Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

Word on the street is that the PC police are at it again. Their new unreasonable expectation is that people should avoid “cultural appropriation,” which in the minds of anti-PC columnists means that literally no one should ever engage with any cultural artifact outside of their own culture. I mean, who could possibly think that, right?! What does that even mean?

Back here in the real world, no one does actually think that. No one wants hermetically sealed cultural bubbles, other than perhaps white supremacists. In reality, the key word is appropriation. The goal is not to prevent cross-cultural dialogue, but to insist upon it. The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.

So here are a couple examples. If Eminem claimed that he invented rapping, that would be cultural appropriation. If he collaborated regularly with black artists who accepted him as a member of their artistic community, that would be healthy cross-cultural dialogue. If he became increasingly detached from that black community as his career progressed and accepted being treated as the only rapper on earth, then he would be edging toward cultural appropriation even after a non-appropriating start. If I read a book about Buddhism and decided to start a Buddhist retreat without ever talking to a single living Buddhist practioner, that would be appropriation. If I read a book on Buddhism and decided I wanted to practice and hence started consulting with actual practicing Buddhists who have a living connection with the places and communities where Buddhism originated, then that’s healthy cross-cultural dialogue. Odds are, it would take a lot of work before I got to the point where I could start a Buddhist community of my own without it constituting appropriation, and I would need to make sure that the actual pre-existing Buddhist community I had joined approved before doing that. If I thought they were being overly narrow-minded, then I would have to take responsibility for the appearance of cultural appropriation and expect to receive criticism in that regard.

There are some borderline cases. For example, I taught a couple courses on Islamic thought with only minimal engagement with real-world Islamic communities. To some extent, I think that’s justified — my whole approach to religious thought is historical rather than sociological — but it was also partly laziness and a generally anti-social predisposition. At the same time, I didn’t claim that I discovered Islam or that I was the only or best source for authentic Islamic teaching. If someone rated my performance “problematic” in this regard, I couldn’t help but hear them out and promise to do better next time. That’s life. Other things I have done have been called out as problematic as well, and I survived. Sometimes I think people’s concerns are exaggerated, but most of the time I think they have a point. It’s my decision how to respond and whether to take their criticism seriously, but if I don’t change my behavior, I don’t have a right to never be criticized. Again, that’s life — there’s no way to be perfectly insulated from all criticism in advance.

No one is perfect — and by the same token, no one is required to jump straight to the most outraged defensiveness any time someone points out a mistake that they might not have thought of on their own. If the anti-PC columnists are so concerned to preserve the great tradition of cross-cultural dialogue, they might want to try having an actual conversation with critics of cultural appropriation instead of (wait for it…) appropriating the concept of “cultural appropriation” for their own ends and defining it in whatever way they want. The best way to preserve cross-cultural dialogue is to engage in it, instead of unilaterally proclaiming your righteousness from on high.

18 thoughts on “Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

  1. So when British teenagers were listening to American bands in the 1950s and were not taking the additional steps of a multi-year pilgramage to Nashville, Memphis, New York, New Orleans, etc, they were then guilty of cultural appropriation?

    Doesn’t that seem like an unreasonable expectation for a teenager? Do they get any bonus points for helping to revitalized the career of black artists who never got the spotlight in the US? Do they get bonus points if they later had the time and money to go hang out in the southern US and eat corn bread with the natives?

    What is the final Moral Assessment of the Rolling Stones, in your opinion. Or do you need to go live on Keith Richards’ floor for a few years before your entitled to your opinion?

  2. Listening is not a problem, ever. I can read all the books on Buddhism I want without ever talking to a real-live Buddhist, and I’m not culturally appropriating. The issue is when I want to present myself as an authority.

    Seriously, just get over yourself. It’s not about hard and fast rules of judgment and blameworthiness. It’s about showing respect. People who complain that “cultural appopriation” discourse is too legalistic and rigid always turn out to want hard-and-fast rules to evade any moral blameworthiness. And I’m sorry, but that’s never possible, ever, no matter how much the white middle-class subject in all of us may long for it.

  3. Those “teenagers listening to American records” that I was describing refer to members of bands like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc.

    I was talking about kids listening to records from a faraway land and then starting their own bands. Sorry if I wasn’t clear about that.

    “The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.”

    And what I’m asking is if you think that all of those British kids listening to American bands and then starting their own bands… is it your opinion that they were immorally partaking in cultural appropriation?

  4. “People who complain that “cultural appopriation” discourse is too legalistic and rigid always turn out to want hard-and-fast rules to evade any moral blameworthiness.”

    I’d also like to point out that you offered up the hard-and-fast rule.

    “The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.”

  5. If most of arguments around cultural appropriation held to the definition you use here, that would be great. People who might otherwise have no interest in politics might be political awakened through their interest in culture and might even learn something about systematic oppression and theft. But from what I can see, most of the pieces on the topic lately come from people who don’t even address those issues in any meaningful way. Complex, historical issues of exploitation are reduced to “this heritage belongs to me and my group, not you and yours.” In the process of dumbing down what cultural appropriation is, a very progressive idea is transformed into a conservative one.

