What is wrong with cultural appropriation?

We typically hear that cultural appropriation is deeply problematic, and that we should refrain from it because it causes real damage to the oppressed and perpetuates the dominance of male, white, heterosexual culture. Typically the critics of cultural appropriation point out that when someone takes the object of a subaltern culture and use it against that culture or in a way that disrespects the meaning of the object inherent in that culture. One of the most common examples of cultural appropriation that is brought up is when whites in North America wear aboriginal feathered headdresses to music festivals or other festivities. This disrespects aboriginals because the headdress has a very specific meaning within the aboriginal cultures that make use of them, and this meaning is not honoured when it is worn at a music festival or while tailgating before a football game. Furthermore, wearing these headdresses in a relatively trivial context can be plausibly seen to harm the cause of aboriginal rights, by trivializing sacred elements of their culture. While I sympathize with this critique I find the concept of cultural appropriation deeply problematic as it misunderstands what makes culture valuable, and in so doing is demeaning of the very cultures that it seeks to defend.

It should be noted that critics of cultural appropriation do not think that members of a dominant culture should not make any use of objects from other cultures. For example, I have never heard someone say that members of the dominant white culture should not cook or eat dishes from other cultures. Their critique is rooted in the power relations between members of the dominant and the subordinate culture. It is not that they object to members of one culture making use of objects from an oppressed culture. What they object to is when members of a dominant culture see the objects or symbols of another culture as mere commodities that can be used without any understanding or respect for their original meaning. In this respect, I agree with the critic of cultural appropriation in that there is something quite problematic about seeing a culture as a virtual shopping mall where I can pick up objects and use them however I see fit.

While we may agree in seeing the objects of culture as something not to be used in any way whatsoever, my disagreement with the critics of cultural appropriation seems to be grounded in our understanding of what it means to respect a culture. For the critic of cultural appropriation any use of the objects of an oppressed culture that is out of step with the meaning of that object within that culture is to be avoided. We can see this as the speech of the critics of cultural appropriation tends to be more interested in telling people to stop engaging in and supporting cultural appropriation than anything else. The critique of cultural appropriation is purely negative, and amounts to the commandment “thou shalt not commit cultural appropriation.”

In contrast to this I think that members of a dominant culture can make use of the objects of an oppressed culture in a way that is out of step with the meaning the object has in the oppressed culture if the members of the dominant culture engage in a particular way. For example, say that I research about the object of a particular oppressed culture and speak with members of the culture about its meaning, and through so doing I grow to appreciate this object. While this object speaks to me and seems to reveal something true about the world, it speaks to me in a very different way than it speaks to an indigenous member of the culture, as our background understandings of the world are different, and the meaning of a single cultural object does not inhere in the object, but in the relation to the other meanings and objects to which it relates. The meaning of the cross in Christianity for example cannot be understood without the figure of Jesus or Abraham or Adam and Eve for that matter. Consequently, this object takes on a distinct yet valuable meaning that reveals something important to me. As a result of this I then make use of this cultural object in my own life in a way that while related to the meaning held by the culture that originated the object is distinct from it. This example shows the way in which we can relate to subordinate cultures that allows us to use their objects in a way that is distinct from their original meaning, and yet still shows respect for them and their culture. Thus, from my perspective, respecting a subordinate culture concerns how we relate to its objects and does not prohibit all uses of it by a member of a dominant culture. If the approach that I have laid out still constitutes cultural appropriation then I would say that cultural appropriation isn’t always bad, as this mode of relating to the other best fits with a proper understanding of what culture is and what makes it valuable.

It seems to me that what makes culture valuable is not that it belong to my culture, your culture, a dominant culture or an oppressed culture, but that cultures constitute different ways of understanding the world that have developed over time and held power over peoples. Cultures thus can be plausibly construed as containing the received wisdom of particular ages and peoples. Consequently, what makes a culture valuable is that it is a source outside of ourselves that can serve as a resource of wisdom that can better teach us how to live through revealing truths we would have never thought of on our own.

If culture is valuable because it is a resource of wisdom from various ages and peoples, what is the nature of culture? I think we can understand what culture is if we think about how we relate to cultures and how they develop. For example, I, as a member of my culture, find myself in dialogue not only with the beliefs of my culture and members of my own culture, but those of other cultures as well. Charles Taylor refers to this as always finding ourselves in webs of articulation, and my account is very influenced by Taylor here. It is only through this dialogue between historical and contemporary viewpoints within a particular culture, and other cultures, that this particular culture renews its meaning, and rearticulate its sense of value. This suggests that cultures are not some static set of beliefs, rites and objects, but that cultures are always already evolving through their relation to both internal and external factors. The culture of a people is not just the views that the leaders of that culture hold at this point, but rather it is an ongoing conversation between present, past, and the very cultures that this culture defines itself in contrast to.

As a result of the preceding it does violence to what culture is and what makes it valuable to speak of it as if it belonged strictly to the members of that culture. But this is just what the critics of cultural appropriation do when they suggest that it is always problematic to make use of a cultural object in a way that is out of step with the meaning of that object within the originating culture. The only way to make sense of the view that only members of a culture can reinterpret the meaning of a cultural object is to suggest that the culture somehow owns the object and thus only they have a right to alter its meaning. Ironically, while most critics of cultural appropriation are of the progressive left, their conception of justice relies on a concept of property that is distinctly capitalist. Consequently, the critics of cultural appropriation demean culture, by not seeing it as a source of wisdom that anyone could learn something from, but as the possession of a specific group of people.

Furthermore, they demean the specific cultures they seek to defend because if the oppressed culture is not valuable because of the wisdom or insight it contains, but because it is the possession of a particular group of people, the culture itself has no intrinsic value, but is just a historical accident that a certain group of people happen to be attached to. In which case this raises the question of why the oppressed group should remain attached to their culture? Surely, if we are to remain attached to a culture we should be so for more of a reason than the fact that it is ours, and our ancestors practised it. As a result there is something deeply problematic about the contemporary critique of cultural appropriation as it fails to take proper account of the fact that culture is primarily valuable because of the wisdom it contains and its capacity to reveal truths to anyone who confronts it.