Can cultural appropriation be a good thing? | The Tylt
Can cultural appropriation be a good thing?
Bari Weiss at the New York Times argues the hysteria of cultural appropriation threatens the bedrock of American culture. From the beginning, America blended cultures from disparate immigrant groups. Today, it's almost impossible to do anything without accusations of appropriation. Weiss argues the charges of appropriation often go too far and are unjustified.
Yes, it's wrong when dominant groups steal from oppressed groups. But more often than not, charges of appropriation are levied at actions which try to create something new from pieces of cultures. That's the main engine behind American culture—it lifts and integrates things to create something new. There's nothing inherently wrong with that.
The point is that everything great and iconic about this country comes when seemingly disparate parts are blended in revelatory ways. That merging simply doesn’t happen in places where people are separated by race and ethnicity and class. And it’s not only what makes American culture so rich, but it is also a big part of the reason America is so successful. When we see a good idea, we steal it; when we have a good idea, the rest of the world is welcome to it as well.
When everything becomes problematic, nothing new can happen. People end up being too worried that an Internet mob will shame them into silence. Previously innocuous things suddenly become labeled as dangerous and off-limits. Forcing purity is against everything American culture stands for. Appropriation does exist and, sometimes, it is bad. But the current framing goes too far. Not everything is stealing and not everything is bad.
These days our mongrel culture is at risk of being erased by an increasingly strident left, which is careering us toward a wan existence in which we are all forced to remain in the ethnic and racial lanes assigned to us by accident of our birth. Hoop earrings are verboten, as are certain kinds of button-down shirts. Yoga is dangerous. So are burritos and eyeliner.
Cultural appropriation is not the same thing as cultural exchange. It's all about context. Appropriation is a problem because of the power dynamic hidden behind these so-called "exchanges."
A deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.
That’s why cultural appropriation is not the same as cultural exchange, when people share mutually with each other – because cultural exchange lacks that systemic power dynamic.
Claims that people are merely appreciating another's culture are extremely flimsy, especially when people of that culture are explicitly explaining why it's wrong. Explaining away appropriation as a "mistake" or a misguided attempt at "appreciation" is demeaning. If someone truly wanted to appreciate another culture, they should take the time to learn the history and context of what they're trying to do.
There's often a double standard in these situations. Things like wearing dreadlocks or cornrows were often disparaged when black people did it. But when white people do it, it's seen as edgy, transgressive and cool.
Cultural appropriation shows that you don’t have to like a person or respect their identity to feel entitled to take from them.
It fundamentally comes down to respect. It's about recognizing the world we live in today is still racist. We're still dealing with the ripple effects of colonization. It's rarely about any single individual's action, but about the larger context in which it's happening. True culture exchange and appreciation must come from a place of respect. That starts with not being an asshole.
Click through below to see Maisha Z. Johnson's explanation of exactly why appropriation is harmful and a big deal.