What Is Cultural Appropriation? And Why Is It Wrong?

Categories: Racism
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2017.06.20

My household has been busy recently, including a vacation in Galveston, visiting new babies on both my wife’s side and my side, starting swim lessons, and having birthday parties (BWF) and dance recitals (RLF). I also wrote an introspective and melancholy Father’s Day post.

Hopefully those are good excuses for not posting on this Verily blog in a while. But I have wanted to write here, and several topics have fluttered around in my brain. One of them is “cultural appropriation”.

Three years ago, I wrote a bit about “Columbusing” — which is related to but not exactly like cultural appropriation. In that entry though I focused specifically on meat pasties because of the NPR article that had caught my attention and didn’t drive toward a discussion of cultural appropriation — which is what I want to do soon.

As with any social or political viewpoint, I can be convinced with logical explanations, evidence, and clear definitions. This happened to me on the topics global warming and climate change, progressive taxation, gay marriage, and other issues. I changed my position once I more fully understood each topic. That might happen on cultural appropriation too. (My current position is: “I don’t really understand what the fuss is about, but I plan to learn more.”)

One problem is that I haven’t found a good working definition of it — certainly not a definition that fits all the scenarios. In specific instances I do understand the problem. For example when white people adopt hair styles traditionally associated with black people, and are praised for it, while black people are still kicked out of school or denied jobs for the same hair styles — there is a problem. But that problem is systemic ubiquitous racism, at least to my mind. It’s the fact that we (as a society) still treat people differently due to perceived race/ethnicity, even when we don’t intend to.

I hope to dig more deeply soon, because I don’t want to merely “I’m not convinced” my way through something that others claim is an issue. I want to know for sure. If any of my readers have more fully formed thoughts on cultural appropriation, feel free to share them in the comments below. It might help shape my research and writing on the topic. Thanks.

  1. Zane says:

    I can only give an uninformed opinion.

    I think the negative view of cultural appropriation is a defense mechanism. A disadvantaged group of people has some cultural behavior, that they hold as their own. They are disadvantaged in other ways in society, but they find pride and self respect through their culture. It seems to me that people who identify themselves as a member of an oppressed group tend to develop and hold onto cultural behaviors. If someone from outside the group, especially an oppressor, copies the behavior then it seems like another form of oppression. They are losing a bit of what makes them unique. It just makes it worse if someone copies the idea to make money off of it as the next trend. I’m usually not offended by the defensiveness, even though it seems silly sometimes, because I think I understand the root cause of it.

    Sharing ideas and culture, or copying them from others is natural and good for the world at large. I don’t think there is anything wrong with copying another culture, but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with being proud of your own, unless what you are proud of is odious in the first place (like racism in the south). What I think mostly matters is how people go about doing it, whether copying or defending.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Thanks for the input, Zane. It rings true, at least for some of the instances. I have a lot more mulling over to do on this one.

      (I did ask my wife for a definition of cultural appropriation, and she gave one, but I immediately thought of a couple of examples outside her definition, so I’m still looking.)

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