no one has the slightest idea what is and isn’t cultural appropriation

The noble purpose of moral critiques is to try and inspire better behavior. The destructive purpose of moral critiques is to elevate the person making them in relation to those being critiqued – “you are bad and I am good and saying so gives me power over you.” Most of the time, I sincerely believe people are operating based on the first purpose, even when I disagree with them about what right behavior entails. But I have never encountered an argument about cultural appropriation that does not fall squarely in the second group. Not once.

Read this complaint (in Cosmopolitan, which is funny a number of levels) about how a Nepalese woman being inspired by other cultures for Victoria’s Secret is an act of shameful  cultural appropriation. Then let’s ask ourselves: what vision of better, alternative behavior does the writer suggest? If this is indeed cultural appropriation, what would righteous inspiration from other cultures look like? In other words, what would it take to get to a place where you don’t get the righteous satisfaction (and clicks) of finding other people below your moral standards, but where people are no longer guilty of the behavior you say is immoral?

I think anyone who complains about cultural appropriation who actually cares about getting to a more just world, as opposed to getting the personal, social, and career benefits of sitting in judgment, has to answer these basic questions.

  • What is “a culture”? What are the boundaries of “a culture”? Are they only national borders? Aren’t there very distinct cultures within national boundaries? Can a person from the Midwest appropriate Southern culture? Can someone from Guangdong province appropriate Sichuan cuisine? Are there varying degrees of appropriation based on your geographical proximity to “a culture”? When does “a culture” become sufficiently defined that it gains the right to demand that its cultural objects not be appropriated? What if someone is raised in two or more cultures, are they allowed to cross-pollinate them? What if they themselves were not raised in either cultures but their parents were?
  • What cultural objects are not appropriated, given the vague boundaries of the term? Where does righteous inspiration end and shameful appropriation begin? Jung writes that Victoria’s Secret is guilty of “breaking apart aesthetic references from wherever they wanted and stitching them back together again.” What cultural object has ever been created that did not entail exactly that process? What is the alternative? Does it matter if inspiration is explicit? How can we prevent being inspired by cultural objects from other cultures even if we wanted to? If I go to an art museum and view art from another culture, and that influence later on subconsciously influences my production, am I guilty of cultural appropriation?
  • Who is the arbiter of who gets to make decisions about cultural properties? People complaining about cultural appropriation often say that the problem is a lack of permission. But who gets to grant such permission, given that cultures are incredibly vast and necessarily house people who would disagree on questions of permission? Does it come down to a majority vote? Who would organize such a vote? If individual people get to act as representatives of a culture, who nominates them, and based on what criteria? White people doing yoga has been nominated as a form of shameful cultural appropriation. Does it matter that the Indian government deliberately spread the practice to other countries? If there is a dispute between different Indian people about whether yoga has been/should be appropriated, who should we listen to? Why do so many American writers assume that they have the right and ability to decide when members of other cultures have been appropriated? Aren’t college-educated liberals getting offended on behalf of other cultures themselves guilty of a form of moral and argumentative appropriation?
  • How long ago must a cultural object have been integrated into a given culture before utilizing that object is no longer appropriative? Before Columbus, Italians had no tomatoes, the Irish had no potatoes, and the Spanish had no corn. Those crops were taken directly from indigenous people in the Western hemisphere. Is it therefore appropriation for Italian cooks to use tomatoes? If not, why not? What is the statute of limitations? If someone has a particular culture in their heritage, how far back can they go without being guilty of appropriation? Can I go back three generations? Ten? Do we use genetic testing to prove it?
  • Do people from non-European, non-white cultures have agency in how their culture spreads? Don’t cultural appropriation arguments presume that the answer is no? Isn’t that indicative of a condescending and bigoted worldview that presumes all people of color merely have history enacted on them, rather than being agents themselves?
  • Does it matter if a culture that has been “victimized” in this way is itself guilty of doing so? Japanese culture is often claimed to have been appropriated. But Japanese culture is one of the most aggressively borrowing cultures in the world, with Japanese artists and chefs drawing liberally from all variety of other cultures in their own cultural production. Is this relevant to our questions? Can one culture be a righteous borrower, while borrowing from it remains an act of shameful cultural appropriation?
  • What defines the “relative power” of vast and complex cultures, when people claim that the problem is power imbalances? Given that any culture contains vast internal inequality in political power, economic power, social status, etc, what is the coherent meaning of a culture’s relative power? Is it perfectly congruent with the historical military and economic power of a given country? Is it simply an artifact of historical imperialism? Japan was both the victim of imperialism and guilty of imperialism. How does that historical complexity inform our understanding of its relative power? Do rising non-Western, non-European world powers like China count as appropriators or the appropriated? If the United States continues to decline in power relative to other non-Western, non-European countries, will it in time become a culture that is the victim of appropriation?
  • Doesn’t a world without cultural appropriation look exactly the same as a world envisioned by white supremacists and other ultra-nationalist groups, who decry cross-cultural influence as “contamination”? How is the vision of a world without cultural appropriation meaningfully different in its conclusions than the Volkisch movement that preached cultural purity and which inspired the Nazi movement? Didn’t social liberals and leftists fight for decades precisely for the concept that other cultures have value which we should respect and emulate? How can you simultaneously pursue a world of diversity while policing strict and harshly limiting cultural borders?
  • What is a consistent, practical, useful, non-contradictory, sufficiently broad, and livable-by-real-humans-in-real-life rule for how to avoid cultural appropriation while still permitting enriched and cosmopolitan lives that benefits from the vast diversity of human cultural production, rather than enforcing a drab landscape of restrictive norms and cannibalized, exhausted and mundane repetition?

