Chris Hopson | Harvard University

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the controversies around free speech on college campuses.  One of the most hot-button issues that falls under that wider umbrella of free expression is cultural appropriation.  From Halloween celebrations to Hollywood casting decisions, cultural appropriation is a wide-ranging phenomenon and a social lightning rod.  But what does it mean, and can there by any common ground between people who strongly denounce it and people who practice it?

A quick Google search defines “appropriation” as: “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission”.  This definition encapsulates the view that many people take on cultural appropriation. This view, which I’ll call the ‘cultural ownership’ view, holds that cultural elements ‘belong’ to the people who are properly considered ‘members’ of those cultures, and that the use of those elements by people outside of that culture are inappropriate.  This view is, in my opinion, a reasonable response to certain social trends we see in the US today. ‘Culturally-themed’ parties, which most often seem like ethnically-themed parties, take place on college campuses. At such events, students often show a disrespect or mocking for cultural traditions that are not their own, and most often the traditions of Native American, Latinx, and black people.  There seems to always be controversy around the ‘n-word’, and whether people who aren’t black, and/or outside of ‘black culture’ can use it. And there is the ongoing problem of ‘whitewashing’ in Hollywood, which is slightly different from but still related to cultural appropriation. White actors are often cast to play roles that clearly portray a non-white person, or, in another common trope, white characters travel to far-off locations (most often in South or East Asia) to learn some truth about life from the people there.  

These trends can be nauseating, especially for people from the cultural backgrounds that are being commodified, exoticized, or ‘costume-ized’.  But, in my opinion, there are limits to the cultural ownership view. Firstly, it glosses over some complexities regarding the ownership and use of culture.  Secondly, it fails to account for cultural syncretism, which has created some of the greatest cultural elements in the world. Finally, it shares a basic outlook with cultural purism, which has historically been used as a basis for social exclusion.  We should consider these critiques of the cultural ownership view, and think about a better way to judge instances of cultural appropriation.

Who owns culture?  This is a difficult question to answer, not least because culture is not one, tangible thing.  Most often, culture is made up of many, intangible things, like language, music, dance, dress, food, faith, and communication.  It’s straightforwardly clear that one person cannot own such things, especially not when they are practiced by, and influenced by, millions of other people.  Presumably, then, the cultural ownership view holds that groups can ‘own’ these things.  But how? Cultural groups are not like nations.  They don’t have the institutions or legal recognition necessary to ‘own’ anything.  Perhaps cultural groups can be said to have a kind of informal, social ownership of things.  But even this informal ownership doesn’t make much conceptual sense, because cultural groups are made up of individuals, who can make their own choices regarding what to do with their cultural elements.  For example, immigrants often open businesses that sell products related to their cultural heritage, like restaurants or clothing stores. But what if another person from that same cultural heritage disapproves of people outside of that culture eating the food or wearing the clothes?  What if a local artist in Country X wants people in Country Y to wear jewelry that is traditional to Country X? Should people in Country Y be prohibited from buying such jewelry because they don’t practice Country X’s traditions? I don’t see how culture can be collectively ‘owned’ by a group, unless the rights of individuals to do what they want with their cultural heritage are infringed upon.  And even if those rights are infringed upon, who gets to make that decision? If individual members of cultural groups are to remain free moral agents, then collective cultural ownership cannot really exist.

Jazz, salsa, cubism, English.  These are all cultural elements that were produced through cultural syncretism, the mixing and blending of existing cultural traditions to produce new traditions.  The oldest roots of jazz lie in West Africa, but it was born when enslaved Africans encountered Native American and European instruments and performance styles in North America.  Salsa has its origins in Cuba, also born from the mixing of West African and European (specifically Spanish) rhythms, instrumentation, and dance. Cubism, pioneered by artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, is heavily influenced by African art and sculpture.  The English language was born from a mix of Germanic, Latin, and French influences. None of these things, jazz, salsa, cubism, or English, would have come into existence without people taking elements from other cultures and incorporating them into their own cultures.  According to the cultural ownership view, this shouldn’t happen. But I think the world is made better by cultural practices like jazz, salsa, and cubism. (I’m not so sure about English). Did the enslaved Africans in North America ask Native Americans, French, and Spanish people nicely if they could use some of their instruments and performance styles to create a new genre of music?  Probably not. Did Picasso and Braque ask African painters and sculptors whether they could learn from their techniques? Definitely not. But it happened, and the results are wonderful. On the contrary to the cultural ownership view, the mixing of cultures, on respectful terms, should be embraced.

The cultural ownership view also bares an uncomfortable resemblance to cultural purism, in the idea that cultures should remain separate and distinct, and some people should be allowed to do things, while others shouldn’t be allowed to do things, simply because of their cultural identity.  This is, in my opinion, a path toward inequality and injustice. Nobody asks to be born into a specific cultural group. We are all born into our social groups by chance. That chance is not a reason to negatively discriminate. Imagine a society in which only Christian people are allowed to take part in Christmas celebrations, only German people are allowed to listen to Bach, and only people from Russia are allowed to speak Russian.  Such rules definitely seem unnecessary and strange, but they are also potentially wrong. People shouldn’t be barred from eating certain foods, wearing certain clothes, practicing certain religions, or speaking certain languages just because of what social group(s) they were born into.

That being said, there are still clear examples of harmful cultural appropriation.  Cultural traditions should never be reduced to costumes for people to ‘dress up’ in, and cultural groups shouldn’t be mocked or disrespected.  So how do we determine the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? I believe it comes down to a word that has appeared a few times in this article: respect.  The enslaved Africans were not disrespecting Native Americans or Europeans by creating jazz. The Anglo-Saxons were not disrespecting the Romans or the Normans by incorporating some of their words into English.  To my mind, judging whether something is appropriative or appreciative comes down to whether or not respect is being shown. This isn’t always easy to tell, but I believe there’s a certain informal ‘smell test’ we can use it about.  Ethnically-themed Halloween parties, or a white character going to ‘the East’ to learn the truth about life, just feel disrespectful.  So I believe we should all follow the Golden Rule, which has appeared in one form or another in almost every cultural tradition from every region of the world: treat others, and their culture, the way you would have them treat you, and your culture.

Hosted on