Fluid Cultures, Rigid Demands: Cultural Appropriation and the Ignorance of Generalisation

Fluid Cultures, Rigid Demands: Cultural Appropriation and the Ignorance of Generalisation

Culture | Mar 14, 2017 / by Paresh Hate
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Introduction: This essay argues that many cases of intangible cultural appropriation cannot be straightforwardly considered wrong. Generalizations about the morality of cultural property constitute discussing multiple issues that ask questions such as whether native culture-members have an absolute monopoly and ownership over its content, and whether the fact of historical colonial racism and discrimination by particular communities in the past can be used to criticize members of those communities in present who do not participate in the injustice. This essay argues that culture is a fluid, continuously evolving phenomenon and depriving others to employ native cultural elements, in reality, violates their rights to use their legitimately owned tangible products. People using their products that represent the abstractions of cultural traditions might also further the cosmopolitan ideal of bringing the world together. Even if there are cases of cultural appropriation reinforcing the dominance of one culture over the other, all instances cannot be put under the same rubric of injustice.



Recently, a news broke out about a Latino girl's message to White girls about cultural appropriation. In Pitzer College, California, the girl, along with some other women of colour in the college, wanted White girls to stop wearing hoop earrings. She believed this was only one of the instances of White people exploiting a foreign culture and turning it into fashion. This trend, she argued, comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion.[i]

Metro, a British newspaper, published an article about the Indian festival of Holi being more than just a gimmick that Westerners should avoid appropriating.[ii] Last year, Chris Martin and Beyoncé's music video called Hymn for the Weekend reignited the cultural appropriation debate throughout the world -a world that was almost becoming cosmopolitan with such sharing of cultural ideas and traditions.[iii] Multiple such examples are found in both world affairs and academic literature. In his acclaimed book on culture and cultural appropriation 'Who Owns Native Culture?', anthropologist Michael F. Brown gives a peculiar, almost ridiculous, example:


“In Australia, Aboriginal militants removed the coat of arms from the Old Parliament House in Canberra, declaring that images of the kangaroo and the emu on this national symbol were the cultural property of Aboriginal people. “We have now reclaimed our sacred emu and kangaroo from the Coat of Arms of the colonisers,” the group announced. In a related incident, an Aboriginal activist demanded that the national airline, Qantas, should no longer be allowed to use the kangaroo as its logo because this animal is the intellectual property of Aboriginal Australians.”[iv]


In the same book by Brown, there are more such examples that might either induce indignation about how imperialism or colonial racism takes place in such subtle ways even today or provoke people to dismiss the whole outrage over cultural appropriation as ludicrous at best or devious encroachment of personal freedoms at worst. So what is it, then? Is cultural appropriation the contemporary technique of maintaining hegemony of West over the rest as many liberals believe? Or is it the unwarrantably scandalised version of cultural evolution that demonstrates cultural fluidity while we forget that restrictive forms of ownership cannot be established in case of at least intangible cultural products?


What is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is “taking—from a culture that is not one’s own—of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history, and ways of knowledge.”[v] This appropriation, or taking, is done by people from non-native cultures generally “to suit their own tastes, express their own creative individuality, or simply make a profit.”[vi]

In cases pertaining to intangible cultural products, there are two ways of looking at the phenomenon of cultural appropriation. Firstly, cultural appropriation consists of the representation of cultural practices or experiences by cultural “outsiders”. Secondly, it involves the use of artistic styles distinctive of cultural groups by non-members. Apart from this, there are instances where tangible or material cultural products are appropriated. These include works of art or land or any artefact. The essay does not focus on this third category. Judgement regarding this third category is comparatively easier as it is widely understandable how straightforward theft or acquisition of an object is in terms of its morality. The major point of contention, as discussed in the examples above, deals with the intellectual or intangible ideas that cannot be so simply argued for, in spite of the availability of intellectual property laws across the globe.


What is Culture?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as, “A particular form or type of intellectual development. Also, the civilisation, customs, artistic achievements, etc., of a people, especially at a certain stage of its development or history.” Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, the pioneering anthropologist described a culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”[vii] Both these definitions, as philosopher James O. Young explains, refer to culture being an abstract object[viii]- something that cannot be tangibly or concretely manifested except through beliefs, behaviour or individual instantiation that can be reproduced multiple times.

This means, as previously noted, restrictive understanding of ownership cannot be directly applied without some conceptual adjustment or social construction. This has, incidentally, already been done in case of IP laws. However, for many political theorists and philosophers, the ontological status of intellectual property is as dubious as culture.

