Cultural appropriation is the use of elements from one culture by members of a different culture. According to law professors and psychologists, social scientists and politicians, cultural appropriation happens when one culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, and more are used without permission of the culture from which it is taken. It’s especially hurtful when the culture being appropriated is one that’s been exploited or oppressed by the culture doing the appropriating.
In other words, cultural appropriation promotes the power imbalance of the ruling class over those who have been historically marginalized.
There are two kinds of culture: Material culture and non-material culture. Non-material culture is what’s meant when speaking about cultural appropriation since non-material culture deals specifically with intangibles. Beliefs. Traditions. Values.
Of course, within material and non-material cultures are other constructs such as subculture (beliefs or behaviors that are contrary to the majority of the culture’s community) and counterculture (active rejection of aspects that are dominant in the culture’s community). For the purposes of this essay, the focus is on mainstream non-material culture.
Now psychologists will tell you that culture and the people of a culture have a symbiotic relationship. Each culture has its unique societal norms by which to live, and members of each culture live by shared expectations and rules that guide and determine their place in that culture. To this end, people define and refine what their culture is, and culture defines and refines its people.
These days, there’s a lot being said about cultural appropriation. Some of it is warranted such as the outcry against sports teams using names that are offensive to Indigenous peoples in the Americas. But is it possible to create art without any cultural appropriation?
Was it cultural appropriation when the Bangles sang about walking like an Egyptian?
Was it cultural appropriation when Carl Douglas let us know that everyone was kung fu fighting?
Was it cultural appropriation when the Vapors thought they were turning Japanese?
Was it cultural appropriation when Steven Tyler and Aerosmith announced that dude looked like a lady?
How about when Toto decided to take on the entire continent of Africa?
This is where the waters are muddy. If those songs and other art, literature, music, and more is cultural appropriation, where do we draw the line when it comes to enjoying past creative endeavors? If we’re told to turn our backs on pop culture that draws on other cultures to exist, is it also time to boycott the classics whether it’s literature, art, or music?
Do we turn our backs on Béla Bartók’s Romanian Dances seeing he was from Hungary and not Romania? Is it time to refuse to attend concerts where Brahm’s “Ballade Edward” is performed because it was based on a Scottish ballad and Johannes wasn’t Scottish? How about Beethoven’s music based on Welsh, Irish, and Scottish folk songs? After all Ludwig was German, was he not?
How about all those musicians who aren’t English but who have recorded “Scarborough Fair” or “Greensleeves?” Should they be forced to make reparations for daring to sing something they obviously appropriated from another culture?
Should “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” be sung only by those of African-American heritage? And next New Year’s Eve, should the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” only be sung only by those who can prove their Scottish ancestry?
Do we stop children and their grandparents from enjoying a rousing rendition of “Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be?” if they haven’t an ounce of English blood anywhere in their background — or going back at least eight generations?
Where no offense is meant, is any harm done? Some say yes while others say no. But if we are to say harm is done, where does this leave the English language which is an amalgam of several languages? Is it time to dismantle the language to create a language that English-language speakers can safely call their own that doesn’t steal from other languages and cultures?
There’s no easy solution, and this is why we need to speak openly about what is, and is not, harmful cultural appropriation. Certainly there are ways to draw upon cultures that are not our own without causing insult and injury. It begins with mutual respect, and this means both sides must be willing to hear each other out before jumping to conclusions. What are your thoughts on the subject?