Misconceptions about cultural appropriation

I have now written several articles on cultural appropriation. When people comment on articles on this topic, I have observed several recurring themes.

Silos,_Acatlán,_Hidalgo,_México,_2013-10-11,_DD_02

Silos, Acatlán, Hidalgo, México. Photo by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cultural silos

Frequently, people assume that talk of cultural appropriation means that no-one can ever use an idea from another culture.  This would rule out situations of cultural fusion, where two cultures which are on an equal footing come together to create a new amalgam of ideas, music, cuisine, or ritual. It would also rule out cultural exchange, where two cultures on an equal footing acquire new ideas, practices, or rituals from each other. These situations are clearly not problematic, because the two cultures are on an equal footing. The key feature here is theequality of the cultures.

People also talk as if those who are trying to draw attention to the issue of cultural approppriation are behaving as though culture is a monolith or silo, where nothing can ever be transferred from one culture to another. Obviously, this is not the case, and offering examples of cultural fusion or cultural exchange between cultures which are on an equal footing is not an argument for dismissing claims of cultural appropriation.

What makes you part of a culture?

Some people claim that what makes you part of a culture is that you are genetically related to the people who produced that culture. On the basis of this claim, the idea of cultural appropriation has been distorted by people with a racist or alt-right agenda, who want to keep people of colour out of revived European religious traditions. We should strenuously resist the idea that culture is genetically trasnmitted, as it is legitimises racism.

Culture is transmitted through acculturation, via books, films, conversation, storytelling, dance, and traditional practices. People who immerse themselves in another culture can become part of it, and can legitimately take part in its practices and rituals, though if the culture is a living culture, then they should approach living representatives of that culture in order to become part of it.

Culture is specific to time and place

Another recurring theme is the idea that culture is universal and somehow open-source. This is derived from two particularly pernicious ideologies.

The first of these is colonialism, which has taken many forms over the centuries, and consists of the dominant or hegemonic culture assuming that it is superior to the conquered culture, and therefore has a right to the goods, services, resources, lands, and ideas of the conquered culture.

The second of these ideologies seems benign, but isn’t. It is sometimes called the perennial philosophy, and sometimes called universalism – the idea that there is a universal essence of every idea or practice that can be extracted from it and re-embedded in another context. This is the idea behind Michael Harner’s “core shamanism” – the idea that there is a universal shamanistic practice which can be extracted from Siberian shamanism, and re-clothed in the trappings of another culture, and thereby can become the shamanism of the new culture.

However, whilst ideas from one culture can be transferred to another if proper care is taken, quite often they are transferred with little appreciation or care for the original culture from which the idea came, or cherry-picked whilst ignoring other aspects of the source culture which are too ‘difficult’, and become distorted in the process of transfer. The transfer of ideas becomes problematic and culturally appropriative when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

Ignoring the power differential

Many people who struggle with the idea of cultural appropriation fail to see that it happens when the appropriating culture has more power than the source culture.

What does it mean to say that one culture has more power than another? When a culture is seen as normative (in the current context white, European, heterosexual, male, and cisgender are the “norm” or unmarked default), it has more power than non-normative cultures.

Cultures acquire normative status by conquering other cultures. In the ancient world, the Graeco-Roman culture was the normative culture, against which other cultures were measured and found to be barbaric or exotic. In the modern world, the Western culture of Europe and America is the normative culture against which other cultures are seen as relatively exotic or even barbaric.

Cultural Appropriation and Racism

In my last post on cultural appropriation (Cultural Appropriation has nothing to do with “Race”), I made the point that the issue is about culture, not genetics and not “race”. People are part of a culture if they have been brought up in and immersed in that culture – it has nothing to do with their genetic background. Völkisch racists want you to believe that only people who are descended from Northern Europeans can worship Northern European gods, so they have taken the discourse around cultural appropriation and twisted it to their own ends.

However, when the Patheos editors shared the post on the main page (which was very nice of them), they changed the title to “Cultural Appropriation and accusations of racism”. I wasn’t sure how they got to that title from the content of the post, but in the post, I was trying to deconstruct the notion of “race” as a biological or genetic characteristic, and to point out that people shouldn’t culturally appropriate, not because they are a different “race”, but because they are from a different culture. And cultural appropriation can be distinguished from cultural fusion (a respectful blending of cultural forms) by the power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one.

Culture is rich and complex and deep, with its own history, traditions, folklore, and layers and layers of meaning (as the picture below of women in Mali illustrates). Lifted out of context, it loses meaning.

By Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland - Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6120091

Women in Mali. Photo by Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Mali, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Interestingly, a friend who commented on the previous article expressed the concern that would-be cultural appropriators might take the title of the post as carte blanche to carry on appropriating, or as a denial that cultural appropriation is a form of racism (which is implied even more strongly by the changed title that I mentioned above).

I have outlined what cultural appropriation is in previous posts on the topic: the exploitation and commodification of other cultures’ sacred rituals and artefacts, often resulting in a trivialising effect on their meaning. Here’s my definition again:

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a colonising or culturally dominant culture takes a ritual or sacred or meaningful practice from a subjugated or devalued or colonised culture, lifting it out of context and draining it of meaning. And probably making money out of it.

If you’re still not sure what cultural appropriation is, please go back and read those posts again. Or read Crystal Blanton’s excellent post on why cultural appropriation is hurtful and damaging. Here’s her definition:

What is cultural appropriation? It is the borrowing and using of another person’s cultural treasures without permission, without necessary cultural context and without employing the respect due. Many times cultural appropriation is the means of monetary gain by the exploiting of things that should not be for sale, and sometimes it is to gain prestige or credibility. It is also a way that white people have gotten fame or credibility by the very use of cultural attributes that others from the culture are criminalized, villainized and demonized for.  Either way, cultural appropriations takes the valuable pieces of marginalized cultures, those who have already suffered at the hands of painful oppression, and further takes what is left for them to have agency over. When one’s culture is gone, all things are lost.

A subtle form of racism

Why is cultural appropriation a form of racism?

  • It is an extension of colonialism. First the colonisers stole land and natural resources, and persecuted the colonised and enslaved, trying to prevent them from continuing with their cultural practices and lifeways; and then, having destroyed and commercialised our own cultural icons, their descendants plunder the remnants of indigenous cultures for meaning. Obvious examples here are the destruction of Native American / First Nations culture, and the way that whites tried to prevent slaves from having any kind of family life by splitting them up.
  • It exoticises other cultures, regarding them as inscrutable, mysterious, alluring, and barbaric. Take for example the Chinoiserie craze in 18th century England, or Orientalism in the late 19th century. Neither of those was particularly respectful towards the cultures being commodified; it was the exotic and strange that people were attracted to.
  • It commodifies other cultures, regarding them as a resource to be plundered, and a marketable product to be repackaged and sold.
  • It erases the complexity of other cultures. The idea that “all cultures are the same really” erases centuries, possibly millennia, of subtle and complex thought. Examples here include the Perennial Philosophy (the idea that all cultures have the same central core idea), and New Agers who make this claim. The idea that “yoga could have been discovered by anyone” erases the genuine achievement of Indians in inventing it (not discovering it). The idea that you can understand Buddhism well enough to teach their spiritual practices without proper study, and without learning about Buddhism in depth, is another manifestation of this erasure of complexity.
  • It trivialises other cultures. Dressing up in a bastardised version of someone else’s sacred garb, or painting your face in a parody of their skin tone, is offensive.