    Take this very widely read article for example:


    The author of this piece seems to believe the fact that she is black gives her some sort of individual ownership of hip hop music & culture (despite the fact that she has never personally contributed to its music, style, or slang) and that Asians who are actually musicians and rappers contributing to the development of the genre are not legitimately entitled to do so because “Asians” are a less exploited race. Its also her absurd assumption that these Asians rappers don’t acknowledge the influence of black artists on their work. Its hard to say actually, what her position is because she is all over the place. But these sorts of internet “think pieces” are how most regular people are introduced to ideas like appropriation. They never come across the useful definition you use. So is it any wonder that there is such a wide disregard for the concept when most of the exposure people have to it comes from terrible sources like these?

  6. What’s the point of talking about cultural appropriation? To shame people?

    What gives anyone the authority, moral or otherwise, to tell an artist and their audience how they should be interpreting a particular cultural production?

    Doesn’t intent matter? Why should an artist be held responsible for someone else’s personal interpretation? Isn’t that sort of, well, impossible, due to the imprecise nature of language?

  7. Haakon, I understand that teenagers don’t always have an opportunity to travel, etc. In my view, they do get “bonus points” for connecting with the artists once they had a chance. What would have been “problematic,” to use the term of art, is if they had scornfully decided that they got everything from the music they needed from the recordings and the original artists can go fuck themselves.

    But it’s not about keeping score or shaming people. I kind of don’t know how to even talk to you about this anymore, because you seem to be so upset about the very concept, as if it is a personal insult to you.

  8. Imma Facque — first of all, that article is by an undergrad student, so we shouldn’t expect that they have arrived at their final or most sophisticated answer. Second, it seems to me that the article isn’t about disallowing Asian-Americans from engaging in hip-hop, but just pointing out some attitudes and practices that seem to erase the Black origins or hip-hop and reinforce stereotypes of what blackness means. It’s not that the author has special insights into hip-hop due to their genetics, it’s that they are especially attuned to patterns of mistreatment and appropriation that affect Black people, which Asian-Americans may be less sensitive to.

  9. “But it’s not about keeping score or shaming people. I kind of don’t know how to even talk to you about this anymore, because you seem to be so upset about the very concept, as if it is a personal insult to you.”

    This entire paragraph is a cop-out and incredibly ironic.

    Why is this a cop-out? Because you’ve avoided any of my questions. Why is it ironic? Because you’ve used emotionally charged language to accuse me of using emotionally charged language.

    This kind of discourse affects me personally. I don’t want to live as an artist in a world where even a benign definition of cultural appropriation factors in to how art is appreciated or discussed.

    What is the point of talking about cultural appropriation?

    Let the art stand alone. The Rolling Stones made good art long before they left that dismal island and toured the U.S. They made good art because they were deeply interested in and affected by American music. All kinds of American music. Country, blues, rock and roll… all art forms that are neither representative of black or white cultures, but a myriad of American cultures that cannot be qualified under a discrete label. The Stones were so inspired by this music that when they had the means they had to come and experience it first hand, to meet the people who made it, to eat and drink where they ate and drank.

    Good artists will seek out authentic experiences to the best of their abilities. That is what matters. Sometimes this is limited to crate digging and hanging out on the docks and trying to trade records with overseas military men, and sometimes, and very rarely, does it involve traveling to the ends of the earth.

    What bothered my about your post is your hard-lined rule for what are acceptable artistic practices, that artists must move to and fully embed themselves in the culture. That is not realistic for everyone.

    I would love to continue this discussion but you’re going to have to start avoiding phrases like “Seriously, just get over yourself.” If I wanted to have a discussion with a moody teenager I’d call up my nephew.

  10. As a follow up…

    I am not interested in the Great Internet Op-Ed Culture Wars.

    I am interested in the role of art in society. I don’t claim to speak for Team Red or Team Blue. I aim to speak for myself as an individual and an artist. I don’t claim to speak for some marketing demographic or some discrete generalization used in some soft science statistical regression to “prove” that arbitrary group X is different from arbitrary group Y.

    I level the same criticisms towards economics as I do sociology. Children playing with toy models and pretending to speak of reality. Be it about the effects of minimum wage on employment or the relationship between skin color and living near power plants, I do not believe any of it! Why? For one, why should I?

    Can I reproduce these economic and sociological studies? Can anyone? Select a different group of individuals to study and I expect there to be vastly different results.

    What is your proof that group X exists in the first place? What is your proof that group X having behaviour C is caused by G and not just some statistical anomaly coaxed out by a bias in the study?

    The rhetoric of cultural appropriation is built up on a very shaky foundation of socio-economic research.

    I can find edge-cases to show the problematic notions of cultural appropriation until the end of time. This is because it is an internally contradictory and ultimately false form of discourse.

    You propose that people “might want to try having an actual conversation with critics of cultural appropriation”. Well here I am. I’ll be here for months if you want it. I am an artist but I’ll try my best not to get too emotional.

    Here’s a topic we could discuss:

    Edvard Grieg, like many Romantic-era composers in Western Europe, used Norwegian folk music as a foundation for a number of works. Symphonic music was the culture of the European aristocracy. Folk music the culture of European peasantry. Was Grieg guilty of cultural appropriation because he profited from the works of his poor countrymen without having fully engaged with them? Is it wrong that he heard this folk music wafting through the streets of Bergen and used the same melodies and dance rhythms in compositions. Does it matter that the target audience for his works was not the people who created the culture but rather the aristocratic class in Norway?

  11. “artists must move to and fully embed themselves in the culture” — I never said this! Part of the reason I may seem to be avoiding your questions is that they make no sense to me in terms of what I’ve said. And the notion that I am coming across as a “moody teenager” here is one of the clearest cases of sheer projection I have ever seen on a discussion thread.

  12. You said “if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.”

    How are you supposed to engage with the real-live people without going to live with them? Perhaps I misunderstood what you meant by “engage”?

    As for the quip about moody teenagers… You said “Seriously, get over yourself”. This is almost direct quote from a teenage character from the movie Clueless (“Get over yourself. Goodbye!” is the direct quote). I was unnecessarily being rather petty in response to a rather petty and unnecessary statement. I’m sorry, I take it back. Two wrongs do not make a right.

    As for why you seem to be avoiding my questions, well I am willing to try and fix whatever miscommunication we seem to be having. Why is my perception of what you’re saying incorrect?

    Perhaps I’m operating under a different definition of the term “cultural appropriation”.

    Could you please summarize your understanding of this term and why it is important addition to discourse related to cultural production?

  13. Of course you don’t have to live among people to engage with them. I’m engaging with you right now and I don’t believe we have ever met in person. I assume that when the British teenagers were devouring the music, they were also devouring whatever interviews or other commentary the artists themselves provided — i.e., if they were really passionate about it, they would do whatever they could to come into some kind of contact with the artist they admire.

  14. What I’m really getting at is best described by Grieg wandering the streets of Bergen and taking in the sights and sounds as an observer, without directly engaging with the culture, and then recreating what he heard in his own works. To me this seems like a wonderful approach to composition. His works themselves are beautiful, inspired and masterful. I’m not sure what the peasantry of Norway lost during this process. The only thing that I can see that happened was that there is now this additional wonderful piece of art in the world.

    I’m talking about Grieg because it lets both of us get a little bit out of the boiling cauldron of contemporary events and give us a change to reflect on this topic with cooler heads.

  15. Ok, with this definition of “engage”, I think we can restate this as: “Good artists will show passion and interest in the artistic forms that they are interested in and attempt to dive deep into the history”. Is then the opposite, that “Bad artists will be shallow not show interest in the history of their medium.” Is that then the definition of cultural appropriation?

  16. I’ll end with this, and then remove your RSS feed, and get on with my life…

    Critics who accuse artists of cultural appropriation wish to talk about the moral qualities of the artist.

    I’m proposing that instead they criticize the art. The art is not the artist. Art is almost by definition useless. It doesn’t even operate in the same kind of morally ambiguous way that say a knife does (it could be used for good by cutting up vegetables or for evil by cutting up enemies). Art does nothing. A dog can learn a thing or two about knives yet it will never see a painting as anything more than a meaningless colored canvas. Art is not real and does not speak of reality. It speaks to the soul of the person who makes it and the soul of the person who appreciates it.

    I suspect that the real reason why people talk about cultural appropriation is for the exact same reason that you mentioned art that has “Black origins” and might “reinforce stereotypes of what blackness means”.

    This entire notion again begins with the conflation of the art and the artist.

    First, there are many kinds of black people who make many different kinds of art. There are black artists who make country music, hip-hop, reggae, sound art, sculpture, etc. Not every black person comes from a culture that produces hip-hop. Saying that hip-hop speaks for every black person is absurd.

    Second, The tropes of hip-hop have nothing to do with the stereotypes of the entirety of black people. They are just the tropes of hip-hop. Asian rappers use the tropes of hip-hop the same way that Asian country musicians use the tropes of country music.

    For music, what makes a waltz a waltz? Three-four time at a brisk enough pace to be fun to move with! Anyone can make a waltz. The peasants of Bavaria are for one long dead. And for two, it is just a dance. It isn’t them. It isn’t anyone. It is just people moving through space to a count of three-four in time.

    All of this is very different than black-face in a minstrel show. Then indeed do we see someone portraying the stereotypes of what the performer and artist deems to be representative of all black people.

    These totalizing summations of black stereotypes makes the critic who brandishes the admonition of cultural appropriation much more similar to the black-faced minstrel than to the Asian rapper.

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