Culture, Appropriated

16 September 2022

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.

Photo by Sonika Agarwal on Unsplash

Comments (4)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, September 17, 2022 -- 6:52 AM

Depending on terminology, art

Depending on terminology, art works, artifacts and so on have been stolen. Appropriated is one of those terms intended to soft-peddle truth...when it is messy. People who install culture are rightful owners, seems to me. if it is concluded that finders, keepers rules, where a culture has been annihilated, that is a matter of ethics, malleable to suit the custodian of the item(s). The ethics become situational, much like theft being transformed into appropriation. Ethical does not mean what it once meant. Now, it falls into 'how much chicanery can we get away with without looking too bad'. Culture belongs to descendents---if there are none, finders, j keepers.. I did not make that up.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, October 27, 2022 -- 4:03 PM

Recently, i responded to a

Recently, i responded to a blog that spoke of Lord Krishna. And a 'Goddess' who attended his pastimes, via austerities---which is what females seem to have been intended for, in these faiths. When my comments offended the blog custodian, I was told to stop comments, which I did..The context of the blog was clear enough. Women were, are, chattel, which rhymes with cattle, which of course means, secondary citizenship, or less. This blog is, of course, open forum---to a point. Until someone challenges notions, tenets, doctrines of belief. The blog I mentioned, is wrong, in Its' fundamental teaching, as far as western thought is concerned. Smiling faces, saffron robes and chanting were fresh, in the 60s and 70s. The foundations of some Eastern rituals are not so attractive now. This is my point here, and why these folks, in my humble western, agnostic, opinion need to wake up. It is not about ideology now. it never was. Interests, preferences and motives never were, either.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
rosydam's picture


Monday, November 20, 2023 -- 7:22 PM

Discover the heartwarming

Discover the heartwarming stories of friendship that lead to extraordinary fusions. In Pokemon Infinite Fusion , witness how the unbreakable bonds between trainers and their Pokémon result in awe-inspiring, unexpected blends.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
trossard's picture


Thursday, April 11, 2024 -- 9:07 PM

For me, there's a fine line

For me, there's a fine line between respectful appreciation and exploitation, and it's crucial to navigate this line with sensitivity and awareness of the cultural significance of the borrowed elements. build now gg

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines