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January 15, 2009

Defining and Identifying Cultural Appropriation

Here's what's going on and why I'm doing this now.

First of all, I'm not gonna deal with global cultural appropriation, but rather focus on American appropriation of cultures brought into the US either by immigrants or by Americans who went abroad and brought stuff back. Okay, here's a brief and incomplete definition of "cultural appropriation" I wrote in this post a couple of years ago (you have to read the whole post to really get where I'm coming from.):

Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture ... and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the "home culture" or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc.

I think that's adequate as a basis, but I DO think I need to distinguish between two concepts so that people get it. The two concepts are:

  • Cultural Appropriation
  • Cultural Syncretism

Syncretism generally refers to the process of reconciling or melding of differing views or beliefs or uses. This can happen intentionally, or by a natural, unconscious process.

More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture. Examples of this would be:

  • the adoption of potatoes into the European diet after contact with the new world (the introduction of potatoes was more or less deliberate, but the spread of potatoes was a natural cultural movement)
  • Christianity becoming a cult (one of many) in ancient Rome, a culture that tolerated multiple gods from many cultural origins, and incorporated them into its pantheon
  • the partial adoption of Japanese corporate organizing practices in the US auto industry in the eighties, when Japanese auto companies began building factories in the States

And of course, small things like words and whole slang idioms, small gestures or sets of gestures, rituals and ceremonies, manners, clothing and accessories, music, visual design elements, etc. can get taken on deliberately or without thought.

This is just how we are. US mainstream culture is a mass of syncretism, from our political culture, to our language ("ketchup" is Chinese, "frankfurter" and "wiener" are German, "chili" is Nahuatl, "onion" is Latin, and "soda" is Arabic, so your standard chili dog and coke is about as syncretic -- and American -- as you can get), our religions, our design, our ... etc.

HOW syncretism happens is not defined under the term. It can be forced (Indian boarding schools, Catholic church incorporation of local gods as saints), it can be friendly, or it can happen unconsciously. Cultural appropriation is actually, therefore, a subset of cultural syncretism -- one way that syncretism happens.

It's a strange, post-colonial way of making syncretism happen, though. Whereas previous to modern decolonization, no one was truly uncomfortable with the idea that the Other was "barbaric" (it was only the argument over who constituted the Other, us or them), it's only since the 20th century that we've consciously moralized this position, and created an understanding of Otherness as having value and even virtue, simply because it is Other. This is the "noble savage" point of view, the exotifying point of view, the model minority point of view, that elevates Otherness rather than denigrating it. It's still a process of Othering, though.

It's also only since the 20th century that groups of people have accepted their identity as Other to the mainstream or dominant group, and turned it into a power position.

Today, in the United States, we have groups, tribes, cultures, of people whose primary identity is that of Other. Although we spend a lot of time saying "we are not Other," people of color ... African Americans, Asian Americans, etc. ... are people and Americans who must define themselves using a modifier. This is an Other identity, not a mainstream one. You can see the difference when you talk to my mom, who immigrated in her twenties and has been a US citizen for half her life: she'll tell you she's Chinese. Not Chinese American, Chinese. She has a mainstream identity from a different country. Here, she's a foreigner or immigrant, but there's a place where she is not an Other. I, on the Other hand, am Chinese American and multiracial. I was born an Other in the world, and have no home ground to go to where I'm not Other.

I make this point because accepting and claiming an Other identity, which has politically empowered a lot of people of color, has been largely misunderstood on the white side as meaning that "it's better to be colored than white." This is an unconscious understanding, but it feeds into the noble-savaging and Othering of POC. This comes about because it's accepted and empowering to be outspokenly proud to be "black," "Asian," "brown," "Latino," what have you, but it's not okay to use the same language to be outspokenly proud to be "white." So this gets translated into the following set of principles:

  1. whites have no 'ethnic' identity because being proud of one's whiteness is just racism
  2. people of color are the only ones with real ethnicity
  3. having an ethnicity is better than not having an ethnicity

Which brings us to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a method of cultural syncretism that is specific to our primary-Other-identity, post-colonial, identity-politics era. It arises when a dominant culture, as I said above, raids a subordinate culture for cultural items that it then pulls out of context. The dominant culture -- in our case, white Americans -- doesn't properly acknowledge the borrowing -- or else the dominant culture makes a complete hash of the borrowing and then tries to pass it off as authentic. This happens for three reasons:

