Inappropriate: Why it’s important to care about cultural appropriation

Former reading (because, as always, the first people you should listen to on any topic are the people that topic directly affects):
Everything from Native Appropriations, but particularly But why can’t I wear a hipster headdress?
What’s wrong with cultural appropriation?
What is cultural appropriation and why is it wrong?
The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation
To those appropriating Dia de los Muertos this year

I logged onto Twitter this morning to see this article doing the rounds, being shared and commented on approvingly by a lot of people whose words and ideas I respect. As I read it, my heart sank, in much the same way as it does when someone on my FB feed shares an MRA meme or a rant about ‘benefit scroungers’. (That doesn’t happen too much any more, thankfully. Hooray for the ‘unfollow’ button!)

The article poses the question “When does borrowing from others become appropriation?” It’s a good question, and one that all white Western people should certainly consider. The best way to come to a conclusion on this question? Listen to people of colour. Read their blogs and their articles. There’s a multitude of resources out there, only a few of which are linked above.

The author of the article seems to have looked at none of these. Instead, he lists some examples of ‘kerfuffles’ that have occurred ‘at liberal arts colleges’. His mix of examples was rather baffling and not very well explained, leaping from a description of students dressing as Mexican stereotypes for a themed party to kimono selfies at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to ‘incidents…involving Chinese food’. He finishes the second paragraph with what is clearly supposed to be an ominous-sounding summary of the argument against appropriation: ‘They [these cultural artefacts, ceremonies, or other things] belong to Others, and we cannot have them, or take them, for ourselves.’

This sentence leapt out at me, because far from demonstrating that the arguments against appropriation are ridiculous, it betrays a lot of the thinking that causes appropriation to occur in the first place. ‘We cannot have them, or take them for ourselves’. Well…yes. One of the first things you learn as a young child, along with “Don’t scream just to get attention” and “Don’t poo on the floor”, is “It’s not okay to grab something just because you want it. Ask politely, and don’t throw a tantrum if the answer is no.” It’s a simplified version of the thinking described by Deborah Root in her book Cannibal Culture, which describes the relationship between colonialism and appropriation: ‘As the West sought to affirm colonial domination over territory, the world increasingly came to be imagined as a vast warehouse of images: Other cultures became signs and fragments of a world destroyed in advance and of a difference and authenticity that could be aestheticized and consumed in the West.’ 

I’m not going to reiterate why cultural appropriation is a bad thing – I posted the links above because they explain it better than I can, and because the last thing this situation needs is another white person repeating the words of people of colour and getting more credit for them. Instead, I want to call on the white people reading this to read those links, and any others you can find, and to question points of view like this Point of View, the central premise of which seems to be a foot-stamp and a “But why can’t I have everything I want?” (with a lovely side of transphobia thrown in – the crack about ‘a [student] of deliberately indeterminate gender…he – no, she – no, they’ was pretty disgusting to read).

There’s a difference between cultural sharing and cultural appropriation, just like there’s a difference between actual sharing and stomping in to snatch exactly what we want. Most of us mastered the latter in nursery school. As adults, we are more than up to getting our heads around the former.

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About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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