Understanding Hostility To Cultural Appropriation

September 2018

Liberalism promises that through the free exchange of culture, peoples will become less hostile to one another and, ultimately, dissolve their tribal barriers. By appropriating elements of each other’s culture, people will learn to see others not as aliens, outsiders, or barbarians at the gate, but as people very much like themselves—people worthy of respect and people one can learn from and cooperate with.

History also shows that cultivating relationships through cultural appropriation creates wealth for both sides.

And yet, cultural appropriation can also leave people feeling like they’ve been ripped off. It’s possible, for example, for people to exchange cultural information and practices and to adapt them to the needs of their own group while remaining extremely hostile to the groups whose ways they’ve adopted. What’s worse is that by merely failing to acknowledge the source of the cultural goods and practices, and by adapting them to one’s own tastes, the seeds of increased respect get lost in the wind and then buried under a layer of mythology of innovation concocted by the dominant group. Moreover, cultural practices can be adapted and adopted specifically for the illiberal purpose of increasing or maintaining cultural distance. This is what happens when cultural appropriation involves mockery, ridicule, vilification, or denial of opportunity.

The idea that cultural appropriation is almost always hurtful or destructive really caught on in the context of police shootings and the mass incarceration of black people in America during the years of the country’s first black president. While many white people have learned to love the cultural fruits of greater cooperation with an increasingly enfranchised black population, a significant percentage of whites continue to mock, ridicule, and vilify black people. At a time when black people have supposedly reached a higher degree of acceptance into the mainstream than ever in the past, people are noticing just how much distance there is to go, and many black people and others are questioning the liberal sales pitch of peace and prosperity through cultural appropriation.

When he writes, in “The Cultural Appropriation Police”, that “Its ultimate objective is to build cultural fences and distance different people and ethnic groups from one another,” Frank Furedi reveals that he misunderstands the nature of people’s hostility to cultural appropriation. Furedi is right that when a minority group tries to police cultural appropriation, they do so in order to build a fence around their culture, but he is wrong that the objective of the fence is to distance that group from others. Actually, the objective is to commodify the products of the minority culture so that they can be exchanged by group members for something else of value, i.e., greater respect, opportunity, security, or wealth.

For the most part, members of minority cultures are drawn to the liberal promise of peace, cooperation, respect, and prosperity through cultural appropriation, and they appreciate and love the influence they gain through their products on the wider culture. However, the more cracks that appear in the liberal promise, and the deeper they run, the more likely people are to think that they’ve been sold a bill of goods. What most members of historically oppressed or marginalized minorities resist is others’ reaping the rewards of liberal life without paying for them. The feeling is that if people from groups doing better than us are going to take from us, they better reciprocate by showing us respect and helping to increase opportunities for us. It’s the reneging on the implicit deal behind the liberal sharing of cultures that turns taking into wrongful appropriation.

For groups that have been systematically deprived of respect, opportunity, security, and wealth, culture (that is, art, fashion, ideas, manners, and all the rest) is one way to create something of exchange value. But for it to have exchange value, culture first needs to be fenced off. Police shootings and continuing prejudice suggest to many that the group’s control over its culture needs to be tightened in order for members to have something to use to relieve the group’s plight.

What I am saying is that many people hostile to current instances of cultural appropriation do not deny that cross-fertilization is good, and they are not looking to isolate themselves from others. Rather, they are claiming the right to give or withhold permission to others to take from their culture. They are doing this so that they might bring increased respect, opportunity, and prosperity to their group, as the price to others of receiving their permission to appropriate.

Of course, receiving permission is not a matter of going to the cultural store and buying a cultural practice in exchange for what the owner will accept. First of all, those who would take something from a culture not their own can’t explicitly approach people and ask for permission. South Park once mocked the idea of asking for permission, in the episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson.” In real life, there’s the case of a white woman who tried to get explicit permission when writing a book about indigenous people. She made a fool of herself and, in the end, the attempt backfired.

If people think a cultural appropriator is depriving members of marginalized groups of something that is their due, then those people (whether members of that group or not) will impose costs on the appropriator, by, for instance, damaging his reputation. They might go after his social status or even his job or business. That’s what happens if you’re thought not to have received permission or to have misused what you’ve taken.

These days, one form of payment that usually buys permission is activism in support of members of the group. For example, Justin Timberlake in the early part of his career enjoyed the freedom to create and perform music in the style of black musicians. Then came Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, in 2004. In the eyes of many in the black community, Timberlake failed to support Jackson against criticism. Timberlake’s permission to appropriate black culture was revoked. Eminem’s permission, on the other hand, remains secure because Eminem often stands with black people, most recently against Donald Trump’s racism.

Another way to lose permission is to water down the effectiveness of the message conveyed by the cultural items one appropriates. For many blacks, dreadlocks are a symbol of resistance to imposed beauty standards. But dreadlocks lose their edginess when they get used by the people against whom those who originally wore them are rebelling. To gain permission to wear dreadlocks, a white person must make themself worthy of carrying the banner.

“But,” one might say, “no one can ever be sure that the people able to grant permission will approve or disapprove of your appropriating their culture.” That’s true. However, anyone watching the scene can make a good educated guess about what will or won’t piss people off. Moreover, the end result of your cultural appropriation has to be fairly awful to a pretty significant number of people before you’ll be cashiered. Or, at least, that’s what those policing cultural appropriation say.