The Murky Complexities of Cultural Appropriation

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A recent article in The New York Times, “Does the Meaning of a Song Change Depending on Who Wrote It?,” by Esau McCaulley, an assistant professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College, addresses an issue that has become extraordinarily controversial: cultural appropriation.

McCaulley “was startled to discover that ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ the spiritual I’d loved as a child was not written by an African American during slavery as I’d assumed, but by a white man.”

The spiritual’s composer and lyricist, Robert MacGimsey, was, in McCaulley’s words, “a product of his time and someone who was attempting to transcend it.” At times, a plantation owner who referred “to African American plantation workers using racist terms and tropes indicative of the era,” and who contributed to Disney’s now disavowed Uncle Remus–inspired Song of the South, he also played a role in the publication of the landmark account of Gullah religious practices, musical traditions and social customs, Lydia Parrish’s classic Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands.

McCaulley’s opinion piece tries to reconcile his love for the spiritual and his recognition that it was the product of cultural appropriation by arguing that whatever genius the spiritual conveys was itself the outgrowth of the experiences and expressions of the formerly enslaved believers who inspired its words and melody. I found the essay touching, but thought it evaded the question posed by its title: To what extent should works of art be judged by their creators?

Many of today’s most fraught artistic controversies—such as those that involve Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Sam Durant’s Scaffold, and George Gershwin and Dorothy and DuBose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess—and those raging with popular culture, involving hoop earrings, cornrows, twerking and Selena Gomez’s bindi, involve cultural appropriation: the taking another culture’s intellectual property, knowledge and expressions without permission.

Within this country, many white composers, lyricists, artists, authors, composers, fashion designers, filmmakers, lyricists and sculptors have borrowed extensively from Black and other marginalized cultural traditions. Often, in the process, these individuals distorted, stereotyped and, of course, profited from those appropriations.

As one reader, five years earlier, commented in response to an earlier defense of cultural appropriation by the Indian-born British writer, broadcaster, neurobiologist and historian of science Kenan Malik:

“The artistic playing field is not and has never been, level and thus the exchange of ideas is dominated by a very real inequality of power. While European stories, art, music and dance has been elevated, monetized and allowed to flourish for thousands of years, artistic expression by POCs has historically been marginalized and looked down upon, only to find success when told through European translation or for the benefit of a European promoters. Even those POCs who have broken through have endured horrific stories of theft of wages, royalties and credit. So to call it an ‘exchange’ actually erases documented history and is a convenient way to ignore the sins of the past (and in many cases, of the present). Once the playing field is level and all artists across all art forms are regarded only by their talent and not their racial reality, then we can talk ‘exchange’. But until then, let POCs have a moment to express their cultural history, instead of (once again) pushing them aside and allowing European culture to dominate the field.”

Cultural appropriation is a topic much in the news. Is James Cameron’s new Avatar movie guilty? How about K-pop? What about Hailey Bieber, who has been “called out for appropriating a makeup technique favored by Latinas and Black and brown women since the ’90s”?

Read almost any popular discussion of cultural appropriation and you’ll quickly discover that opinions tend to fall into one of two camps: those who argue that great art often involves the creative expropriation of the work of others and that any restrictions on borrowings would stifle artistic expression and those who maintain that such borrowings really amount to unacknowledged theft.

On one side, we have the claim that “All art is appropriation of some kind. Shakespeare wasn’t Italian, but he wrote Romeo and Juliet. When African American designer Ann Lowe designed Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress she probably looked to Paris. Picasso looked to African art.” Isn’t much of the richness of American popular culture the product of cultural intermixture?

On the other side is the argument that cultural appropriation is invariably exploitative and disrespectful. As one comment put it, “Appropriation is an extension of colonialism that continues to exist … The religious objects of other cultures are not home decorating objects—they belong with the tribes or groups who venerate them. Artists of the dominant culture cannot pretend to know the experiences of others and then ‘reimagine’ them.”

Should we, as academics, throw up our hands and say that there is some truth to these two opposing claims? Or should we say, as professors tend to do, that “it depends”—for example, on whether the appropriation is acknowledged and treated respectfully and does not result in profit? Or might we strive to reframe this cultural conversation and strive to transcend dichotomous thinking and, if so, how?

