Appropriation or Appreciation: The Dissonance between Cultural Boundaries and Cultural Blending

By: Rebekah Joab

What place does cultural appropriation have in what we like to think of as a “melting-pot” society?

Maisha Z. Johnson explains the basic idea of cultural appropriation as someone adopting aspects of a culture that is not their own [1]. Within that adoption, however, is a power dynamic “in which a member of a dominant culture takes elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.” [2]

In different terms, people of the dominant culture – in the US this often means white people – test out different aspects of cultures which they have historically overpowered, and choose which aspects they like or don’t like, which look good or don’t look good, etc., and adopt them as their own. In her article, Johnson gives nine reasons why cultural appropriation is so problematic. Among the reasons are the trivialization of historical oppression; allowing people to appreciate the culture while remaining prejudiced toward the people; making something “cool” for white people, but too “ethnic” for people of color; it allows some people to be rewarded for things the creator never got credit for; and it prioritizes the feelings of privileged people over justice for marginalized people [3].

Aspects of culture that can be appropriated are non-exhaustive. It can be music, hairstyle, clothing, social gatherings, dance, art forms, and so on. Some forms of appropriation as a negative power display by a dominant culture are easy for me to get behind. For example, take the use of Native American caricatures as team mascots. The use of a Native American as the Redskins mascot or the Seminoles mascot is offensive in every way Johnson identifies [4]. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect to me is the way these mascots allow all people in the dominant culture of the US – and in this instance the dominant culture includes all people of the US who are not Native – to celebrate the culture of Natives while remaining prejudiced against the people. This, to me, exemplifies the adversity that results when cultural appropriation converges with the ignorant notion that society is colorblind. As long as the dominant culture adopts aspects of oppressed cultures into their own – when it is convenient and cool – they can espouse the idea that racism does not exist, and America is all accepting of culture and difference.

Maybe a less extreme example of appropriation is twerking – we all love it and we all think we can do it best. The cultural appropriation debate as it relates to twerking and top 40 pop-songs, is a bit more difficult for me to get behind. Notwithstanding the ways in which these issues are related to historical and pervasive forms of racism and inequality, the twerk debate highlights the danger of cultural appropriation in that it can create a cultural dichotomy. Meaning, that twerking is a black dance that white people, and arguably anyone else who isn’t black, shouldn’t do – or at least should not do without acknowledging that the dance move is stolen, and I’m not sure how to simultaneously twerk and let people know, “this isn’t my move, I am respectfully borrowing.” This is where the dichotomy begins to occur and soon as we say, that is an Asian thing (which itself is racist statement), so unless you’re Asian, don’t do it. Or that is an Indian thing so unless you’re Indian, don’t do it.

As someone who is biracial, this is hard for me to get behind because for me, there is no saying that that is a black thing, that is a white thing, so I can or cannot do something. With parents who took from both of their individual backgrounds, cultures, and experiences to create a blended upbringing for my sisters and me, I see the beauty in being raised in an environment where we did not separate based on black things and white things.

Trying to reconcile my individual perspective of cultural blending as positive, and my social understanding of cultural appropriation as problematic and reproducing of inequality, I find the problem is that we live in an extremely racist society. If we had a respect for people and cultures that were different, we could borrow and blend without taking. Although, the key to appreciating difference is realizing that difference is not a dynamic of better or worse, but is one of equal and interesting. On the flip side, because racism still exists, there is a need to point out the fact that cultural appropriation is an illustration of larger practices of cultural dominance.

And so, I am left with my question unanswered: what place does cultural appropriation have? As long as racism exists, appropriation is adverse and disrespectful. However, as long as we continue to create dichotomies by saying what belongs specifically to every race or culture, we will never see each as different but the same.

[1] Maisha Z. Johnson, What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm, Everyday Feminism (June 14, 2015), http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/06/cultural-appropriation-wrong/

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See Id.

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