    “You take a part of a person’s culture that means everything to them, and you make it meaningless. You wear the symbols that represent their cultures without actually understanding the power of what these facets of their culture means to them.” – Udoka Okafor

  • It’s arrogant. It assumes that everyone has a right to everyone else’s cultural forms. There’s an idea floating around that all culture is public property, and everyone should have access to it. Several spiritual traditions with initiations and gradual revelation of mysteries beg to differ. And where one culture has a history of violently persecuting another culture, it’s downright insulting to steal their rituals on top of that.
  • It rides roughshod over the feelings of people of colour. It denies the agency and the feelings of oppressed and marginalised people. It says “I don’t care if this thing is sacred to you, I want it, so it’s mine.”

So, just in case anyone was wondering, yes I do think that cultural appropriation is an extension of colonialism and racism.

Cultural Appropriation has nothing to do with “race”

Nearly every time I write a post about cultural appropriation, someone comes up with a reductio ad absurdum argument which makes something that really isn’t cultural appropriation look as if it is.

One of the most frequent push-backs (or even derailments) when cultural appropriation is mentioned is “does this mean no-one can ever do anything that originated from another culture?” No, of course it doesn’t mean that – although that is what racist and völkisch types want you to think it means.

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a colonising or culturally dominant culture takes a ritual or sacred or meaningful practice from a subjugated or devalued or colonised culture, lifting it out of context and draining it of meaning. And probably making money out of it. The key features of cultural appropriation are:

  • There’s a big difference in power between the appropriating and the appropriated culture
  • There’s a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated culture, and the oppression is still happening now
  • The meaning of the practice is lost or changed in the process of appropriation
  • The appropriator makes money out of repackaging and selling the practice, and the originators of the practice don’t get a penny of it

A difference of power

An example where there is a power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one is the appropriation of Native American ritual by “plastic shamans” and New Agers (and some Pagans). The issue here is not that the appropriators are genetically unrelated to Native Americans: the issue is that there has been a considerable loss of power (land-rights, cultural cohesion, economic power) and white people have consistently tried to erase or exoticise or exterminate Native Americans and their culture. And  in order to fully understand and engage in Native American ritual, you have to be immersed in the culture and know all its stories and symbolism, and share the political and economic struggles of the Native Americans. Non-Natives are sometimes invited to learn from and participate in Native American culture; but you can’t learn their tradition just by picking up a book and sticking some feathers in your hair.

If there is no power differential between the appropriating culture and the appropriated one, then it’s not cultural appropriation. If I start wearing a dirndl and practicing Austrian folk dancing, that’s not cultural appropriation: my culture hasn’t oppressed the Austrians or threatened to erase their existence or frequently belittled their beer-drinking and yodelling. (Actually I think we find these qualities rather admirable.)

I read a great story recently where a guy moved to the Amazon rainforest, married the daughter of the tribal ‘shaman’, learnt their practices and traditions, and is going to be the next tribal ‘shaman’ (or whatever their preferred title for the role is). Now that is respectful engagement with a tradition.

A history of oppression

An example where there is a history of the appropriating culture oppressing the appropriated one is the appropriation of the Passover Seder by modern Christians. There used to be a charming Christian custom of “celebrating” Easter by holding a pogrom (the mass murder of Jews in “revenge” for their alleged “betrayal” of Jesus). And now modern Christians think it’s appropriate to commemorate the fact that Jesus was celebrating Passover at the Last Supper by holding Passover Seder and inserting all sorts of Christian symbolism into it. I think this is a particularly crass example of cultural appropriation.

If there is no history of oppression, it probably isn’t cultural appropriation. Celts and Vikings are not being oppressed by anyone Black, Chinese, Asian, or Middle Eastern, so if any of those people choose to honour Viking or Celtic deities, then it definitely isn’t cultural appropriation.

Racists will try to tell you that anyone who doesn’t have Viking or Celtic blood in their veins can’t do Norse or Celtic spirituality. Well, the Vikings intermarried with people of other cultures all the time, and the “Celts” (apart from being a label imposed by the Greeks) were a vast range of people from Galatia in Turkey, Galicia in Spain, Wales, Brittany, parts of Austria, and were united not by genetics but by shared culture, related languages, and similar art styles. So even based on what we know of history and lore, that claim is utterly spurious, but culture is not transmitted by genes, but by the passing on of stories and rituals and symbols.

