There is a growing movement today against cultural appropriation: “the adoption of elements or practices of one cultural group by members of another.”
Opposition to cultural appropriation is rooted in privilege theory.
White people are viewed as a privileged or an advantaged group, while all non-white groups are oppressed and disadvantaged. When the world is seen through this black and white lens, if a white person “appropriates” anything from a minority culture, members of that culture view this as an injustice.
There are times when cultural appropriation is offensive. For instance, if white male college students put on Native American headdresses and get drunk and dance at a frat party, that would rightly be viewed as mocking Native Americans. Cultural appropriation is wrong when a minority culture is being mocked or misrepresented.
However, cultural appropriation can also be a demonstration of respect and admiration for a minority group. In the 1950s, Elvis Presley merged gospel, country and “race music — music by Southern blacks” to create a new style of music. Presley showed his respect and admiration for black people by borrowing from their culture.
The argument against cultural appropriation is not a legal one. Cultural appropriation is not copyright infringement because no one legally “owns” their culture. Because no single individual created their culture—at least no one currently alive—it is part of the public domain.
Moreover, stopping someone from appropriating from another culture is a violation of their right to freedom of expression.
Hence, the only way to stop cultural appropriation is to express “outrage” when people support or practice it. In 2017, Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, was forced to resign from his job after an editorial he wrote in which he stated, “Anyone anywhere should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” His right to freedom of speech was not tolerated by the readers of the magazine, and he could not continue in his position.
The ultimate goal of those who oppose cultural appropriation is for minority groups to have “ownership” of their culture. The motive for this is partly financial. If a minority group has exclusive domain over its culture, then members of that group who profit from their culture will face less competition in the marketplace.
The movement against cultural appropriation is based on a double standard. As David Marcus notes, minority cultures are considered “proprietary” while white culture remains “open source.”
Case in point: when Beyonce, an African American singer, coloured her hair blonde, she was not publicly “shamed” for appropriating whiteness. However, when Katy Perry dressed up like a Japanese geisha girl, many people were outraged, and she was forced to apologize.
One of the unintended consequences of stopping cultural appropriation is white culture will continue to be the universal culture. If white people are forbidden from appropriating elements of minority cultures, white culture will remain universal because it is the only culture that everyone is free to borrow from.
Opposition to cultural appropriation is regressive. In previous generations, many people wanted to maintain racial purity, to stop inter-racial marriages, which result in the merging and blending of two different cultures.
Today, social justice warriors want to maintain cultural purity, to prevent cultures from merging and blending.
They want minority cultures to remain segregated, not to merge and blend into one universal culture.
Culture has the power to unite a nation, to bring people together through a shared enjoyment of books, music, film, theatre, art, etc. Cultural appropriation can bring unity to a nation because creative works influenced by two cultures are more likely to appeal to people from both cultures.
Every culture on Earth has something valuable to teach us. Throughout history, nations have appropriated elements of foreign cultures, which resulted in the advancement of civilization. The cross-pollination of cultures can be a good thing. When people are free to adopt the “best practices” of other cultures, they improve their lives.