As an artist and art writer, I formally joined the conversation around “cultural appropriation” in 2015, arguing on the side of culture. The Federalist kindly published a few articles in which I pushed back against this then-burgeoning complaint. I surprised myself by appearing on the site, which tends to hold far more conservative views than my own, but I found that no one else in the art world media would publish comparable critique.
Having written on the topic for several years now, I find that the arguments haven’t changed much. For one, we’re no closer to a sensible definition of “cultural appropriation.” According to Porter Braswell, the writer of a July 2022 Fast Company article and founder of Diversity Explained, cultural appropriation “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 sounds straightforward enough, but in practice, accusations of “cultural appropriation” take place even between parties for whom dominance and subordination cannot be determined. For instance, to my knowledge it was never satisfactorily resolved whether drag queens of any race are allowed to appropriate the mannerisms of black women. See this excoriation of RuPaul’s Drag Race in Xtra*, accusing the show’s black, gay host of perpetuating blackface and anti-blackness for countenancing that vaunted crime. Even leaving unchallenged the dubious assumption that skin color is the most salient aspect of human existence, the example raises the question of why it’s permissible for a man to simulate a woman but not a white person to simulate a black one.
“Cultural appropriation” is hard to define because it isn’t real. A given culture joins the people who engage seriously in that culture. One can talk about rap being a black thing, or the hora being a Jewish thing, or kaiju movies being a Japanese thing, and so on—but the relationships are that of association, not ownership. Culture doesn’t belong to you; you belong to a culture. What does not belong to you cannot be, as Braswell puts it, “taken.”
Culture can, however, be copied, emulated, and adapted—with varying levels of success and sensitivity. If someone adapts the culture with which you affiliate, and the results are cynical, hollow, frivolous, or “cringe,” it is reasonable to feel distaste. But the result hasn’t failed because they “appropriated” or copied a form of cultural expression; everything is copied. It failed because its creator could not adequately cohere technique, feeling, and content. The correct descriptor, in this instance, is “bad art.”
Porter Braswell, however, grasps for notions of ownership even as the history he describes rips them away. The history of early American blackface, for example, might be thought of as the primordial case of “cultural appropriation,” but even this is not so simple. After describing how white actors would paint their faces and amuse white audiences with dehumanizing caricatures of black people, Braswell mentions:
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.
From a certain standpoint, this would mean that we owe the blues and its ensuing musical forms to minstrel shows put on by white actors. Obviously it’s not that simple, but neither is Braswell’s repeated contention that every creative advance is, to use the phrase he cites from Amiri Baraka, “black innovation.” This argument relies on a conception that the ambient culture of “white” America is incidental to the black artistic innovation that periodically leavens it. Hence Braswell’s approving quotation of bell hooks, describing hip-hop as “spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”
In reality, this is like trying to distinguish two tributaries after they’ve merged into one river. There would be no Blues without the guitar or the influence of Negro spirituals. The guitar came to its current form in sixteenth-century Spain; the Negro spirituals were Christian, and therefore Levantine by way of Europe. Though American slave masters imposed Christianity on their thralls, black Christian faith subsequently became the basis for powerful expressions of spirituality and perseverance.
Was the Jimi Hendrix Experience a black act or a white one? How about Cypress Hill (B-Real is Latino)? How about Jurassic 5 (Cut Chemist is white)? How about Guns ‘n’ Roses (Slash is half black)? Reifying “cultural appropriation” requires you to go around quantifying aggregate phenotypic and ancestral material in a manner that typifies obsolete race science.
Braswell concludes by offering four guidelines for staying out of trouble with respect to “cultural appropriation.” All of them have been at least partially discredited—meaning that the arguments and situations are more nuanced and complex than Braswell’s formulations would allow. His first guideline, for example, “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),” was tested in real time by one brave soul who did exactly that. Donning a sombrero, poncho, and a cartoonishly fake mustache, he roamed around the campus of UCLA asking students whether they found his outfit offensive. Many of them did. He then went to Olvera Street in Los Angeles and asked the same question to Mexican people there. They did not. Such antics are indeed likely to offend some people, even some Mexican Americans. What this case highlights, however, is how often well-meaning white people are the most outspoken on the supposed harms of “cultural appropriation,” despite the people they are trying to defend having no issue with it at all.
Braswell’s second guideline is, “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).” In fact, most of the complaints against cultural appropriation pertain to material that is only “traditional” in the sense of habit, sometimes not even long standing habit. Take, for instance, braids. Does anyone think that the world is being made a better place for black people by the regular attacks on K-pop stars for their hairstyles? Are South Koreans a “dominant culture” with respect to American blacks? How “traditional” are hoop earrings? How “sacred” is carrying a baby in a wrap?
The third guideline, “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,” as well as the fourth, “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” have similar issues. In 2014, the metal band Mastodon shot a video for their song “The Motherload.” It begins with the kind of dungeon and devil-worship imagery that has been cliché in metal videos since the 1980s, and is later overtaken by the royalty of the Atlanta twerking scene. This was, for the record, hilarious—an intentional, good-natured prank on metal. Mastodon was ripped so hard for “cultural appropriation” that the star dancer of the video, an utter goddess named Jade, publicly defended it. “Ask us if it was racist or sexist,” she said. “We were the ones right there experiencing it. I’ll tell you from my view: no.” Though it shouldn’t have been, that defense was necessary because community engagement and payment to those involved were not enough to stop the charges of wrongdoing from those who believe “cultural appropriation” is a legitimate grievance. It seems that Braswell’s third and fourth guidelines are conditional, at best.
As far as we know, every people of the earth in every era produced visual culture, styling and modifying their bodies, adorning themselves, and producing durable objects of representation and abstraction. New culture came about the way new people came about—by mixing. The anti-appropriationists of today sound much like the anti-miscegenationists of the past, taking for granted that racial groups have clear borders and ought not be seen in public to combine. The pro-human approach is to allow such combinations, whether at the personal or cultural level. Not all mixing will work out well, just as not all relationships will work out well. But the successes deliver new kinds of life and new kinds of art, and justify the failures. To oppose “cultural appropriation,” is, in a sense, to oppose life.