Loss of meaning

Where there is a loss of meaning is when a practice is appropriated into a very different cultural context and takes on an entirely new meaning. An interesting example of this is chakras, which were imported into Western spirituality from Hinduism and Buddhism via Theosophy. As this particular appropriation happened about a hundred years ago, it’s probably so deeply entrenched that there’s not a lot of point moaning about it, but if you compare the Western understanding of chakras with the Eastern view of them, it is possible to see that they are viewed quite differently. Another example is the growth of “forest church” among Christians, where they go into the woods, celebrate the festivals of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, but with Jesus and the Trinity and the Atonement as the core of their religion. To me (and I know not everyone feels the same), this is a complete and utter travesty of what the Wheel of the Year is about, and I find it really offensive, because the meaning of the festivals has been completely changed.

If there is no loss of meaning through the transfer of the practice, then it probably isn’t cultural appropriation. Within living memory, OBOD Druidry acquired the festivals of Wicca, and vice versa. Originally, the Druids mostly celebrated the solstices and equinoxes, while Wiccans celebrated mainly the four “Celtic” quarter days (Candlemas, May Eve, Lammas, and Hallowe’en). Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols used to sunbathe side by side in their nudist colony in Hertfordshire, and a fruitful cultural exchange occurred, whereby the two nascent religions acquired each other’s festivals, and the modern Pagan Wheel of the Year was born. Arguably there was a mutual enrichment of meaning.

What about cultures of the past?

If the culture being revived or recreated or reconstructed is a “dead” culture, and there are people reviving it who are not genetic descendants of the people who created the original culture, that’s not cultural appropriation. Culture has nothing to do with genetics. Culture is transmitted through word of mouth, stories, practices, and being immersed in it; it is not transmitted genetically. If I moved to another country and became immersed in their culture (or if I decided to become a Buddhist), the fact that I am probably not genetically related to anyone from that culture is completely and utterly irrelevant.

The Romans oppressed the indigenous people of Britain and assimilated their deities into a cultural fusion that we now refer to as Romano-British (and thereby preserved those deities’ stories by writing them down). But both the ancient Britons and the ancient Romans are dead and gone, so we are not perpetuating that oppression by reconstructing Romano-British culture and religion.

What about living within another culture?

If you go and live in another country, it behooves you to learn their customs and culture and stories and traditions, so you can appreciate their local culture and be a good guest. That’s not cultural appropriation. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, as the saying goes.

640px-Furcifer_pardalis_-Zürich_Zoo-8a

A chameleon (Furcifer pardalis). Photo by Marc Staub – originally posted to Flickr as IMG_8957, CC BY-SA 2.0

When Megan Manson (who is a British practitioner of Paganism and Shinto) joined the Pagan Channel, there was a brief discussion of whether her practice of Pagan Shinto was cultural appropriation. I don’t think it is at all, because there is no loss of meaning – Paganism and Shinto are sufficiently similar that mutual enrichment may occur. The British are not currently oppressing the Japanese or trying to erase their culture (nor do we have a long history of oppressing them), there is no power differential between the two cultures, and she isn’t making money out of her practice. Furthermore, she lived in Japan for a long while and immersed herself in Shinto there.

What if a deity comes calling?

If a deity from another living culture calls to you, that’s not cultural appropriation. If you lift the rituals of that other culture out of context and offer them to the deity without fully understanding how they work and what they mean, then it might be. You don’t have to be genetically related to the culture that originally named the deity in order to work with or honour that deity. It helps if you can understand and relate to the deity’s cultural context, but that has nothing to do with genetics.