  1. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they find or make up a nonwhite ancestor and go acquire aspects of that ancestor's culture (see "1/16th Cherokee" or "we're southern so we must have a black ancestor") which they weren't brought up in and haven't acquired in ways that people generally consider to be "authentic."
  2. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they decide to strongly identify with a nonwhite culture and then acquire aspects of that culture (see "I taught English in China for two years," or "I'm blacker than you are!")
  3. Whites of a particular class or position need to appear worldly and eclectic -- not to mention liberal -- so they spend a great deal of cultural time "broadening their horizons" in ethnic shops and exercise/dance classes. This last one is itself an item of a liberal white American subculture: the need to have a culturally eclectic affect.

The reason I made this distinction between cultural syncretism in general and cultural appropriation specifically is that -- you guessed it -- cultural appropriation is about an exploitive power dynamic, whereas not all forms of cultural sycretism are. We see cultural syncretism everywhere in our mainstream culture because the US is an immigrant country and we really do meld a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. The power dynamic lies in the fact that the genuinely syncretic and layered culture of the mainstream is dominated by whites. That broad river of culture is considered -- consciously by POC and unconsciously by whites -- to be the home ground and domain of whites, even though everyone has contributed to it.

So when a new cultural item is added to that mainstream, it is done by whites deliberately, and in a manner that doesn't acknowledge its debt to any subculture or alternate culture. That mainstream is powerful because it is the mainstream and because it is the homeground of the white power-majority. Likewise, whites are powerful because they are white and because they control the powerful mainstream, both. It's true cultural synergy.

The principle of the mainstream is inherently melting-pot-ish, so once something has joined the mainstream, it becomes very difficult to pick out its origin and path to the mainstream. This is an aspect of the cultural mainstream that shores up its power. Likewise, people of color rarely see their cultural product make it into the mainstream intact because of the melting pot principle; it's easier to not give up power if you dismantle a subculture and incorporate it piecemeal: for every Boyz 'n' the Hood there will be twenty Colors's; for every Better Luck Tomorrow there will be twenty Fast and Furious sequels. Dismantle, then control. This is why the live action Avatar can be cast all white. Avatar already began the process of dismantling the cultures by making them secondary cultures.

Cultural appropriation is also hard for whites to understand because it's hard to distinguish between melding and appropriation when we simply don't know where each individual got it from.

For example: generation after generation, African American slang gets incorporated into mainstream white slang. At one point in this process, it's straight up cultural appropriation. But there does come a moment when enough white people are using the slang, that other white people are picking it up from whites in their own communities, without necessarily knowing its origin. At that point, it's already fused into the mainstream culture and the less "cutting edge" whites really aren't appropriating it ... because it's already thoroughly appropriated.

I'll give you a funny example: I left the US (Tucson) in 1992 and came back (to San Francisco) in 1998. During that time, a new set of "urban" slang hit the mainstream. Not a lot of this reached us in Europe during that time. So when I came back to the States in 98/99, I was working at a number of Asian American arts orgs. A lot of the volunteers had gone to ivy league colleges (model minorities) and I noticed something: all the people I knew who had gone to Yale were using this slang expression "My bad." I'd never heard that before so I pointed it out to a Yalie friend and asked if it was a Yale thing. She found that very amusing. Of course, subsequently, I heard it all over the place and it became clear that it was part of a slang set that -- once again -- came from African America. But by the time it reached me, it was so thoroughly appropriated that I was able to think -- just for a moment -- that it was an ivy league thing.

Because cultural appropriation either succeeds or fails -- that is, items are either thoroughly appropriated or they aren't -- it can be hard to tell with successful appropriations where they've been appropriated from. So a LOT of whites, who get these things from their white communities, hear POC screaming about cultural appropriation and are genuinely confused. Aren't we a melting pot? I didn't steal this from anybody! Even my Mom says it for chrissake!

There's also a lot of unconscious disagreement about a statute of limitations on accusations of cultural appropriation. For example, I still hear some Af Ams complaining about how Elvis jacked Little Richard and others. It's true, but we're so many musical generations down the line from Elvis, and most Af Am musicians wouldn't touch rockabilly with a ten-foot pole now, so can we let go of that? I'd still be willing to talk about Vanilla Ice, but there are folks who think that's over, too. So that's another issue that no one can agree on: when does it stop being cultural appropriation and just become culture?