In regards to culture, everyone seems to realise the truism that the only way a manifestation of intangible cultural elements can be done is through individual behaviour and beliefs. But the question remains who own these elements, or rather who owns the culture?

Culture theorist and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah questions the sensibility of attempting to preserve traditional cultures in the modern world.[ix] In a world on the brink of cosmopolitanism and globalisation, where people are trying to transcend national borders as relevant moral category, it is hardly courageous to pursue a cultural purity program. Secondly, fluidity and mutability are well-known characteristics of culture. Cultural boundaries have hardly been hard and fast. In the issue of cultural appropriation, trying to argue that rigid categorizations of traditional culture determine our sharing of ideas seems almost primitive.


Instances Where Cultural Appropriation Can Be Wrong:

It is important to be aware that multiple definitions of cultural appropriation available are normatively laden. That is, they define the phenomenon in such a way that immorality is an inherent part of it. For example, for artist Loretta Todd the definition of cultural appropriation “originates in its inversion, cultural autonomy [and] cultural autonomy signifies a right to cultural specificity, a right to one’s origins and histories as told from within the culture and not as mediated from without.”[x] Another definition says that cultural appropriation “involves taking over peoples’ control over representations of themselves.”[xi] Such definitions might be somewhat plausible given the historical reality of dominance of one culture over another. Throughout history, there have been occasions of coerced cultural assimilation by means of murder, displacement, and oppression of native and indigenous peoples by colonists from the Western world. Any defence of cultural appropriation here would not, or rather should not, be a vindication or endorsement of this horrific behaviour. But contemporary exchange of cultural ideas is not solely governed by historical variables. Many instances that can be called cultural appropriation under a neutral definition seem justifiable while remaining fair towards the engaging parties. This is another reason why a normative definition of cultural appropriation must be used with caution. It is due to this that discourses tend to get blurred by the logical fallacy of begging the question.

Young also mentions ways in which cultural appropriation can be harmful. Cultural appropriation in cases of tangible properties can constitute outright theft.[xii] In cases where the creators of intangible ideas are alive, appropriation by Western communities to profit from those notions also might be construed as an example of theft. Apart from this, cultural appropriation can act as assault by creating or perpetuating harmful misrepresentations of a culture or its members.[xiii] Thirdly, for Young, appropriation can cause profound offence to the members of native community in cases where “protracted profound offence could prove debilitating”.[xiv] However, another reminder is to remember the difference between simple harms and harms one is entitled to be protected from.

Thus, any discussion of cultural appropriation must take into account such cases and be extremely sensitive to the plight and problems of indigenous and minority cultures, many of which are rooted in the facts of history.


Cultural Appropriation may be offensive but not harmful:

James O. Young makes a distinction between harm and offence that can be applied in the debate of cultural appropriation. Taking inspiration from ethicist Joel Feinberg, Young defines harm as a setback to someone’s interests.[xv] He continues, “When one is physically injured, robbed, or cheated, one is harmed... [p]eople who have been harmed are unable to pursue their interests and projects to the same extent as they could prior to being harmed.”[xvi] On the other hand, for Young, being offended is a state of mind that one dislikes. When one is offended, the person is “disgusted, outraged, appalled, or in a similar state of mind.”[xvii]

Keeping this distinction in mind, it becomes apparent that a large class of cases that are termed as cultural appropriation, including the ones mentioned above, can very well cause offence but are not in any simple manner harmful. Even those are harmful in the sense of creating profound offence or misrepresentation might not be necessarily immoral. People are not uncontroversially at least entitled to be protected from false portrayals. This issue of portrayal becomes even more confusing when we talk about cultures- that people don't exactly “own”.


Further Arguments

Thus, many cases of cultural appropriation–such as the ones described in the beginning of this essay–are not clearly immoral. In majority of cases of cultural appropriation in terms of intangible products, the creator of the minority or native cultures is unknown or long dead. Most of these cultural concepts have been originated thousands of years ago and there is no sensible reason to resort to the desperate argument that members belonging to the culture today as “cultural descendants” have any legitimate ownership over these ideas or concepts. The inventors of these ideas of course never wrote down a will that the cultural product shall later belong to them!

Furthermore, widespread criticism and shunning of instances that are called cultural appropriation can also lead to diminishing social value of freedom of expression. Of course, there must be a balance between freedom of expression and offensive cultural appropriation. This is because the phenomenon can still be a naturalised technique to maintain the cultural hegemony or colonial racism. But outrage over every incident where a sari or deadlocks are donned by a Westerner are not the quintessential misappropriations.