Using cultural appropriation as a smokescreen for racism

Many people have taken the idea of cultural appropriation to mean that you can never do any practice that comes from another culture. That really isn’t what cultural appropriation is about at all – but racists want you to believe that that is what it is about. They believe that each “race” is unique, has essential characteristics that are genetically transmitted, and that these characteristics are immutable – and that, in their view, is why people of Asian or African descent can’t participate in European spirituality. The racists also try to claim that the Native Americans told them to seek their own heritage, which somehow justifies their völkisch views. Yes, they told people of European cultural background to seek our own cultural heritage – I very much doubt that they meant that it was somehow genetically encoded in our DNA.

The view that you can only do the spirituality associated with your genetic background is clearly racist, and deserves to be called out wherever it appears.

This also means that we need to be really clear about what cultural appropriation means, and to push back against people who claim (either sincerely or in order to derail a conversation about it) that cultural appropriation means no-one can ever do anything from another culture.

We also need to be really clear about what “race” and racism are. Race is a social construct, but one that has been used to oppress people, and therefore it is a social construct with real effects. However, there is only one “race”, the human race.

If you engage respectfully with the other culture, seek to learn from it, make sure that you are learning from the real sources (or people who have learnt the practice from a genuine lineage or tradition) and not from somebody who has made up their own version of something and stuck an “exotic” label on it – then that is respectful engagement with another culture, and definitely to be encouraged.

What about cultural melting-pots?

What about cities where many different cultures come together and create a unique fusion of concepts? That’s great – they are probably all on an equal footing in the city, and they can create vibrant and exciting fusions of ideas. And probably the original culture is flourishing perfectly well in its home environment, so everything will be just fine. This cultural fusion and exchange is how new cultural forms and traditions arise. But just because this kind of creative fusion exists and is good, doesn’t mean that cultural appropriation is not an issue. In situations of cultural fusion and exchange, there is little or no power differential between the two cultures; there is probably no history of oppression (because they’re probably both formerly colonised cultures); and there is no loss of meaning, but mutual enrichment. As to making money out of it, as long as both sides are making the same amount of money out of it, all will be well.

The blues is an interesting example – sometimes the performance of blues by people who aren’t Black is respectful cultural exchange (e.g. when musicians from different backgrounds perform it together), and sometimes it is cultural appropriation (as when all-white radio stations would only play blues music performed by white musicians, and prior to that, the blues, and rock’n’roll, were dismissed and denigrated by white people).

Why does it matter?

It matters because if you accept the watered-down, stolen, distorted, or culturally appropriated version of the ritual or tradition as being somehow real, the meaning and value of the original and genuine practice is in danger of being lost, and it endangers the culture, and therefore the well-being, of the people whose ritual or practice or symbol it is.

Much recent research has shown that loss of cultural traditions and stories and language underlines and destroys traditional cultures. By eroding, erasing, and distorting those cultures’ precious cultural heritage, cultural appropriation threatens the well-being of those cultures.

And it must be remembered that there is a long and continuing history of oppression which leaves painful emotional scars in the memory of the oppressed group.

No single correct answer

Many people would like there to be a single easy-to-work-out formula to identify when something is cultural appropriation and when it isn’t. But I think you have to do the work of examining each and every situation to work out whether it is cultural appropriation or respectful cultural exchange. You can use my suggested criteria to help you decide (is there a continuing history of oppression? is there still a difference in power between the two groups? is there a loss of meaning when the ritual or symbol is transplanted? is there financial exploitation involved?) but even then, there will be differences of opinion.

Cultural Appropriation and the Blues

Sure, white people can perform Blues songs. But can we sing the Blues?

The Blues originate from a particular cultural and social history unique to Black people. Yes, the musical form was a fusion of European folksong and African musical and folksong techniques – but the emotion underlying the Blues was something special, and the characteristic musical style of the Blues (the blue note) can be traced back to Africa.

The Blues began as a particular type of Black folk music that was first heard around the plantations of north-western Mississippi at the very end of the 19th century. It originated in the area known as the Delta, the flat plain between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, over the next few years. It was further disseminated throughout the Southern States over the first two decades of the new century by travelling shows and wandering songsters.

