I am an Anthropology/Archaeology student, and I get really mad when others get angry about “cultural appropriation.” In fact, I get annoyed when people use the term “cultural appreciation” too.
Yes, there are some ignorant people out there who take aspects of other cultures out of context. Yes,…
I agree that cultural exchange is a good thing, and that we benefit from learning about and from one another. The problem is that cultural exchange is very different from cultural (mis)appropriation. You mention displacement from context, which is part of the trouble. But to me the core problem (and what distinguishes it from innocuous exchange) is the mentality of entitlement that characterizes appropriation.
The theft of cultural property from a people cannot be minimized as the actions of a few douchebags. Moreover, it doesn’t just affect a few, overly-sensitive individuals, but entire communities who have every right to be angry.
Let’s start with the material impact. There are ways to respectfully engage with, and acquire items/knowledge from a culture. In fact, many communities must now rely on such products in order to scrape by. But when a company like Urban Outfitters decides it’s acceptable to use Native designs and market them themselves, they are not simply out-competing a rival company. They are stealing and exploiting from a culture, hindering a Native economy, and thereby endangering the livelihoods of many people. And you’ll excuse me if I don’t think capitalism should be the new social Darwinism.
Protecting your culture isn’t pettiness. Especially when you need your culture to help put food on the table. People who oppose appropriation are not jealously holding their entire culture for ransom. They are trying to take back what has already been stolen from them. They have been put in a position where they have to fight in order to manage and benefit from their own property.
As I mentioned, there are plenty of goods that are being sold by legitimate indigenous craftspeople, goods that won’t impinge on their people’s cultural/spiritual integrity. Still, appropriators often act indignant when they are told what objects they can and can’t have (see entitlement, privilege, colonialism). Apparently, appropriators have the right to trample all over another culture, but indigenous people don’t have a right to protect their own traditions.
But hey, what about the random headdress wearing hipsters? Surely they can’t be as harmful as those nasty corporations?
As individuals, yes, they are tiny, unimportant imbeciles. But they do make up a collective of consumers, people who can wave a dollar, encouraging and enabling corporations to perpetrate economic injustices. And while cultural theft has already been normalized and trivialized in mainstream Western society (“ethnic” Halloween costumes, for example), this recent hipster trend is now glorifying it.
Perhaps they didn’t create the system of exploitation, but they are perpetuating it, and expanding it, believing that they can distance themselves from problematic histories by covering their eyes. But from the perspective of affected communities, appropriators are just the tail end of that same systematic violence, people who have willingly inherited the whip and the scalper’s knife, and are learning to use them in new ways.
And for what? Really, somebody explain to me why it’s so crucial for people to have access to indigenous culture in this vein. Erasing centuries of meaning isn’t conducive to “cultural exchange,” and is in fact quite the opposite.There is no learning, no sharing of knowledge (unless we count getting four “likes” on an instagrammed Facebook profile picture as spiritual growth).
“But what’s the big deal?” The Hipster asks. “It’s just a photo/costume/hat/etc.!” Many appropriators will trivialize the issue in this way, will wonder why they should have to put down the headdress—well, please, can they give a good explanation for why they should have it in the first place? And if they really care so little, if it’s really just a game to these hipsters, then why is it so problematic to comply with the requests of indigenous people?
While I don’t want to abuse historical analogy, nor make false equivalencies, this carelessness brings to mind these lines from Pity for Poor Africans, an 18th century satirical poem by William Cowper:
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!
Of course, cultural (mis)appropriation does not compare to the Triangle Trade. But it does amount to economic inequality, to the caricature of native peoples and traditions. And it uses a related logic of entitlement (ah, that word again). And it assures that when these injustices continue, most people will not fight, but accept that this is simply how the world works.
Really, it boils down to a certain worldview. A worldview that dictates that one can ignore an entire culture, can ignore a history of violence, exploitation, and theft (not to mention rape, murder, genocide, etc.). All of that can disappear, as long as you can point at something and say, “I want it.” (Again, see entitlement, privilege, colonialism.)