The usual worry in this issue is that cultural appropriation is not just what has been described above. The idea is that members of dominant culture are praised for the  “adorning” and employing of the same concepts that do not result in having similar response toward the native or minority culture-members. This is tragic. But the reaction to this fact should not be criticising unaware or ignorant beneficiaries of the dominant culture. The donning of cultural pieces has nothing to do with being the ignorant beneficiary many times. Individuals, even those belonging to the historically discriminatory group, do not generally adopt foreign cultural elements consciously. Their participation in the dominant group is sometimes only a matter of accident of birth.

In such cases, then, the free exchange or even “unauthorised” adoption of culture is not the problem. Rather, the semiotics in which it takes place is. This means the proper response to this trend that makes many people anxious is not to try to stop the freedom of people to choose the items in their own “personal culture” but to combat the meaning of social behaviour pervaded in society that affects people unfairly. If this is taken care of, possibly in an egalitarian world, even the native culture in-group will not have to be asked for the permission for adopting some elements of the indigenous culture. This is because, as noted above, even the in-group members do not have any rightful claim over many of the cultural products.


A Reality of Fiction:

Michael F. Brown notes that a world of discrete, perfectly bounded cultures has never existed.[xviii] There is no shortage of sociological and anthropological evidence of the communication between cultures. The fact that there is no objective way to create absolute boundaries between cultures seems a truism to many in social sciences. Cultures are fluid and evolving and can only be understood in a Wittgensteinian language resemblance framework. Given this, the insistence of maintaining cultural purity or cultural essentialism is something we must be cautionary of.

It is true that cultural appropriation has the potential to aggrandize social marginalisation of native cultures in the global market and world order. However, judgement in such matters must be piece-meal. Generalisation of all cases will harm us in many ways.



In this essay, it has been argued that there are reasons to be sceptical about the essential immorality of cultural appropriation. These, I believe, are strong reasons. In no way, however, they are a denial of the injustice that cultural appropriation can cause. But taking into consideration the social utility value of freedom of expression and choice, understanding the nature and ontology of culture makes us more empathetic to understand important factors in this debate. Eventually, the argument implies only that just because a particular culture has been the genesis point of a hoop earring or a sari or a deadlock or what-have-you, it doesn't mean they get to dictate the terms upon its use.




[i] Jessica Chasmar, 'Pitzer College president condemns hate speech after white girls shamed for wearing hoop earrings', Culture: The Washington Times, 10 March 2017. Available online at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/10/melvin-oliver-pitzer-president-condemns-hate-speec/

[ii] Sareta Puri, 'The Holi festival is more than just a gimmick – people need to stop appropriating its traditions', Lifestyle: Metro, 10 March 2017. Available online at: http://metro.co.uk/2017/03/10/what-is-holi-festival-6489708/

[iii]  Anthea Butler, 'Coldplay and Beyoncé: skip the cultural appropriation for Super Bowl halftime', Opinion: The Guardian, 1 February 2016. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/01/super-bowl-halftime-show-coldplay-beyonce-cultural-appropriation-india-bollywood

[iv] Michael F. Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 2

[v] Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao,“Introduction to Cultural Appropriation: A Framework for Analysis,” in Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation, ed. Bruce Ziff and Pratima V. Rao (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997), pp. 1.

[vi] Susan Scafidi, Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, (Rutgers University Press, 2005), pp. 9

[vii] Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom, (London: John Murray, 1871), pp. 1

[viii]James O. Young, Cultural Appropriation in the Arts (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), pp. 10

[ix] Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005), chapter 4.

[x] Loretta Todd, 'Notes on Appropriation', Parallelogram 16, (Summer 1990), pp. 32

[xi] The Long Way Home, 'What is Cultural Appropriation?' 2 February 2012. Available online at: https://ardhra.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/what-is-cultural-appropriation/

[xii] James O. Young, Cultural Appropriation in the Arts (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), chapter 3.

[xiii] Ibid. chapter 4.

[xiv] Ibid. chapter 5, pp. 130

[xv] Joel Feinberg, The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law. Vol. 1, Harm to Others, (New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985).

[xvi] James O. Young, Cultural Appropriation in the Arts (Blackwell Publishing, 2008), pp. 130

[xvii] Ibid. pp. 130

[xviii] Michael F. Brown, Who Owns Native Culture? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), pp. 252

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Written By Paresh Hate

I do social and political criticism of status quo because it has unresolved foundational issues pertaining to ethics and philosophy that call for scrutiny.

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