There has recently been a lot of conversation about “Cultural Appropriation” in my internet community. Briefly, cultural appropriation is when a person or group of persons from a dominant culture adopts cultural practices from a subordinate culture. A whole bunch of other factors may or may not be important to determining if a particular act is cultural appropriation depending on who you talk to. For example, do the intentions of the borrower matter? Does it matter if the borrower is granted permission by a member of the culture they’re borrowing form? And so on.
The short answer to these questions is, “it’s complicated.” The best explanation of the phenomenon I’ve read yet is here.
I’m ready to contribute to this conversation and it seems like the place to begin is to acknowledge the way that white men like me usually get it wrong. We get it wrong by getting defensive. By failing to listen. By making the whole conversation about ourselves. In other words, all the usual reactions a person of privilege has when they’re called on their privilege. The biggest way we get it wrong though is by trying to equate any cultural exchange with cultural appropriation.
For example, Randa Jarrar wrote an essay for Salon about white women appropriating belly dancing. It’s the internet so there was a lot of frothing not worth responding to, but even from writers I respect there was this common mistake of equating any cultural exchange with cultural appropriation. Both Eugene Volokh at the Washington Post and Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic responded by basically saying “so Yo Yo Ma shouldn’t play Bach?” which. just. facepalm.
So for myself and other white people out there trying to understand what cultural appropriation is I offer this mantra “It’s about power. It’s about power. It’s about power.”
Ideas and practices are exchanged between people of different cultures. That’s inevitable. But not all exchanges are equal. People of privilege have greater ability to plunder the riches of other cultures without regard for the original context or meaning of these ideas and practices. As Randa Jarrar herself replied to this line of criticism:
“So black women can’t be ballerinas?” If black women were part of a dominant culture that had colonized Europe starting at the Italian renaissance, and later colonized France and Russia, and if, after all that, black ballerinas danced in bikini tops, then yes, this argument would work. But it doesn’t.
Power is the key factor in distinguishing cultural exchange from cultural appropriation. Just as there is no such thing as reverse racism there is no such thing as reverse cultural appropriation. Failing to address the role of power in this conversation is failing to address the subject at all.