Nothing can fix the mental anguish I felt being teased as a young boy, I can only hope that current day analogues of myself suffer less.

      <3 I agree completely. And yes, that was my childhood too.

  4. “What is Cultural Appropriation anyway?”

    You’re asking the wrong question. The answer to that question is very straight forward. Its reverse racism. Doesn’t get you anywhere.

    The right question is, “who is pushing it?” When you answer that question, many things become very clear indeed. I’d encourage you to examine the major proponents of this theory and consider their aims.

    • Reverse racism is simple racism. Discrimination on the basis of some arbitrary characteristic is what we should care about fighting against, but by setting the system up in the opposite direction it is no better than the one we had before. In the attempt to see who has more ‘power’ you’ll end up with what is known as the ‘Oppression Olympics’ with people outdoing each other to seem to have the least power, but in doing so game the system to have the most. Those with the most power and privilege are the ones you can’t even question because structures have developed to keep it. Favoring equality of outcome destroys equality of opportunity.

      • “Favoring equality of outcome destroys equality of opportunity.”


        I will add, it would be bad enough if the outcomes really were equal. But they still aren’t, despite the overt racism inherent in all sorts of “progressive” policies.

        The whole gender thing being shouted in science fiction these days is another arm of the same octopus that wields the “cultural appropriation” sword.

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