Saturday, February 25, 2012

Link of Great Interest: What Is Cultural Appropriation?

A year or two ago, ardhra added her two-cents to a conversation I was having on Tumblr about cultural appropriation, which I've never forgotten, "cultural appropriation involves power." Since then, I've fumbled around trying to explain and extrapolate on this. 

Now she's gone and explained, quite concisely, I think, the general way cultural appropriation works, in what is very straightforward language that if you can't figure out what a word means, you can Google it. 

Some quotes:
The problem isn’t that cultures intermingle, it’s the terms on which they do so and the part that plays in the power relations between cultures. The problem isn’t “taking” or “borrowing”, the problem is racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The problem is how elements of culture get taken up in disempowering, unequal ways that deny oppressed people autonomy and dignity. Cultural appropriation only occurs in the context of the domination of one society over another, otherwise known as imperialism. Cultural appropriation is an act of domination, which is distinct from ‘borrowing’, syncretism, hybrid cultures, the cultures of assimilated/integrated populations, and the reappropriation of dominant cultures by oppressed peoples.
What’s being appropriated in *cultural appropriation* isn’t the things themselves — the images, stories, artefacts, themes, etc. — it’s the capacity of people of oppressed groups to determine the meaning, scope, usage, and future of those things. Cultural appropriation involves taking over peoples’ control over representations of themselves. Cultural appropriation is an attack on cultural autonomy and self-determination, backed up by historically constructed domination.
Anything that depoliticises the definition of cultural appropriation as being about cultural “borrowing” erases the reality of how cultural appropriation has come into being and operated. It’s the “colourblind,” i.e. race-aversive and power-aversive, version, that sanitises the history of cultural appropriation. 
What white people always erase is that cultural appropriation has historically been accompanied, and enabled, by violence. From weavers’ fingers to genocidal rape, the violence built into cultural appropriation is undeniable.

This is going into the 101 page, but I wanted to make sure ya'll who have me on your feeds got a chance to read this excellent essay, rather than sneak it by you.  Seriously, go read the whole thing. Twice.


  1. I generally disagree with these sorts of conceptualization of cultural appropriation. In part because I enjoy encountering and learning about other cultures, and in part because they bite their own critique. The anti-white language that transfuses the piece ignores the full scope of the white hegemonic capitalist patriarchy that bell hooks writes about. It also ignores the fact that oppression isn't a feature limited european modernity, and can be carried independently of any experience with colonialism. Rather then building coalitions of liberation around shared interest and building realization of the realities of multicultural identities it encourages balkanization.

    Poor whites, white women, and white queers (which I use in the reclaimed sense to mean LGBTQO cultures, IE queer theory) are all equal victims of cultural appropriation, just as people of color also participate in colonization and violently appropriate others cultures. If you think it's a problem then you should be opposed to the creation of a hegemonic culture devoid of meaning regardless of the racial source of that force. The problem isn't colonization, as used, its power distribution as part of the human condition.

    If you're going to define cultural appropriation as a critical problem it doesn't make sense to discourage people from having authentic interactions, or from coming to understand a contextualized objects significance across cultures. It would make more sense to articulate appropriation in its most exploitative forms, which destroys the historical confection between culture and it's originators. In that way we can understand that all people are victims of cultural appropriation. Such a view focuses on the actual instances of exploitation as points of activism, as opposed to quibbling whether its ok for a white guy to rap.

    Ultimately, I think Spivak is right that love must be part of the demonstrative act. Empathy, or the projection of self onto another is ultimately a foundation of that emotion. Probably the best way to humanize and encourage it to engage in cultural exchanges, which allow us to experience existence outside of ourselves. Art stimulate the imagination which allows us to engage in imagining the self in the other. So, I would argue that the best way to overcome the problems of modernity and post-colonialism is not, the criticism of cultural exchange as embodied in the rhetoric of the article, but rather one of active cultural engagement and exchange.

    New ways of knowing don't come from the void. They are a remixes of previous systems and ideas. If I was limited to country western and classical music, my capacity to come to greater more humane understanding of the world would be diminished. I don't think scholars and critics should attack cultural exchanges, but instead we should be rebuilding meaning into those interactions and exchanges. A remix of commercialization, appropriation, imagination, reclamation, liberation, and love.

    1. This comment is such a mess that I'm just going to tackle one paragraph as a representative example.

      "If you're going to define cultural appropriation as a critical problem it doesn't make sense to discourage people from having authentic interactions"

      That doesn't follow. If you think that what people call cultural appropriation is actually an authentic interaction, then it isn't (to you) a critical problem. People who think it is a critical problem would not think that it is an authentic interaction, and would want to encourage other interactions instead. You see?

      "or from coming to understand a contextualized objects significance across cultures."

      Now you're just throwing words around. An object is no longer contextualized if it's removed from its context. Using it across cultures is in fact de-contextualising it.

      "It would make more sense to articulate appropriation in its most exploitative forms,"

      which you get to define? what would you consider "most exploitative"?

      "which destroys the historical confection between culture and it's originators."

      I'm going to assume you meant to say "connection", in which case - why would you want to do that, exactly? You prefer culture to be entirely dislocated from the people who originated it, entirely for your own purposes. This is exactly what is wrong with cultural appropriation, as I understand it.

      If you actually meant "confection", I'm totally lost here.

      "In that way we can understand that all people are victims of cultural appropriation."

      Say what now?

      If all people are victims, then who is the oppressor? Could it be the person trying to remove culture from its original context, perhaps? And who is doing that, exactly?

      (I don't expect you to answer these questions, I already know the answer.)

      "Such a view focuses on the actual instances of exploitation as points of activism, as opposed to quibbling whether its ok for a white guy to rap. "

      Who decides what are actual instances of appropriation vs. quibbling? Might that be you, perchance? Why are you qualified to determine that, versus the people of the culture that is being appropriated?

      Ugh, this is all so much embarassing babbling from another clueless white person whose whole reasoning boils down to: "BUT I LIKEEEE ITTTT!!!"

      Take your thesarus and go home.

    2. @zfraizer/Bubbles: So many words... here let me copy edit, losing none of your position but taking far fewer words to express them:

      "I don't like thinking about cultural appropriation this way because I don't want to question, let alone stop benefiting from, the cultural appropriation my priilege affords me. Instead I want to pretend that all cases of cultural exchange are created equal without regard to who had power and who got hurt, to who has power today and who gets hurt. I think we should examine cultural appropriation only in the vaguest, broadest terms so that we can safely ignore the implications of specific cases and asking who's benefiting at whose expense because I know full well I'm the one benefiting. Instead of me copping to it, which would be personally inconvenient and challenging of my privilege, how about all the people who have been hurt historically and currently turn cultural appropriation into a positive, because that would benefit me even more?"

      This is not a position of genuine ignorance that invites education, even if it was Jha's job to educate you. This is hiding behind overintellectualization and name-checks to apply old and established methods of privilege assertion to preserve the status quo where white people do what we want and the people we do it to are tasked with pretending it's something smurfy.

      Um, no.

    3. "Anti-white?" Where are you getting that? There is nothing anti-white there. There is anti-colonialism, anti-cultural appropriation, anti-structural violence, but nothing anti-white. It is a fact that whites, above and beyond any others, are the perpetrators of colonialism, cultural appropriation, and structural violence. It is not anti-white for someone to point out this fact.

      "Poor whites, white women, and white queers (which I use in the reclaimed sense to mean LGBTQO cultures, IE queer theory) are all equal victims of cultural appropriation...

      HAHAHAHAHAno. I am, to look at me, all of those things and no. First, while marginalization and discrimination may be my lot for being poor, queer, and female, there is not a single aspect of these in which cultural appropriation can occur. I'm white. I am a member of the dominate culture. My blue jeans are not sacred and they are not a distinct part of my cultural identity the way a headdress or bindhi would be. I lose nothing by anyone, ever, wearing jeans. There is basically nothing anyone can do that will affect my cultural identity by them using it themselves because cultural appropriation takes power and I am a member of the dominate culture. Second, if you are not GBLTQ yourself, you had best not use 'queer' again.

      "...all people are victims of cultural appropriation."

      No. That is just not true. Do you understand what the words 'cultural appropriation' mean? Please explain what you think that phrase means. There are some very specific ethnic groups that do experience cultural appropriation, despite being 'white,' such as the Sámi; this is because they are not allowed to participate in the dominate white culture. Again, we come to power at the root of cultural appropriation. If a woman of color decided to go as a redneck for Halloween, dressed in jeans and a trucker hat, no one is going to form ideas about my 'culture' based on her costume; the same is not true if a white woman decides to dress as an ~Indian Princess~ and decorate herself in bindi. Everyone already knows what the dominate culture is like and trucker hats do not have the cultural significance that bindhi does. Power matters.

      There is so much wrong with your post, but those, I can't coming back to and thinking, "REALLY?!"

    4. Oh, hi there. I heard I had a wayward cousin in need of collecting.

      Let me try and sort out the pile of shit I just read. Are you actually trying to make an argument that white people have been oppressed on any level even remotely approaching what people of color have experienced? Because if that is the case, I am going to need you to get in the car so we can take a drive out to the stadium where you can then proceed to take all the goddamn seats.

      Let me make this nice and simple for you: We, as white people, do not get to tell people of color what they should and shouldn't do when it comes to preserving their cultures and traditions. We do not get to tell them how they should feel or how they should define cultural appropriation or what "makes sense". The lives and cultures of people of color have been systemically, violently ripped away from them - many times under the rule of law.

      Let me try to give you a concrete example. Do you know where your ancestors are from? I do. Italy (mostly). One half from the north, the other from the south. I know what languages they spoke - hell, I can even throw around some slang if you want me to. I know names, dates, cities, stories. You know who can't tell you any of this? One of my best friends. He knows he is Black, but has no idea from which country his ancestors were stolen. Slavery and mass genocide have a way of severing family ties. He also knows he is Native American, but he has no idea which Nation. His grandmother (perhaps great-grandmother? I forget...) was sent to an "Indian School" where she was so thoroughly traumatized and had fear and shame so completely ingrained in every fiber of her being, that she wouldn't even speak the name of her Nation. So, when he says to me, please don't do this, it is taking away something very special and very sacred from what little I have of my past, I am not going to sit there and have the fucking audacity to tell him that "love needs to be part of the demonstrative act if he ever wants to overcome". Because, in reality, he is never going to overcome that loss no matter how much he "engages and exchanges".

      New ways of knowing don't come from the void. They are a remixes of previous systems and ideas...I don't think scholars and critics should attack cultural exchanges, but instead we should be rebuilding meaning into those interactions and exchanges. A remix of commercialization, appropriation, imagination, reclamation, liberation, and love.

      Also, the fuck is this? I'm just going to skip the part about music (because, really, what the fuck, man) and go straight to the part where you start waxing philosophic about "rebuilding meaning". How do you propose that should be accomplished when meaning is continually being eroded due to appropriation? You can't build if you don't have a foundation. And we, as white people, can't provide that foundation because it's not our culture.

    5. Okay, as a poor, queer FAAB genderqueer, Rromani I'm gonna say this once:
      No one has appropriated anything from poor white people.
      No one has appropriated anything from white women.
      No one has appropriated anything from the white queer community.
      And furthermore, if you do think this, I have no respect for you, and I am going to sit here laughing at you.
      Please, just stop. I would like to say that you're coming across as rather ignorant, that your privilege is showing, and you need to sit down, shut the fuck up, and listen.
      You want to talk about cultural appropriation? I don't know where my ancestors are from, because we're violently expelled from wherever we try and settle. I don't know shit about my ancestry, other than what was given to me through records of adoption. I can't even find anything other than anecdotal information, because my fucking ancestors are notoriously close lipped BECAUSE OF THE VIOLENCE AGAINST THEM. I am completely disconnected from my history.
      And I see white girls, dressing up in hippie clothing and calling it "gypsy", saying "I want to be a gypsy, live like a gypsy and live in caravans and move around freely", and gypsy is a fucking racial slur. Because my people are so ignored. Because my people are swept to the back of the history books, a fucking footnote. They're looked at as free and nature-loving, when in reality the life of the Rroma is hard fought, and often violent.
      THAT is cultural fucking appropriation. To have your ancestors way of life viewed as something it's not, to have people ask "Oh, read my fortune" because we're a fucking caricature. To have your history ignored, and to be fetishized, THAT is cultural appropriation.
      So just sit the fuck down and shut up, PLEASE! Because honestly, I'm sick of fucking white people saying "It's cultural enrichment if you share!" Why should we share? We had our identities ripped from us, taken against our will. You don't fucking deserve to share it, because you STILL steal the heritage of PoC, use it in ways that pervert the meaning, like with warbonnets. With the Rroma way of life. With Black culture. With fucking everything.
      Be quiet, LISTEN TO WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING, and then maybe people would be willing to share their culture willingly, IF THEY CHOOSE TO. Until then, you're sounding like a spoiled child, saying "It's not FAIR!"

  2. Gentlepeople, it is open season. White people, come get your cousin.

  3. zfrazier: What? You're mixing up a ton of different ideas in a really offensive way here. You cannot talk about cultural appropriation without talking about colonialism, and you cannot talk about colonialism without talking about race. The history of colonialism and the many many REAL LIFE damages it has caused over the centuries is the history of white supremacy, the history of whiteness taking resources and lives, enslaving, raping, and otherwise perpetrating violence against native people. You cannot equate other dynamics of oppression to that one, and it's incredibly offensive of you to try to do so. (I say that as a poor white queer woman, by the way.) Cultural borrowing & mixing is not the same as cultural appropriation, and if you had actually read the post in question in detail you would understand that. I'd encourage you to return to the post, read it, sit with it, and think about specific histories, power dynamics and contexts before you try to falsely equate dynamics that are related but most definitely not the same again.

  4. I've seen those same arguments used to criticize people who are actually doing things to make the world a better place, or who care about creating spaces for libration. So, I will conceded that I overreacted a bit. I just wanted to offer an opinion favor of complexity, in what I thought was a safe space.

    I'm not negating anything about the evils of colonialism. I buy the critique to a large extent, I just have problems with the flavor and with some of the more subtle claims of the article referenced, particularly along the lines of cultural exchanges and the role that they play. I think you can concede the evil of certain systems of power, and have a problem with the method or tone of criticism. Just as you can concede that some of my points are valid and still have a problem with the overall tone of it, or perhaps the methodology.

    I'll admit to being a bit more sloppy that I would have liked. Here I plead forgiveness, my books are all on the other side of the continent. All I'm really left with a set of arguments and memories bouncing around in my head from my undergrad days when I had a more extensive vocabulary to express myself on these topics. So I apologize for any misreading of what I had hoped to be a nuanced argument urging caution when constructing systems of criticism around cultural consumption. Clearly it failed. My alternative isn't to ignore the framework or the criticism, it's to apply it better.

    I'm open to a reasoned response to my points, rather being accused of ignoring the evils of colonialism, or having essentially open season declared on me. It's the internet, we don't know each other, we only have ideas (even less-than-perfectly formed ones like mine) to interact with. I'm open minded and don't mind learning from my errors. If you could articulate how I've dangerously or offensively mixed theories at different points, I would certainly enjoy learning where I've misapplied a particular notion.

    1. Bubbles, this is a safe space for people of colour.

      I and my fellow POC do not only interact with the idea of racism. My psychology and my upbringing, my history and my body did not only interact with the idea of imperialism but is a living remnant of its legacy. So no, WE DO NOT ONLY HAVE IDEAS IN THIS SPACE.

      You took perfectly valid points and twisted them to suit your damned white-centric perspective calling for empathy for a population that has done nothing to deserve it, and you continue to ignore how you are essentially asking to be educated, when there is a goddamn READ BEFORE ENGAGING tab up top, filled with articles on these very issues for you to educate yourself with. I mean, seriously, how fucking dare you invoke bell hooks by demanding that her idea of empathy should be used to sympathize with members of the dominant hegemony, when she was addressing people like YOU to empathize with positions like that one you have problems with.

      You're right; I don't know you from Adam, therefore your biggest mistake, next to barging in with your ill-educated twisting of POC words, is assuming that I have an obligation to educate you. Which I do not.

      Again, there is a link up top called "READ THESE BEFORE ENGAGING" which you really ought to have done before fapping your damn self over this space.

      And THAT is why I have declared open season on you. I'm not interested in reasoning with such arrogance that a white-centric position such as yours could be valid in a POC-centric space. And it would take too long since I would have to debunk EVERY SENTENCE with a whole paragraph and I ought to get paid for that shit these days.

      Typically, though, you're not getting even half as roasted as you ought to be.

  5. zfrazier/Bubbles: Is there any substance to your posts beyond "but what about the WHITE PEOPLEZ!!! Consider the feelings of whiteys too! You anti-white propagandists" testeria? Is there anything you want to say but word vomit and an attempt to invoke "safe space" without understanding what safe space means--and what it doesn't mean is "a honky may shit all over a POC-centric discussion without being called out and torn a new one"? In the context of race, you do not need a safe space. That you think you ought to be given one, as a white person discussing racial concerns, is manipulative, intellectually dishonest, and appropriative.

    When you start making points other than tired concern-trolling regurgitations, you may find people more willing to give you a chance and engage with you reasonably. Otherwise, one is inclined to treat you simply as a five-year-old trying to break into a discussion on quantum physics between adults. Until you unpack your own whiteness, that's about the only level of discourse you can manage.

  6. True fact - I've been on the verge of apologizing for some of my own comments recently, as I've been chiming in and nodding my head in what I'm realizing is not entirely an appropriate manner - any 'exhaustion' that I experience as a privileged person dealing with racism dealt out by my fellow privileged people can be dealt with simply by shutting up, or 'leaving the room' as Jane Elliot demonstrates in "The Angry Eye". Privilege gives me that choice, and it's not the same thing at all that POC (who do not have that choice) face. I'm sorry for having unthinkingly demonstrated the kind of well-meaning bullshit you get to put up with.

    Then I read this.


    Ardhra's article is not about cultural exchange per se, it's about cultural appropriation. There are (as pointed out repeatedly in the original article) many areas in which the difference is subtle, and others in which the imbalanced power dynamic is really bleeding obvious. Getting upset because some examples of cultural exchange are not, by definition, appropriation is a complete misreading of the article - and someone who can regurgitate junior-level social theory should certainly have the reading comprehension necessary to get that.

    They should also probably take a look at the links Jha has kindly provided at the top of the blog space - specifically the "Read These Before Engaging" one...

    Just sayin', cuz...

  7. Bubbles/zfrazier, here is why you aren't being taken seriously or being handed the education you think you are owed.

    "anti-white language"

    exactly which part of the quoted sections contains this language? What part about any of that is anti-white? If you're gonna make ridiculous, faux-intellectual claims, back that shit up, bb. You don't need a ton of books, most of us manage to use google just fine.

    "Poor whites, white women, and white queers (which I use in the reclaimed sense to mean LGBTQO cultures, IE queer theory) are all equal victims of cultural appropriation, just as people of color also participate in colonization and violently appropriate others cultures."

    First of all, white is not a culture, it is a structure used to confer privilege, second, you better be queer or else you have NO space to be using that term in a reclamatory sense, and third, examples or GTFO. I'm also quite curious to see examples of how there is a specific white poor or white queer culture that also doesn't pull on structures of colonialism and racism. Go ahead, I'll wait.

    Finally, you want Jha to teach you? Pay up. You don't get an education because you demand one, and if you want valuable time to be taken to stop everything and explain this shit to you, you compensate your teachers. Otherwise you are just walking into this space, throwing around some seemingly intellectual crap to justify remaining ignorant and then demanding that you be handed something that you have not earned.

    Its really not hard to see the difference between cultural sharing/cross-acculturation and taking things not intended for outsiders and using them in disrespectful ways that don't take into account their actual meanings while the people they belong to are punished for using those same things.

    Its not about you "buying" the argument. Its about whether you can pull your head out of your ass, take a seat and fucking listen.