The phrase “cultural appropriation” appears in many forms and many contexts. And the debates surrounding it have swelled periodically, especially in the last 20 years. But what does it really mean, and when does it become truly problematic?
The type of cultural appropriation we need to be vigilant about is fairly simple. It occurs when members of a dominant culture – for example, white Americans or white Australians – take elements from the culture of an ethnicity or racial group they have typically oppressed – e.g. Indigenous peoples – and use them for themselves. That is, they appropriate a culture that is not their own. And it’s most problematic when that appropriation occurs for reasons of power or profit.
When cultural appropriation = profit
Let’s use one example of profit in an industry heavily associated with cultural appropriation: music and entertainment.
A few years ago, Nicki Minaj called Miley Cyrus out at the MTV Video Music Awards for appropriating elements of hip-hop culture without truly engaging with Black issues. She wrote on Twitter: “Come on you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.” –Nicki Minaj (2015)
These comments came at a time that Cryus was experimenting with elements of hip-hop culture in her music, videos, and overall public image. Miley was attempting to shed her public image as innocent Hannah Montana and recast herself as a fully grown woman – in part by consciously borrowing the musical and aesthetic languages of hip hop. And of course, she was not the first.
Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Britney Spears, Iggy Azalea – the list of white female musicians who have worked with hip-hop artists and producers or explicitly appropriated elements of Black culture runs long. The common thread is that for many of them, these experiments of appropriation allowed them to gain money and publicity by livening up their performances with elements from a culture that wasn’t authentically theirs. Music managers and executives have followed this pattern for years, using it to transform their artists and keep them relevant.
There are many reasons why they do it, but the bottom line is simple: white artists can use the language, sounds, and style of hip-hop and R&B, which are primarily Black art forms, to change their public perception in a way that’s often beneficial to their careers. This is a prime example of cultural appropriation in the service of profit and public image.
Professor Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written extensively about the white appropriation of Black culture, cites the late scholar bell hooks when she explains this phenomenon in her book White Negroes: “‘Ethnicity,’ in this case blackness by way of hip-hop culture, ‘becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.’”
The difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
Nicki Minaj’s callout to Miley Cyrus underlines another important feature of cultural appropriation: its perpetrators often don’t engage with the cultures they’re taking from. And that’s what really helps us distinguish between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation.
Many critics of cultural appropriation argue that it’s too difficult to distinguish between the two. Culture is such a broad concept, they argue. Cultural exchange is a good thing, they protest. And their arguments don’t fall on totally deaf ears – most people my age grew up with Multiculturalism – the celebration of cultural difference and ethnic diversity – as a mainstay of schools, community organizations and even family life.
But in this country, there’s a long history of appropriation and denigration that exists alongside the relatively recent Multiculturalist ethos.
One of the earliest (and still most commonly discussed) instances of cultural appropriation is blackface, which is when white people impersonate Black people by darkening their skin with cosmetics.
The history of blackface actually begins with a man whose stage character was named “Jim Crow.” Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860) was a white actor from New York who became famous for his blackface minstrel shows, in which he caricatured the lives of slaves in skits and musical numbers, all while in blackface. These shows were of course primarily targeted toward white audiences.
Blackface minstrelsy, as it is now known, became an incredibly popular theatrical form in the U.S., reaching a peak between 1850-1870 – which includes the period in which enslaved people were first emancipated. This was an early example of white performers appropriating and exploiting the experiences of Black Americans for profit.
Interestingly, after the Civil War, some Black Americans repurposed the minstrel show format and created traveling musical troupes of their own, offering some former slaves (and their descendants) a shot at economic freedom, celebrity, and the chance to travel the country.
These traveling shows also began attracting Black audiences, which meant they naturally included themes and art forms that were more geared toward our communities. Amongst these was a new form of soulful music that was born in the Mississippi Delta and had deep roots in Black spirituals: the Blues.
By the 1920s, America had its first record label stars and household names, several of whom were actually Black female Blues musicians. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith became nationally recognized artists and even managed to acquire some real wealth thanks to the popularity of the Blues and the booming production of records.
But eventually – not unlike the appropriation of hip-hop – white artists, managers, and record label owners realized they could market these new “race records” (which is what any Blues and Jazz record was called at the time) to a much larger white audience.
Historians like Amiri Baraka have argued the Folk and Rock music that took hold of the country in the 1950s and 60s – popularized by mega stars like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and even the Beatles – could not have existed without Blues music, a quintessentially Black American art form. Baraka thought the Blues were “the basic national voice of the African-American people,” and argued that white America had consistently appropriated Black musical styles since the 19th century, saying in Blues People: Negro Music in White America: “…after each new wave of Black innovation, i.e., New Orleans, big band, bebop, rhythm and blues, hard bop, new music, there was a commercial cooptation of the original music and an attempt to replace it with corporate dilution which mainly featured white players and was mainly intended for a white middle-class audience.”