These are not trick questions. They’re not a joke. I’m not asking them rhetorically. I’m asking for actual answers, for a simple reason: if cultural appropriation is an immoral behavior that should be stopped, then it’s the duty of people saying so to articulate a positive vision of how to avoid that bad behavior. I’ve never heard such a thing, and I’ve looked really hard.

I’ve asked some of these questions many times, of the people who complain about cultural appropriation. The answers I’ve gotten haven’t just been unsatisfying or unconvincing. They have been flatly contradictory. In other words, many people in the progressive world now complain about cultural appropriation, but almost none of them agree on what exactly it is, when and where it happens, who is guilty of it, what a world without it would look like, and how we can avoid it without living in a bankrupt, sclerotic, impossibly sad world without mutual cultural inspiration.

The people who are always on the lookout for cultural appropriation, most likely, won’t attempt to answer these questions. My experience suggests instead that they will roll their eyes, dismiss them, and act as though the answers to them are settled and obvious, even though different people within that group so often answer them in flatly contradictory ways. That’s because there’s no there there. There’s no bedrock to this moral complaint. There’s no coherent theory of cultural appropriation that can include all or most of the times that these claims are made that does not necessarily indict the people making the charge. No one will rise to this challenge. They can’t do it, and their attempts to do so will stand in direct and explicit contradiction with other people’s attempts.

You want a rule? Don’t mimic or perform being a type of person that you intend others to recognize as such, especially when that involves exaggeration or when intended to inspire contempt or humor. That is a rule about people, not a rule about culture. If you are knowingly attempting to look or act like a member of a group that others would recognize – if the point is to be recognized as doing so – then you are already guilty. That has nothing to do with cultural borrowing. It has to do with the mutual recognition of you and the people you are dressing up for that you are intentionally adopting another group as a role, costume, or similar. So no blackface, no Mexican “costumes” on Cinco de Mayo, no wearing a Native American headdress, no “talking ghetto.” If you intend to be seen as part of a group that you know you would not naturally be perceived as part of being, then it’s wrong. It’s not complicated.

You want to put a flower motif on your lingerie that is inspired by Japanese artwork? Go for it. Because no one – no one – can articulate a plausible, comprehensive vision of a world where you’re not allowed to do so.

Update: 

As was perhaps predictable, most of the responses I’m getting on social media to this post are classic motte and bailey arguments. There are plenty of absurd invocations of cultural appropriation (“it’s appropriation for white musicians to cover songs written by black artists”), then when someone like me challenges them, our challenges are met with defenses of very different arguments (“so you’re saying it’s OK to do blackface?!?”) And as is so often the case, admissions that some of these claims of cultural appropriation are ridiculous only come out in the course of dismissing my criticism; they are never made affirmatively by the people themselves when they emerge. If you acknowledge that cultural appropriation is often invoked frivolously (so that you can deny that these types are the stronger version), then… why don’t you say so yourselves when that happens? Unless, of course, the point is merely to stick up for your team.