October 1, 2014


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Correction appended

“I can’t stand white dancers.”

So says Randa Jarrar in an article in Salon magazine. Her justification? Opposition to a concept often called “cultural appropriation.”

You might expect calls for the exclusion of people from participation in certain forms of art to be rare, drawing near-universal condemnation when made. Instead, many others seem all too eager eager to jump on the same bandwagon. Charges of “cultural appropriation” are frequently leveled against popular cultural figures like Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea. We are constantly exhorted to fear the “theft” of culture — as if culture was a finite resource — particularly when it occurs at the hands of those with “privilege.” At the heart of this lies a pernicious mentality: “My culture is for me, and your culture is for you; any exchange between the two must occur on my terms.”

Indeed, the term “appropriation” implies the loss of an initial ownership. It rests on the assumption that every group of people has the collective right to control an independent culture. After all, something cannot be appropriated if it was not owned to begin with. But therein lies the fundamental problem with all claims of “cultural appropriation”: People do not actually own the cultures with which they identify. Culture belongs to everyone. Therefore, borrowing the art, literature, music or dance that may be associated with a certain group of people cannot reasonably be deemed a form of theft.

Why is this true? Think about what it means to say that you belong to a particular culture. It means that you identify with a certain set of practices and norms that manifest themselves in ways ranging from what you wear, to how you look, to what you believe. Your culture makes you feel distinct from the rest of society by anchoring you to a particular heritage.

But here’s the thing that is often forgotten about culture: It is fluid, not static. Culture does not develop in a vacuum, sealed off from any potential altering influence. It advances and changes through interactions with a myriad of cultural practices, and the resulting amalgamated culture, in turn, serves as an influence on other cultures. What you call your culture, therefore, is really just a mix of parts of the different cultures of a variety of peoples. Those who accuse others of stealing their culture fail to acknowledge that the culture they claim to own was actually “stolen” from someone else.

By viewing culture as something to be hoarded rather than shared, those who decry “cultural appropriation” threaten to destroy the dynamic that drives cultural change. The consequences of this shift in mentality would be severe. Treating culture as the common ownership of humanity, not the prerogative of a particular group, has led to magnificent cultural developments. To take just one example, Yo-Yo Ma has become a world-renowned cellist using a musical instrument of European cultural extraction despite not being of European ancestry. These sorts of developments should not be feared based on the idea that Yo-Yo Ma is some sort of cultural thief who steals the fruits of traditional European culture during every performance.

The basic rationale behind claims of “appropriation” is that others should not be allowed to benefit from a culture’s artistic, intellectual or other development without some sort of authorization. But is this standard really tenable? If white women are not permitted to belly dance because of the dance’s Middle Eastern origins, should non-Italians similarly be barred from “stealing” Italian culture by selling pizza? Would the same exclusive “cultural ownership” rule apply with regard to other peoples who created things in a particular cultural context, such as the Chinese and fireworks, the British and the plays of Shakespeare or Americans and blue jeans?

In any event, the question of “cultural appropriation” seems purely academic. In a world marked by frequent interactions between diverse groups of people — where globalization is continuously tearing down barriers — it is not really realistic for us to try to prevent cultures from being altered, or to otherwise demand to dictate the terms on which cultures are engaged. The days of monolithic cultures are long gone.

But that is no reason to despair. Cultural exchange serves to foster comity between groups. A white woman who spends years perfecting her belly dancing technique is not spitting on Middle Eastern culture, but acknowledging its value as a form of expression. Similarly, an Asian-American man who wants to use hip-hop to express his thoughts is necessarily acknowledging the utility of a traditionally African-American music genre in communicating ideas. It takes a particularly acute paranoia — manifesting itself in the belief that one’s culture is under a constant existential threat — to feel threatened by these developments. In truth, cultural exchange promotes empathy and understanding.

Of course, some forms of cultural exchange are better than others. People should not mock others through the use of their cultural symbols, and we should critique those who seek to cast certain cultures into disrepute for their own amusement. But that is more a matter of common courtesy than a statement about cultural ownership. As a general proposition, we should appreciate when others seek to share in our culture, not demand that they receive our permission to do so. Telling people what art forms they may or may not engage in based on their skin color or ancestry is an unjustifiable attack on their right to form an identity for themselves. People should be able to use any art form they see fit.

Correction: This article originally quoted Slate, in fact it was Salon magazine.