Fashion designers, musicians, and Halloween costume wearers have been accused of engaging in cultural appropriation.
This week we’re thinking about cultural appropriation and asking who owns culture—which may be a weird way of thinking about it. It's easy to see how somebody can own the rights to a song they wrote, but how can anyone own a whole culture?
Some cases of interaction between cultures do seem pretty fraught, to say the least. Think about the British Museum, which is full of artifacts that the United Kingdom "appropriated" from all around the world. Most of us would agree that it's wrong to take an object that doesn’t belong to you and bring it back to your museum—many would call that, well, stealing. But still: mostly when we talk about cultural appropriation, we’re just talking about borrowing an idea. And borrowing an idea doesn’t take it away from anyone. If you have an idea and teach it to me, now we both have the idea. Who loses?
Of course, there are still cases where "borrowing" of that kind is really stealing—after all, that’s why we have copyright laws. But cultural appropriation isn't a matter of plagiarizing a particular song; it's a matter of adopting a musical style. So what’s wrong with getting inspired by rock, tango, or reggae?
There's at least one kind of case where inspiration like that has gone awry: when white artists have taken a style created by people of color, made a bunch of money, and not given anything back to the people who originally invented it. It's hard to argue for this being in any way fair.
But then again, not all situations are like that. Think about Paul Simon’s album Graceland. He borrowed some South African musical styles, and even featured a South African band, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It’s true that Paul Simon made a bunch of money—but so did they. And he put their genre of music on the map for a lot of folks who didn’t know about it before that.
So maybe we can think of Graceland as a two-way cultural exchange, of benefit to multiple people. But what about one-way taking? What about cases where someone takes another person’s sacred objects and treats them like toys, like when white women wear bindis as a fashion statement? There's something disrespectful about that. In addition, a harm is being done to somebody else’s religion. Religion designates certain objects, practices, and spaces as sacred; if a sacred object suddenly shows up all over the place, it loses some of its specialness. The choices of individuals outside the religion thus affect the experiences of believers. That seems like a real loss.
So, should we simply say "hands off," in all cases? Should we set it as a rule that no member of culture A should never borrow from culture B? It's not clear that this is a great idea, just as it's not a great idea to encourage everyone to borrow from everywhere. As Salman Rushdie says, “hybridity... is how newness enters the world”: if we prohibited all (respectful) borrowing, we'd stifle creativity. We want the two-way exchange—it’s how cultures evolve, grow, and stay vibrant.
You might think that a little stifled creativity is a price worth paying, if it helps us all get along. But that's a big 'if'—it may also make us too scared to communicate with each other, so we just huddle in our separate cultural boxes for fear of offending anyone.
What we really need is some way of drawing the line between what’s offensive, what’s harmful, and what’s just good ol’ cultural exchange. Hopefully our guest can give us some principles to guide us here: Dominic McIver Lopes, author of a forthcoming book called Aesthetic Injustice. We can't wait to hear what he has to tell us.