Obviously it’s difficult to pin down who “owns” a musical style or who has the right to perform it. The commercial success of a musician depends on their ability to reach a large number of people, and some of those listeners are bound to be musicians, eager to learn, imitate, or evolve from what they hear – regardless of their ethnic or racial identity.
However, when it comes to dollars and cents, we know that Black musicians like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith (as well as the many other Blues and Jazz innovators of the period) were never paid as much as their white counterparts. Nor did they receive any kind of meaningful acknowledgement by white artists for their role in this history. Elvis never had to acknowledge the dark history behind the Blues in order to profit from their appeal.
This form of cultural appropriation is deeply intertwined with systemic and institutionalized racism rooted in capitalism. In theory, art and other cultural products are created for the benefit of everyone. But in practice, they are also monetized for the benefit of the few. So we need to be aware of the dynamics of appropriation when we’re talking about who makes money and earns publicity off of what art.
In today’s world, globalization and digitization make it easier than ever to access different cultures and their artistic creations. That can be a beautiful thing. But it also makes it easier to appropriate them.
The fashion industry has come under scrutiny in this respect, since they sit at the center of global trade in design, textiles, and artisanship. The Mexican government publicly condemned mega retailer Zara just last year for appropriating the native style of Indigenous craftspeople in the Oaxaca region. In response, Zara apologized and pulled a few garments from their website, but there’s nothing really stopping them from repeating this behavior.
Other designers have made a point of bringing Indigenous people into their process from the beginning. When the director of Brazilian sportswear brand, Osklen, visited the Asháninka tribe in South America, he didn’t just lift motifs and styles from their traditional crafts for his next season. He worked with the tribe to ensure they’d get a share of the profits, as well as publicity for their struggle to protect their land from industrial encroachment. It may not be a perfect exchange, but it’s more thoughtful and engaged than your average “inspired-by” collection.
Moving forward in a multicultural world
The globalized world we live in is the product of a centuries-old colonial conquest by Western, predominantly white superpowers. European and American imperialists handed down a racist heritage to us – and part of that is the systematic denigration of Indigenous cultures as inferior (and therefore conquerable).
We have to acknowledge that appropriation of indigenous cultures without proper engagement, credit, or economic benefits tends to further the imperialist project in a culturally violent way. So when we talk about cultural appropriation and its pitfalls, we’re not really focused on your Italian espresso-maker or your Russian vodka. We’re looking out for instances of dominant cultures appropriating from historically oppressed or marginalized communities.
Because of our multicultural world, it’s inevitable that cultural appropriation, appreciation, and exchange will happen. On the whole, different cultures sharing with each other is a great thing. That said, there are some pretty basic guidelines to follow when it comes to cultural appreciation, especially if you’re a member of a dominant culture:
- Never use other countries or cultures that are not your own as jokes or costumes (e.g. wearing a sombrero at your Cinco de Mayo party)
- Don’t misrepresent traditional or sacred elements of a culture that have profound meaning for its members (e.g. wearing a Native American warrior headdress to a music festival)
- If you are engaging with another culture, make sure you are engaged with its members and see how you can use your platform to benefit their interests
- Don’t allow cultural appropriation to fuel profits without acknowledging the contributions and historical origins of a cultural product – and where possible, work to share those profits with the communities you’re engaging with
Cultural appropriation can be a big gray area, but it can also be pretty straightforward. If it feels like you have to ask the question or call something out, chances are it’s worth digging deeper into the situation. (One popular British chef even has a team of Cultural Appropriation experts to make sure he’s giving proper credit when creating recipes inspired by other cuisines.)
If we are going to borrow or learn from cultures beyond our own, we have to make sure we engage with them on a deeper social and economic level. That means amplifying voices from underrepresented communities and giving them compensation or equity for their contributions. It also means going beyond the blame game to create space for deeper conversations about appropriation. Calling it out is only the beginning: we have to talk about how the dynamics of appropriation work and why they’re damaging.
Culture is vast. It encompasses so much of what makes humans great. Art, crafts, music, literature, dance, sport, language, food – all the greatest things in the world live under the giant umbrella of “Culture”. These things should be treasured and protected, and when they intersect with money and power – which they often do – we have to be vigilant about who gets to benefit from them.
This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from Diversity Explained.
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