There are a number of issues around cultural appropriation which I see continuously bog down discussion. I think they revolve around some crucial issues undergirding the whole concept of cultural appropriation, so I think we need to “get back to basics” somewhat.
Before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge the work of Andrea Smith, particularly her article ‘Spiritual Appropriation as Sexual Violence’, printed in her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide as being very influential to my thinking about these issues.
I disagree with a lot of the common definitions of cultural appropriation around. Cultural appropriation isn’t simply the “taking or borrowing of some aspects of another culture from someone outside that culture”. Cultures throughout time have traded, adapted, and borrowed artefacts, symbols, technologies and narratives from one another. The issue isn’t the aesthetic and material mingling of cultures, hybridity, or that human creativity crosses cultural boundaries. Those are aesthetic and perhaps moral issues, separate from the real political issue of cultural appropriation.
A lot of the time cultural appropriation is also called ‘cultural theft’. But cultures aren’t tangible things that can only be possessed by one person. Culture is made up of shared ideas, skills, traditions, styles, images, that circulate through a particular society. Cultures are heterogeneous — people who are part of the same society can be part of different cultures, which influence each other — and they change over time.
The problem isn’t that cultures intermingle, it’s the terms on which they do so and the part that plays in the power relations between cultures. The problem isn’t “taking” or “borrowing”, the problem is racism, imperialism, white supremacy, and colonialism. The problem is how elements of culture get taken up in disempowering, unequal ways that deny oppressed people autonomy and dignity. Cultural appropriation only occurs in the context of the domination of one society over another, otherwise known as imperialism. Cultural appropriation is an act of domination, which is distinct from ‘borrowing’, syncretism, hybrid cultures, the cultures of assimilated/integrated populations, and the reappropriation of dominant cultures by oppressed peoples.
What’s being appropriated in *cultural appropriation* isn’t the things themselves — the images, stories, artefacts, themes, etc. — it’s the capacity of people of oppressed groups to determine the meaning, scope, usage, and future of those things. Cultural appropriation involves taking over peoples’ control over representations of themselves. Cultural appropriation is an attack on cultural autonomy and self-determination, backed up by historically constructed domination.