In Praise Of Cultural Appropriation

Due to having spent years living in minority-majority urban environments, I find myself quite often involved in inside jokes that poke fun of my general nerdiness by playing against type, usually involving some kind of humorous references to the culture of the urban environments where I lived but which I was not really a part of in terms of my own culture or behavior, and which were certainly not welcoming of me to any large degree. It is likely that those who make up the majority of those areas would consider my consistent pattern of inside jokes and references to the culture of those areas to be a sign of cultural appropriation, with a certain outraged sense that without having suffered discrimination one does not have the right to dress, or talk, or sing like a particular minority culture. Artists like Iggy Azalea, to use one of the most obvious and recent but far from only example, have been greatly criticized for their use of minority culture in their own art in a way that strikes some people as unjust. It is my belief, though, that what is pejoratively labeled as cultural appropriation is the gateway by which minority cultures and their people become accepted and acculturated into a larger and dominant culture, losing their stigma in the process.

It may be hard for many people to understand, but the Irish and Italians were once not considered whites ,and there were once very severe Jewish quotas present in universities to protect the general whiteness of those institutions. My own last name, to give another example, is the anglicized form of a German name that was adopted by my own ancestors in the late 1700’s as a way of presenting themselves as loyal Americans and differentiating themselves from the stigma of being connected with German Hessians hired as mercenaries to fight on the side of the British during the American Revolution, which made some Pennsylvanian Albrechts into Albrights. Over time, the distinctive elements of the culture were largely lost, such as the use of German in the home, replaced by English, except for the tendency of some members of my family, like my father, to learn German as a second language as a way of showing our residual ethnic pride in belonging to the German volk. Other formerly distinctive elements, especially food and clothing and holidays, were appropriated and that appropriation of what was formerly exotic eventually made it more familiar and welcome and part of the large cultural mélange of which we are a part of as Americans, allowing us the freedom to drink a Corono on Cinco de Mayo if we choose, or to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green or orange, whatever our own particular identity [1]. To the extent that cultures can be appropriated successfully, the people of those cultures become welcomed into the larger cultural mainstream as one element of many that make up our very complicated culture.

A culture that resists appropriation is one that will remain marginalized and stigmatized. Those elements of distinctiveness that are not copied or appreciated by others are those elements that mark one off as different and as an “other,” with all that entails. This is not to say that what we see as cultural appropriation is always enjoyable to see, or that those who are the source of the culture that is being appropriated are always given initial or open enough credit for their own culture. That said, those who appropriate the culture of others are acting as gatekeepers, seeing what elements of the culture of others are worthy of adaptation and appreciation and imitation, and it is by these means that the people from whom those cultural traits belong gain respect as a result of having something that others want to copy. Imitation truly is a sign of flattery, for copying the clothing or dancing or music or language or cuisine of others is a sign of approval and respect. What is considered to be cultural appropriation is not done as a matter of ridicule, like the whiteface of the Wayans brothers or Eddie Murphy or Dave Chappelle, to give a few examples, but is rather the adoption of what is considered to be “exotic” elements of a foreign culture by those of a different culture. Over time, what was once exotic becomes normal, and the stigma attached to those who were once considered to be alien “others” is therefore removed.

What this means, in a nutshell, is that a culture should want to be appropriated by others. Those who remain a part of the culture will always have their own cultural traits as a matter of family or ethnic tradition, should they choose to keep up with it. Yet to the extent that important cultural traits are understood and accepted, and adopted at least partially, by their neighbors, they themselves lose whatever stigma their own cultural identity originally had. After all, people can hardly be prejudiced against those whose culture they respect and appropriate. The usual response of those who is prejudiced is to wall oneself off and create a silence of segregation, where there is no blending or appropriating at all. The mere existence of copying and appropriation is evidence that those of a majority culture see something worth imitating in another culture, and it is a sign that, so long as the process is not resisted, that the process of mutual coming to terms will allow the culture that is being appropriated to take its place in the mainstream without any sort of stigma or disadvantageous position. Let us therefore praise cultural appropriation for its preservation of social unity by breaking down the barriers that divide people who should be neighbors in the face of a mutual coming to terms between those who were once strangers to each other. It is only that which cannot or will not be appropriated that remains apart from others, trapped in the ghettoes of fear and loathing and suspicion and stigma. Those who want to copy us should be welcome, and we wish to welcome those whom we copy as our peers and equals, with no exploitation done or wished, for those who are willing to open their eyes and take off the filters of their own fear and bias against us.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to In Praise Of Cultural Appropriation

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