In praise of cultural appropriation

Jay Garfield, Bryan Van Norden, and most of my colleagues here on the Indian Philosophy Blog are shamelessly committing massive acts of cultural appropriation. Perhaps I am too. And that’s a wonderful thing.

The concept of “cultural appropriation” has gained massive popularity over the past several years, in this time of renewed radicalism on the left and right. It refers to the phenomenon of people from one culture taking up or making use of ideas or practices from another culture. What startles me is that those who use the concept typically treat such cultural borrowing as a bad thing. A typical example of the idea of “cultural appropriation” was a 2019 tweet by Kassy Cho proclaiming: “friendly reminder that you don’t get to celebrate lunar new year unless you’re literally from a country that does or if you are invited by someone who is from a country that does”.

So why don’t you “get to” celebrate lunar new year? What is so wrong with “cultural appropriation”? The most commonly cited definition of cultural appropriation, from Susan Scafidi, is “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” The caveat is bizarre. How can “a culture” give permission? Do you just need the permission of one person from that culture? If so, when there are thousands or more of such people, there is nearly always someone happy to “give permission” – often someone like me who believes permission shouldn’t be necessary in the first place – so the idea of cultural appropriation disappears entirely. (Andy Wang brilliantly responded to Cho’s tweet by declaring “I hereby formally invite everyone to celebrate lunar new year”.)

Or, conversely, does the entire culture need to get together, form some sort of legal entity that does not yet exist, and provide the culture’s official seal of approval? Since such a seal doesn’t exist and that there is therefore no way for “a culture” to get together and give permission, such a view effectively means that all “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture” is wrong. So the medieval Muslims should not have “taken” Aristotle from the Greeks, the Chinese should not have “taken” Buddhism from India, modern Indians should not have “taken” cricket and afternoon tea from the English. For that matter, we’d all better stop listening to the Beatles – and the Clash and U2 and Nirvana and the White Stripes and Imagine Dragons and every other white act that “took” the African-American art form of rock’n’roll.

All of this should suggest why there is something off about the very idea of knowledge or cultural expressions being “taken from” another culture. The very idea of treating cultural expressions as a culture’s property, which can be taken, seems to extend the capitalist logic of private property into ever further spheres: to use the currently popular jargon, this idea seems a quintessentially neoliberal one. As good capitalists, we all know everything comes down to private property, and private property must be respected. Learning from other cultures is a form of stealing, just like progressive taxation and sharing PDF articles. When did leftists start thinking that this was an idea they wanted to embrace?

There is one case where I think “cultural appropriation” genuinely is appropriation and is a genuine problem. That is when a culture’s ability to use a cultural product is actually taken away from it – as when Disney trademarks “hakuna matata” or pharmaceutical companies get patents for medicines used traditionally in the Amazon for years. That is a crime and a theft, from the people of the originating culture and from human patrimony. But such cases are not what “cultural appropriation” is most commonly used to mean. Too often, the term “cultural apropriation” is itself used to take away – take away the supposedly dominant culture’s ability to use something, just as Disney takes away a marginalized culture’s. Either of these is a loss, a depriving humanity of its cultural potential, for reasons that do not justify that depriving.

I’ve sometimes heard the argument that it is bad that Westerners can adopt foreign symbols and be viewed as cool when Asians have been looked down upon for doing the same thing – for example in this article by Jaya Sundaresh. Sundaresh says “If the use of the bindi by mainstream pop stars made it easier for South Asian women to wear it, I’d be all for its proliferation — but it doesn’t. They lend the bindi an aura of cool that a desi woman simply can’t compete with, often with the privilege of automatic acceptance in a society when many non-white women must fight for it.”

But Sundaresh’s case seems nonsensical to me. If the bindi is being lent “an aura of cool”, how is “a desi woman” then “competing with” that aura – rather than benefitting from it? The problem in those situations is not at all that white people can wear these items without social disapproval; the problem is when nonwhite people can’t! I see no evidence to indicate that white people’s wearing Asian styles makes it any more difficult for nonwhite people to do so. It would seem to me that it makes the wearing of these items less weird and more socially acceptable in general.

Cultures have always borrowed freely from one another, changing the meaning of objects in the process – without “permission” – and the process is never unidirectional. I remember once being in a restaurant in Phnom Penh that displayed a video of Cambodian women in scanty Santa outfits singing “Jingle Bells” – in August. So too, Christmas is now one of the most popular holidays in Japan – as a day when couples go out to celebrate their romantic relationships by eating at KFC. The process of cultural borrowing is often funny and sometimes awkward, and it leaves humanity all the richer for it. Western Buddhism is very different from original Buddhism – just as Chinese Buddhism is. But the world would be much poorer without Chinese Buddhism or East African Islam, and it frightens and saddens me to imagine a world where such cultural mixing is prohibited.

As someone who is racially mixed myself, I hope I can be excused for worrying that such prohibitions on cultural mixing feel dangerously close to still more problematic ideologies that say I should not exist. It does not bother me in the least when a white woman wears a sari. Rather, what offends me, and even scares me, is when someone tells white women – women like my mother – that they should not wear a sari.

The idea of “cultural appropriation” is directly antithetical to all the work that cross-cultural philosophers have done so hard to get accepted. Because if we accept that it is possible and illegitimate to “take” traditional knowledge or cultural expressions from “someone else’s” culture, well, again, that is exactly what Van Norden and Garfield have advocated for, and what most of the philosophers here on the IPB are doing. White people thinking constructively with non-Western philosophy is exactly that “taking” of traditional knowledge from another culture. (So, for that matter, is people of Indian origin “taking” philosophy from China.) And it is never clear how exactly they were supposed to get “permission”. To treat “cultural appropriation” as a bad thing is to say to the likes of Garfield and Van Norden: how dare you white people take Chinese philosophy from China or Indian philosophy from India? It is not your property. Stay in your lane. Philosophy departments in the West should remain departments of Western philosophy as they always have, because their white professors have no right to teach non-Western thought.

If the ideology of “cultural appropriation” were correct, it would mean that traditionally white-dominated philosophy departments have been entirely right in their long avoidance and ignoring of non-Western philosophy. It would mean white people shouldn’t be studying the philosophies that “belong to” people from other cultures. They shouldn’t be “taking” and “appropriating” this property, they should stay in their lanes and remain as narrow and parochial and hidebound and Eurocentric as they always have been. The idea of cultural appropriation effectively tells white people to be more Eurocentric – to drop even that far-too-limited exploration of other cultures that they have already engaged in. Intellectual diversity, learning from other cultures and their ideas, is – according to cultural-appropriation ideology – a bad thing. The ideology of cultural appropriation is a way of telling white people to make their culture even whiter.

Fortunately for those of us who do study other cultures, this ideology is entirely wrong. Cultures are not property. Humanity’s cultural heritage belongs to humanity. The acts named by the phrase “cultural appropriation” are things we human beings need more of. It is a joyous and wonderful thing when cultures make creative new use of other cultures’ ideas for their own needs and purposes. Let us celebrate it.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

15 Replies to “In praise of cultural appropriation”

  1. This is an insightful and usefully provocative post about (facile) critiques of cultural appropriation, particularly the ones seeking to ‘ban’ it, (ironically) tending towards the neoliberalism that they would likely also critique (and also the problems with seeing the world in ‘us’ vs ‘them’ binaries). But two aspects need greater probing. One, even when cultural appropriation does not reduce the access of the ‘originating’ communities (unlike with pharma companies-patents-Amazon), if the appropriators are in a position of geopolitical/cultural dominance or hegemony, they may greatly alter the nature, form etc of those aspects of culture for the originating communities themselves. Such influence can show up as coercion under many circumstances, thereby interfering in problematic ways with the (dynamic) capacity of the originating communities for cultural reproduction. (While the distinction between influence and coercion is fuzzy, I am assuming there is a distinction nevertheless.) Two, it is problematic when appropriation is facile – such as using the bindi without interest in or knowledge about what it means and its history in the originating communities. That is, casual & disinterested (and non-organic?) appropriation can be disrepectful (and this works both ways, that is, it also applies to the Cambodian “jingle bells” singers). This tends to happen when the appropriation is from a distance and mediated by large mediating companies or the megaphone of social media. (This point is not specific to cultural appropriation, it is more generally about the desirability of the ‘slow’ movement in most things.)

    • Thanks, Suraj. I guess I tend to wonder about how disrespectful it really is to use a symbol without knowing its history. I think it is that when the history has deep and powerful meaning: so there is something wrong with the Thai use of Nazi imagery, for example. (This point relates to the discussion of sacredness in my comments on the cross-post at Love of All Wisdom.) Whereas with Christmas, I think even Christians are used to seeing its symbols parodied in North American culture (and I don’t think the meanings of “Jingle Bells” or Santa suits were ever treated with particular reverence). I guess the problem with not knowing the history is then you don’t know whether you’re being disrespectful – as seems to be the case with Thai people running Hitler Fried Chicken.

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    • Great article, Patrick. Thanks for sharing it.

      I think the author’s position might actually go a little further than mine. I do think respect for others’ sacredness can be a helpful norm in cultural interaction – though I would agree that exceptions must be made for the likes of art and comedy. Is it disrespectful, and therefore bad, to wear a latex nun’s habit to a public concert which devout Catholics might be attending with their children? Probably. But costumes and artworks are very different games.

  3. I suspect the notion of “cultural appropriation” is, in some measure, a largely unintentional by-product or spillover effect following the global reach of the Western and capitalist “intellectual property” regime as well as the commodified agriculture production regime, two socio-economic and political processes that have had destabilizing and deleterious effects in many parts of the world, effects that have proven deep and enduring in non-affluent nation-states, especially (thus not only) among the non-elites and poorer classes in such states. It is perhaps also, in part, an emotionally laden response to ongoing processes of economic imperialism and neo-colonial-like power differences that find the grossly more powerful party to interactions, transactions, trading, borrowing, and so forth tending to if not routinely disrespecting any number of human rights, running roughshod over conceptions of human dignity, exploiting “natural resources,” or simply exemplifying ill-mannered treatment and behavior, all of which are forms of disrespect if not arrogance.

  4. Great post. We might also be reminded that there is a reason that port cities historically surpassed settlements in hard-to reach mountainous regions in just about every metric that can measure intellectual growth. They benefitted from the promiscuous sharing of culture and knowledge.

  5. Thank you, Amod, for this very insightful post (and thanks also to Suraj, Patrick and Matthew for their comments). I had a recent (long and excruciating) twitter conversation about a related topic and one of the things the discussants (mostly from India) brought up was the fact that I was forgetting the colonial past and how this vitiates the relation making it (forever?) asymmetrical. Perhaps, in a way with your depiction of Disney’s appropriation of Maori culture etc.
    By the way, concerning your point about the neoliberal conception of knowledge, an eye-opening moment for me was when I asked whether we can agree that knowledge is a common quest (therefore, it is empowered when it is shared) and not a treasure (which can only diminish). The reply was: it is a treasure. This kind of feeling generates the anxiety which then leads to thinking that cultural appropriation is a crime.

  6. Has anything really changed? The Buddhist movement got caught up in the rise of the Mauran Empire, and then grew with it. That process incorporated much of India’s republican heritage, notably the Naga republics, and reached down the Ganges to the sea. Now we see Buddhism again riding a tide of republican sentiment. and the sea-routes that later carried tea to Boston, whence the Tea Party from the War of Independence, and again the grassroots rural movement the preceded Trump.

    Was all that really cultural appropriation, or rather a heritage that came with the moral burdens of the historic opportunity? If one is left with a nagging sense of a debt unpaid, perhaps that’s the way to look: to the moral challenges that now arise, with all the confused echoes of the Nazi disaster. And there Elisa’s question about treasure becomes quite central: the Nazis were sold on their treasure of so-called Aryan science, to the point of miscalculating the aim of the V2 missiles, lofting them over the military targets to civilian London. which institutionalised war-crime!

  7. Great post! One worry: given that there are a limited number of positions for, say, hiring a specialist in Chinese Philosophy, then wouldn’t a non-Chinese person hired for this job be preventing a Chinese person from getting the job? That is, this sort of case actually does make people from the culture of origin worse off and so appears similar to the sort of case you think is problematic.

    • Welll… I wouldn’t say it’s the same sort of case. The case I see as a problem is when access to the culture is taken away, which is not the case there. the Chinese person is still perfectly capable of appreciating Chinese philosophy on their own time; that has not been taken away. They’re just not getting paid for it, and they never had been paid for it in the first place, so it’s something they don’t get rather than something taken.

      There is also the question of who counts as part of the culture for that sort of purpose. I expect that most people would count me as Indian for such purposes based on my name and appearance, but I wasn’t raised in Indian culture in a meaningful way, just exposed to it on occasional trips as a kid. And what Indian culture I was exposed to was “Hindu”, not the Buddhism I study and embrace now.

      • I agree with much of your article, but the point about what White-majority Western university departments should do is mis-directed. The (reasonable) demand is not to eschew non-“Western” philosophies completely, but to equitably create space for global representation, and then not have that space be dominated by the (White) culture that has social/economic/cultural power, but ensure that emic views are also strongly represented and not looked down upon as invalid/inferior ways of knowing. This is not to say that skin color should determine whether a person is bringing an etic or emic viewpoint/appreciation/basis of knowledge. It is also primarily about power and its distribution, and a claim that more distributed power is “better” (from whichever perspective) – and whose views/research program is privileged for development and given access to resources, and who has to explore the research area in her spare time on her own money 🙂 More specifically and perhaps therefore more controversially, is there an expectation that a prominent research program that brings a Western psychoanalytic approach to bear on Ramakrishna, actually also include expertise in Bengali.. etc.

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  9. Guys, we all know it’s a matter of jealousy on the part of X when a member of Y looks good wearing T. Most of the time members of the so called oppressed groups never care at all about their culture until an attractive white woman starts dressing in their traditional attire. The Desis who complain about cultural appropriation are the same ones who can’t muster the desire to learn Sanskrit.

  10. Great article, and Abiram makes a very good point. I am from India and wear saris and bindis in Montana all the time but am bemused when some kid of Indian origin born in the US who’s never seen in a bindi has problems with a non-Indian person wearing it. And, as Amod says, what about a non-Indian married to an Indian, like my wife who is immersed in Indian culture and spends time there every year. The culture police would probably not want her to wear Indian clothes in India but every Indian we know in India and many we don’t know appreciate her doing so.

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