Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the theft of the riches of a culture by members of another more powerful culture. Law and the market do not recognise the rights of particular cultural groups to their heritage. Fortunately, people do, more and more: it is accepted that only actors from a particular ethnic group should play characters from that group. On a related issue, often disabled actors play disabled characters: we value their experience.

Illustrations. I am delighted that Scottish Country Dancing is worldwide, and that people with no connection to my culture want to dance in this way. The high point was Frae a’ the Airts, a book of dances from all over the world. Our dance was rigorously defined by the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society, in Scotland and out of it, with precise descriptions of figures and steps so that people dancing it anywhere are probably doing it in the same way; and people coming to it are generally concerned to get it “right”. Others add to our tradition, respectfully, sharing our joy not appropriating it.

Is it cultural appropriation for an American WASP to learn Spanish? Motivation matters. It is a difficulty to overcome, having to learn the dominant language where you are, and non-native speakers have the advantage that they can talk amongst themselves and not be understood. Learning the language to take away that advantage would be a motive hostile to the group. Learning it to communicate with people who have been unable to give the time to learn the dominant language is generous. That article linked argues that the claim that language learning will always be cultural appropriation obscures those situations where it is, including, per Orientalism, the attempt to define and analyse the less powerful culture from the point of view of the dominant culture.

However, that angry rejection of any attempt to approach me as cultural appropriation serves a useful psychological purpose, empowering the person who adopts it. It could bind them into their culture, with a group whose body language worked the same way, subtly different from that of the other group. It could give a sense of belonging and self-worth. I hope a person can grow beyond that, valuing the allies outside their own group, even developing an understanding of the persecutors, but self-acceptance is a necessary first stage. Internet fora are not only for establishing truth, but also, legitimately, for gaining reassurance. We need safe spaces before we can venture out into the wider world.

There are two ways of judging cultural appropriation: by the intention of the user, and the effect on the other. The effect on the other matters: ignorant insensitivity is not OK. The cultural artefact is beautiful, and should be treated with respect. If you despise my culture and the things I value, you despise me.

Psalm 137 is one of my favourite Bible passages. The psalmist is in the blackest pit of despair, desiring murderous revenge, and God is with him.

For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!

And some culture is world culture. We all benefit from the legacy of Shakespeare, and Murasaki Shikibu.

William Blake, Albion Rose

12 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation

  1. I think cultural appropriation is an interesting one. I agree, there are the two sides, as there are with many issues, intent and effect. I find the food one particularly fascinating, eg look at the impact of curry on the British culture. We had curry yesterday, it’s a good basic nutritional meal, a dal with spice perfumed butter butter and flavourings. It also happens to be cheap. Similarly, tempeh, seitan and tofu make up part of my diet. Am I culturally misappropriating by taking raw ingredients from age old cultures? But I’m not into ‘Asian fusion’ type food, I’m far more peasant meal style, due to cost and preference. Western privilege speaking? Don’t know.


  2. Hm, it so happens I went out last Friday night to a Croatian Club and had a friend with me of Scottish origins. Music started and the band got into the Croatian Reel and me, I could never resist getting up and dancing the reel – so pulled my friends hand and she danced with us as if she had the reel in her blood – hm, Croatian & Scottish reel dancing have lots in common – I wonder if any appropriated the other’s or each devised the dance independent of the other – culture and mix of it can be ever so strangely familiar


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