1. Recognize that cultural appropriation can take many different forms. Richard A. Rogers, a professor of communication at Northern Arizona University and an authority on intercultural communication, has argued that we need to distinguish between various forms of cultural appropriation. These include:

  • Bricolage: The piecemeal construction or creation of cultural elements out of a variety of sources.
  • Commodification: The exploitation of the cultural symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals or technologies of marginalized or colonized cultures.
  • Cultural resistance: The adaptation and manipulation of elements of the dominant culture by subordinated groups as tools of resistance.
  • Hybridity: A concept that has arisen out of a critique of cultural essentialism, hybridity describes the process through which cultural interactions, within contexts of power, hierarchy and domination, produce new cultural customs and practices
  • Incorporation: The intercultural borrowing and modification of cultural elements.
  • Syncretism: The intentional assimilation, adaption and combination of cultural elements to serve a particular purpose or to create new practices, customs, ideas and forms of expression.
  • Transculturation: The process through which peoples in colonial settings alter their cultural customs, practices and identities.

In Rogers’s view, it’s important to evaluate cultural appropriations in terms of intentionality, conscious awareness, context, purpose, consequences and the adapter’s sense of privilege and entitlement.

2. Realize that the current debates over cultural appropriation are not simply about cultural exchange—they’re about power, privilege, entitlement and cultural dominance and respect. Politics, we’re told, is war by other means, and the controversies that swirl around cultural appropriation are thinly veiled ways to discuss issues regarding race, equity, cultural identity and social justice in a context in which identities have grown more fluid even as racial, class and other disparities remain deeply entrenched. This country has long had trouble talking about such social divides openly and honestly. Cultural appropriation is now serving as a venue for discussing persistent inequalities and laying bare how power and hierarchy have functioned within a society that celebrates its openness and rags-to-riches mobility.

3. Discussions of cultural appropriation can contribute to greater self-consciousness and cross-cultural awareness. In a 2015 Atlantic article, “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation,” the freelance journalist Jenni Avins wages war against “the cultural-appropriation police, who jealously track who ‘owns’ what and instantly jump on transgressors.” The author calls protests against cultural appropriation “naïve, paternalistic and counterproductive” and considers the “exchange of ideas, styles and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.”

Yet the article also acknowledges that certain forms of cultural appropriation are always wrong. For example, when it mocks a group of people, reinforces stereotypes, treats sacred objects as art or accessories, or fails to give appropriate credit. The piece also recognizes that claims of cultural appreciation do not erase the reality of cultural appropriation, disrespect and exploitation.

4. What happens within the academy no longer stays within the academy. In a fascinating essay entitled “The Takeover,” Russell Jacoby, the historian and cultural critic who coined the term “public intellectual,” discusses how academic concepts like intersectionality jumped from colleges and universities into the culture at large. Some of his language is, I fear, overwrought and a bit off-putting: e.g., “Self-righteous professors have spawned self-righteous students and unleashed them into the public square.”

But Jacoby’s larger point—that ideas that used to remain within the academy’s ivory tower now regularly inform public discourse—is essential to any serious understanding the how public debates now take place and why conservatives culture warriors issue such impassioned attacks against critical race theory and upon women’s, gender and sexuality programs.

Jacoby’s politics are difficult to pin down, but I think it’s fair to say that his primary aim is to understand why today’s “woke” warriors have adopted a language (of white privilege, gender fluidity, group safety, birthing people and more) with little appeal to the uninitiated, the very groups that the Depression-era Old Left and the 1960s New Left sought, each in their own ways, to reach and mobilize.

Blendings, borrowings, fusions, intermixtures, fusions and cultural impositions have, historically, played a big role in cultural transformation. Indeed, much of what we consider progress has been the product of cultural appropriation. In today’s globalized and multicultural societies, inter-cultural interaction is a stimulus to new ideas and cultural creations. Discovering worlds beyond our own provinciality is one of modern life’s greatest pleasures.

But cultural appropriation remains problematic since we do not inhabit a world in which groups have equal access to the instruments of culture. Several years ago, Connie Wang, the host of the documentary series Style Out There, argued that the adjudication of claims of cultural appropriation in fashion requires a “delicate calculus, more holistic than binary.” Awareness of the concept of cultural appropriation “can help us see things that we would have otherwise missed.”

Let’s move beyond the simple dualism that pits freedom of express and artistic license against cultural gatekeeping and boundary policing, embrace complexity and nuance and recognize that cultural appropriation can be a creative act and a disrespectful vehicle for exploitation.

Isn’t one of the primary purposes of a college education to open our eyes to the world’s intricacy and confront tough truths that lie in front of our face?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.​

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