Sadly, I have no answers for you today. Because, of course, cultural syncretism and its various methods are a spectrum, not a clearly defined taxonomy. And where your own actions fall on that spectrum will depend on your point of view.

One thing I can say, and have said before, is that when it comes to creating fictional worlds and fictional characters, you do have the opportunity to control your cultural appropriation, to step back and err on the side of not appropriating. That is not the same thing as not writing the Other, but I happen to fall down on the side of don't write the Other if you can't do it right. Rather, make sure that enough People of Color are getting published and noticed.

But that's just me.


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It's weird that there's been so much discussion of cultural appropriation, but no one has commented on this post yet. Obviously you put a lot of thought and energy into it, and made well-reasoned points using your own words, whereas I've seen some posts by people who were just parroting what had already been said and they got tons of positive feedback. Unfair.

Anyway, this is a great post and deserves more attention. Is it okay if I link to it? I'm almost positive no one reads my blog, but it's possible someone might stumble across it. If you want, I could recommend this post to people who compiled cultural appropriation discussion link roundups (better than my blog because people do read those).

Thanks, Numol! Link away! But I do think this has been linked to a few times -- or else other posts of mine have been linked to in the cult approp debate. Don't worry that I'm not getting enough attention!

This is a fantastic post. I have never seen such a clear description of what appropriation means. Thank you for writing it, even though I'm coming to it a year and a half later.

This will be great for brand advertisers, as they will be able to reap the rewards of all the equity they have built up. Many policies (including the new Google trademark policy) work in favor of affiliates and resellers, while this goes back to Google roots and is benefiting the user experience and connecting them directly with the brand they are looking for.

The above comment spam is hilarious! I've eviscerated it (removed the linkage) so I can leave it up. Awesome!

Thank you for this post--your definitions are really clear and, I think, on the mark. I've been enjoying reading about these issues.

This is the clearest, least judgmental post about cultural appropriation I've read on all the internets. As a white person trying to educate myself, I so appreciate you taking the time to write it.

Sooooo good. Thank you.

This is the first time I've read a post about cultural appropriation that makes me feel smarter instead of dumber. Thanks for helping me understand what this is.

I enjoyed reading your well-read and thoughtful post.
I feel like the primary issue with appropriation regards the respectful use of cultural elements/icons/clothing/insignia/etc more than who uses them, and I often see in reactionary blogs, typically young, angry white people (I'm thinking of social justice sally) attacking other white folks for what they see as appropriation of symbols when said folks were using said symbols in a contextually appropriate and respectful manner. I also see (much rarer) POC who for one reason or another were not exposed to the original context, or didn't "get it" at the time, or whatever, use symbols/elements/whatever of their 'native' culture (although effectively, culturally, they are mostly white) in a disrespectful way or in a way that perpetuates racist or culturally insensitive stereotypes. I feel like the common thread is being aware of the extent of your own knowledge on a topic rather than assuming a particular use is okay, and respecting context and avoiding perpetuating negative stereotypes rather than whether one is or is not themselves an "authentic" member of a culture. I'd appreciate your thoughts on this, though. I admit I'm not especially well read on the underlying issues, and the harm and fairness elements involved are points of confusion for me at times. I've definitely been wrong on these sorts of issues before.

sometimes i really wonder what all this means in a european context that is in a way very different from that in the u.s. - different kind of post-colonial, different kind of melting pot. and also: from a euro point of view elvis and little richard, vanilla ice and snoop dogg are first and foremost one thing - not black, not white, but american and hence the nonplusultra in popular culture. do american power dynamics between what you call "races" over there apply here in eurpe, too? and what about poc who explicetely produce art for a white mainstream culture (motown...)? if white ppl in 1965 listened to the supremes - was that cultural appropriation or did they just fall for motown's cheap marketing tricks tailored precisely to fit a white middle class?! and if so who's to blame?!?

i get this feeling that it is more the way than the goal that matters here. there's no one good truth. it's more about thinking about where stuff came from and how it got where it is now...