All About Blues Music

The first audiences for Blues music were segregated; there were separate performances for Black and white audiences. The Blues were born out of the pain of Jim Crow, segregation, slavery, sundowner towns, lynchings, chain gangs, and all of that pain. That is why it’s called the Blues.

The Blues… its 12-bar, bent-note melody is the anthem of a race, bonding itself together with cries of shared self victimization. Bad luck and trouble are always present in the Blues, and always the result of others, pressing upon unfortunate and down trodden poor souls, yearning to be free from life’s’ troubles. Relentless rhythms repeat the chants of sorrow, and the pity of a lost soul many times over. This is the Blues.

W C Handy (1873-1958), “Father of the Blues”

So if a white performer sings a blues song, and fails to acknowledge that history, and makes more money off of it than Black performers… now we are moving into cultural appropriation territory. At the very least, they should credit the song to the original artist (which of course they are legally required to do), and make it clear what the song means – whether it is a happy song which seeks to chase the blues away, or one of the sad songs that we tend to think of when the Blues are mentioned.

Blues is not always a sad music and up-tempo tunes are great for dancing, and there was always competition to show off the best moves and attract a partner. The other great function of the Blues is to articulate the hardships of life, richly expressing the pains of love, loss and bad luck, and helping to lift the burden by sharing the load. Both kinds of Blues touched the people who heard it.

~ All About Blues Music

Remember that, up until relatively recently, white people wouldn’t buy music performed by Black people, and that Black culture was considered “inferior”, “strange”, or “exotic”. Then white performers repackaged the Blues for a white audience, and suddenly they were respectable, and the origins of the Blues as a culture of resistance and the expression of a particular experience were often erased and denied. And remember that this happened during or not long after segregation… I would say that was cultural appropriation.

"Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, Alcide Pavageau (Gottlieb 04541)" by William P. Gottlieb - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04541.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bunk_Johnson,_Leadbelly,_George_Lewis,_Alcide_Pavageau_(Gottlieb_04541).jpg#/media/File:Bunk_Johnson,_Leadbelly,_George_Lewis,_Alcide_Pavageau_(Gottlieb_04541).jpg

Bunk Johnson, Leadbelly, George Lewis, Alcide Pavageau (Gottlieb 04541)” by William P. GottliebThis image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Music Division under the digital ID gottlieb.04541. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In fact this is a perfect example of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Musical genres are freely exchangeable when the cultures involved have equal prestige – but when one of those cultures is persecuted, and the musical genre involved is an expression of the pain of that persecution – then it becomes problematic.

Of course, there are many excellent Blues musicians who are white… but the best ones have made some kind of attempt to understand the particular cultural and social history that gave rise to the Blues; or they have created a fusion with another style, and connected it with their own history of oppression.

Similar arguments happen about klezmer music as well, and probably cajun and zydeco, for all I know.

I think that it is acceptable to perform songs from another culture or musical tradition, as songs are generally “open-source” – but if you start making a lot of money out of it, or erasing the existence of the originators of that genre, then an examination of the ethics would be a very good move; and if the genre is born out of a particular history and culture, then one ought to learn about that culture and history; and most importantly of all, if the originators of a culture ask others to back off, we should honour their request.

Most performers recognise that to perform a song really well – to really express it, not just give a technically good rendition of the song – you need to try to understand the meaning of the song.

How does this insight help with Pagan instances of cultural appropriation?

  • Boundaries are often fuzzy, so approach these issues with caution and sensitivity
  • Cultural appropriation is about identity theft, commodification, and inequality of power – so if any of these are present, be aware that you might be appropriating
  • Real examples from history and culture can help us to understand what cultural appropriation is and is not
  • We need to examine the relationship between us and the culture we want to borrow from
  • We need to understand the history of a cultural form, and how it works in its original context, before lifting it out of that context
  • We need to understand the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation