Cultural Appropriation is Dead, Long Live Cultural Appropriation

by R.L. Stephens II on November 10, 2014

Grantland, in its annual recap of all things pop culture, declared that cultural appropriation “won 2013.” To Grantland, cultural appropriation and the cottage industry of thinkpieces and outrage cycles it had engendered, were more culturally significant than even the iconic Kanye West. Kanye himself caught the cultural appropriation bug with his ill-advised attempt to rebrand the Confederate flag — a move which itself spawned an avalanche of thinkpieces. Nope, not even Kanye could escape cultural appropriation’s discursive dominance in 2013.

So, that means the Left won, right? Not so fast. For the concept to achieve popularity, certain sacrifices had to be made, such as abandoning context, clarity, nuance, and any real semblance of insight and political utility. Grantland naming it the year’s pop culture winner was more of a backhanded compliment than genuine appreciation.

For big chunks of the year, the Internet felt like it’d just taken its first sociology class and was ready to take on the world with the tools gained from that mind-blowing freshman seminar… And the barrier for entry into a discussion about cultural appropriation is so amazingly low (“I don’t like this”), anyone can participate. Rembert Browne, Who Won 2013

The web really does feel a bit like Sociology 101 sometimes. We’ve all read one cultural appropriation thinkpiece or another at some point. They tend to come in waves. Miley Cyrus twerks onstage, so left-liberals write thinkpieces. Urban Outfitters comes out with yet another trashy imitation, so we write thinkpieces. Macklemore dudebros his way to the top of the charts, so we write more thinkpieces. The cultural appropriation thinkpiece has become an annual Halloween tradition, a way to push back against the inevitable scores of White  people wearing blackface, headdresses, sombreros, and other symbols of their colonial hegemony.

Unfortunately, the increasing popularity of these debates has not enriched our collective understanding of the actual definitions, functions, and histories of cultural appropriation. If anything, our grasp of the concept has declined. Now, don’t get me wrong. Attempts to delineate the boundaries (if any) between postcolonial exploitation and intercultural exchange can be meaningful and insightful. Yet, these types of quality contributions to the appropriation dialog are often few and far between. As Rosemary Coombe noted during the 1992 controversy over Native American voices in literature, public debates over cultural appropriation tend to generate “more heat than light.”

Appropriation is Not Inherently Bad

In our Sociology 101 articulations of cultural appropriation it’s simply known as something bad and avoidable. However, appropriation is not only inevitable, it’s also desirable.  Take this audio clip of the poet Amiri Baraka talking about appropriation within the arts for example (h/t Drew).

All cultures learn from each other. The problem is that if The Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie [Johnson], I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s that kind of inequality that is abusive, not the actual appropriation of culture because that’s normal. I don’t think you can have a Duke Ellington without say, digging, you know, Beethoven… Everybody digs each other… The question is can they find a standard of living through their use. Amiri Baraka, Cross-Cultural Poetics Episode #141

As Baraka points out, appropriation is fine. Cultural diffusion is a good thing, and appropriation is a part of it. We want mixture, we want expression, and we want creativity. What we don’t want is exploitation. The issue here is one of power, and more specifically, the power to exploit.

Baraka is attempting to draw our attention to the material reproduction of exploitation, a reality which exists beyond the mere act of appropriation. Appropriation can of course be a site of further material exploitation, but remember, Blind Willie Johnson was stuck on that elevator before The Beatles ever heard of him.

Baraka’s analysis coincides with the perspective of anthropologist Renato Rosaldo. Rosaldo argues, quite persuasively, against the false notions of cultural purity and essentialism often underlying these conversations of cultural appropriation.

The view of an authentic culture as an autonomous internally coherent universe no longer seems tenable in a postcolonial world. Neither “we” nor “they” are as self-contained and homogeneous as we/they once appeared. All of us inhabit an interdependent late 20th century world, which is at once marked by borrowing and lending across porous cultural boundaries, and saturated with inequality, power, and domination. Renato Rosaldo, Ideology, Place, and People without a Culture

Rosaldo points to cultural exchange being “saturated with inequality, power, and domination” — and like Baraka observes, it is this oppressive context that deserves scrutiny and opposition. However, as anthropologist Françoise Lionnet points out, Rosaldo’s “borrowing and lending across porous cultural boundaries” is never unidirectional. Lionnet argues that these cultural exchanges are best understood through the postcolonial concept transculturation.

What is needed, then, is a new vocabulary for describing patterns of influence that are never unidirectional. Since the influence is usually mutual and reciprocal, however much that fact might have been occluded from the political consciousness and modes of self-representation of metropolitan cultures, a more appropriate term for describing this contact of cultures would be “transculturation.” Françoise Lionnet, Cultural Appropriation and Postcolonial Representations

Transculturation requires us to accept that cultures are not, and never have been, pure and unadulterated. To argue otherwise is to embrace essentialism, which Lionnet defines as an “erroneous view of culture wherein difference is rigidly valorized for its own sake, or for the sake of identifying authentic and ‘pure products.'” In such a context, “any process of acculturation or transculturation (however real, inevitable, and reciprocal it may have been) is automatically labeled as merely assimilationist.”

This essentialist tendency poses a real problem for most cultural appropriation thinkpieces. The puritanical impulse to cling to false notions of cultural purity actually makes it harder, and not easier, to advance liberation. By offering a blanket condemnation of cultural appropriation on purity grounds, not only do we misdiagnose the problem, but we ignore the ways in which appropriation can be a source of strength and power for the very same marginalized people we wish to uplift.

Emancipatory Appropriation

Kathleen Ashley’s essay The Cultural Process of Appropriation offers a summary of the shifting conceptualizations of both culture and appropriation within various academic disciplines. According to Ashley, who is herself quoting Mary Louise Pratt, the concept transculturation attempts to account for “the ways that ‘subordinated or marginalized groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture’.”

Ashley uses the history of Black slaves embracing the liberation narratives of the Biblical Joshua and Moses as an example of this kind of emancipatory appropriation in action. She notes that these stories were useful because “the resistant messages encoded as Old Testament figures ‘passed’ in the disguise of ‘authorized’ religion.” As Ashley notes, marginalized communities have themselves used appropriation in response to “inequality, power, and domination” — a strategy that is often overlooked by the contemporary Left.

My father was a preacher, an adherent to Black liberation theology, and a contemporary to Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Of the Black church, he once wrote,

There has been a strand of revolutionary behavior present in the African American church from its inception up to this present moment. This strand has been resolved not to accept the status quo and has been bound and determined to accomplish liberation for an oppressed people. It has not always been the dominant ideology expressed by the church, but it has always been there. Whether one examines the religious activities of the slaves or the first organizing efforts among the various denominations of African American people, there has been a tendency towards social transformation. It has been an African American church in the midst of slave oppression, Jim Crow laws, bitter segregation, urban migration and economic displacement that has enabled a people to mitigate the cycle of pain inherent in the decadence of American society.

Surely, this appropriation of Western theology, recontextualized into a racial justice context, is not of the same type as Amiri Baraka’s example of The Beatles taking from Blind Willie Johnson. One appropriation exploited and another attempted to emancipate — failure to distinguish between the two at the level of both intent and impact demonstrates a crucial shortcoming within most leftist articulations of cultural appropriation. Again, it comes down to a question of power.

Confronting power requires us to develop politics, and that is one line that we seem to avoid at all costs these days (That’s a topic for another day). The world doesn’t need another cultural appropriation thinkpiece moralizing at some relatively banal celebrity misstep. Suffice it to say, if this brand of misapplied cultural appropriation “won” in 2013, then may it die by 2015. Long live cultural appropriation.

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