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26.11.07

Trying To Move My Thinking Forward On Cultural Appropriation

I've had trouble getting my head around the idea of cultural appropriation -- when and how it's appropriate to adopt elements of other cultures -- in large part because I've had trouble applying the pragmatist criterion I described in an earlier post. That is, I've struggled to pinpoint just what it is that's harmful about the borrowings we label "appropriation." (To be clear, this does not mean that I doubt such harm exists or assume that it's OK until I can explain exactly what's wrong with it.) The most obvious response is to adopt a culture as property" paradigm, which I find problematic because it draws on certain assumptions about cultural independence and boundedness that seem to map poorly onto anthropological reality.

I had a minor "aha" moment reading a comment by atlasien in response to Rachel raising this issue. The nut of it is this:

I tend to use a simple idea to spot appropriation… the belief that a unique aspect of another culture can be absorbed into your identity while remaining a marker of that other culture (in other words, still viewed as authentic and unique, not melded into globalized pop culture) while being stripped of its negative connotations.


I need to ruminate more on this way of looking at the issue -- currently I can't even come up with a snappy label for it to parallel the "culture as property" view. I've encountered similar perspectives before, but never quite hashed it out enough in my own brain to be able to recall it (as opposed to being baffled as described in my opening paragraph) when confronted with new questions of potential cultural appropriation. Atlasien's description highlights the way that the wrongness of cultural appropriation is more about how it seeks to define/speak for/claim authority over/claim the benefits of the identity and way of life of the apropriate-ees.

For the moment, I'll note two considerations about this view. First, I would say that a cultural element can qualify as wrongfully appropriated if it's treated as a marker not just of "that other culture ... viewed as authentic and unique," but also of a sort of generalized Other/opposite-to-my-culture-ness (contrast, for example, the new-agey practitioner of an eclectic hodgepodge of non-Western cultural traits with the narrowly-focused Japanophile). Second, I'm hesitant about the (usually implicit) presumption that the only valid alternative to appropriation is total immersion in the other culture (leading either to becoming fully bicultural, or a conversion away from your old culture). Taken too far, this could tempt one back into the same conception of cultures as distinct and internally holistic and fully integrated that I found problematic in the "culture as property" view.

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