I would argue that white Americans who didn't come from immigrant communities (or are assimilated*) DO have an ethnicity. White, assimilated Americans in a given community wear clothes in a particular way, speak in a particular way, eat in a particular way, shop in a particulat way, worship (or not) in a particular way, etc., etc. As an unassimilated daughter of Eastern European immigrants, I don't see the ethnicity of assimilated white Americans as being more or less foreign (or "exotic" or "weird") than the respective traditions of American POC and unassimilated immigrants--save for my own traditions, which even themselves become foreign the more I am Americanized, all ethnicities are equally foreign.
White assimilated Americans have the privilege of not needing to recognize the particularities of their culture, because that culture is considered to be the status quo. They have the privilege to show distaste for one ethnic group ("Mexicans are lazy!") and appropriate another (and, worse, claim that it is done in "honor" of that group) without suffering reprimand by their peers, since chances are their peers do this too.
What do you think? I know it complicates matters a little to bring up immigrants/unassimilated Americans, but because I am one I'd like to know your thoughts.

Thanks for writing this! A couple questions; first,my best friend in fourth grade was a Japanese girl named Miki. We were very close for a few years, but now she moved to Japan. I took an interest in Sanrio and lolita because she always had cute do-dads with characters on them. Is that syncretism? Also,I read a similar post that condemned white singers who took on a Motown style; mainly because people of color would have a difficult time reaching such fame. Would it be wrong even if they were open about their inspiration from specific artists? For example, the Beatles openly mentioned the artists they were inspired by. Thanks again!

wanted to let you know that I sourced your post in a post I wrote regarding Disney's Princess Sofia. I really enjoyed what you wrote, since it's a lot better expressed than what I could have pulled off! Thanks!

my post

That was insightful and interesting as hell. Thank you for taking the time to write it! I have a question, though. I'm a white dude, and I like to write. In the theoretical case that I ever wanted to write a book, and wanted to have characters that weren't white, what are the steps you would recommend I take to avoid falling into the pitfalls of poorly "othering" people and characters? Beyond just writing them as genuine, actual people with motivations and characteristics beyond their race.

I sincerely hope that the advice isn't "don't write them," because from some people I hear that, and then from others I hear the evils of not having PoC characters in fiction and how white, male authors only write white (often male) characters. It gets to where I'm not sure what the right thing to do is, and I'd love your perspective, since you seem to have a really awesome grasp of the broader implications at work. Thanks again for writing this!

This is such a well written commentary, it was well thought through and had a clearly made point. It hits a pet peeve when intelligent people use misinformation about ancient history to better prove a point. (And I'm probably making this way more about the entire Rome thing than I need to and I don't want to draw away from your main point because that is good.) Rome tried to destroy monotheistic religions for hundreds of years before deciding that they had a place within the cult framework. They hated new ideas and went out of their way to condemn anything remotely novus.
I'm sorry for being such a pain by posting this comment. I don't want any misinformation drawing away from the main point (even if most people don't know it's there)

Much ado about nothing. When people meet, ideas and objects diffuse. "Cultural appropriation" as a derogatory term appears to have been invented in Colleges of Liberal Arts by people who are extremely selfish and quarrelsome. What's the big deal if a white woman wears a bindi?

Let me start by apologizing in case I come off as ignorant, or just plain AM ignorant. My goal here is to gain understanding and not start a fight.

I'm having difficulty understanding the difference between positive influence and negative appropriation. I assume the difference is the respect given to how the culture is internalized and externalized.

I am a PoC, if I go to China to teach English am I appropriating a culture because I am an American? Is this something that international politics factor into? I, like the hypothetical whites of your article, am going there out of a desire to "expand my horizons." Am I doing something wrong when I read books about Buddhism?

I don't believe that I want or need an ethnicity. My skin color is something I was born into, same goes for the historical context of this skin color, my family, my heritage, my country, etc. If someone asks where I'm from I say "California." If they ask, "no, where are you really from?" I roll my eyes and say, "my ancestors are from Mexico (which used to extend into California)." I also don't call myself a Latin American because that would imply I was from Latin America. I just say "American," without a modifier.

As for American whites not feeling like they have an ethnicity (this is more in response to another commentor) one just needs to compare the whites of, I don't know... "There's Something About Raymond", with the whites of Gummo.

Also, I'm pretty sure the cavemen, and cavewomen, invented graffiti.

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