Can Culture be Appropriated?

The recent hullabaloo from Oberlin about poorly-executed dining hall food as cultural appropriation has raised new concerns about the “new culture wars” on campus. Most reactions that I have seen negative: students viewed as hopelessly naive, misguided, or blind to the optics of their own privilege. That students were protesting banh mi and General Tso’s chicken—two dishes that are obvious mash-ups of different national culinary traditions—just confirms the absurdity of the complaints.

Yet the inclination to dismiss these students’ complaints of cultural appropriation is a mistake. The issues that lurk behind dining-hall-food-objections are substantively important, and could have wide implications, in particular for educators. Taking these seriously means panning out from this specific set of complaints to the phenomenon termed “cultural appropriation.” Although this term has been used for decades, what it means is not clear.

The Conceptual Prerequisites of Cultural Appropriation

First, a clarification: cultural appropriation is used to mean something other than cultural insensitivity, or stereotyping, or prejudice (although these may co-occur with appropriation). The term is used to describe a transfer of something, usually somehow illegitimately (but see below), from one culture to another. But for cultural appropriation to “be a thing,” two preconditions must be fulfilled. The first is that culture exists in a static and coherent form. The second is that culture can be owned, for appropriation presupposes that something is property.

Consider first the idea of culture as a static and coherent form. The Rosemary Coombe’s essay in Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation contains one of the most cogent critiques of essentialism in the so-called “cultural appropriation debate” (full-text PDF is here). Writing in reference to Canadian First Nations, she notes

there is a constant insistence that aboriginal peoples must represent a fully coherent position that expresses an authentic identity forged from an uncomplicated past that bespeaks a pristine cultural tradition before their voice is recognized as Native

Such a requirement is of course impossible to fulfill: even articulating this position as Coombe does makes clear that it rests on notions of “coherence” and “authenticity” that are unsustainable. Adopting a different perspective, Richard Rogers outlines a version of cultural appropriation that he terms transculturation, which

questions whether the conception of culture as singular, bounded essence has ever had empirical validity or conceptual coherence

If the idea of culture as an essential thing is problematic, then even more so is the idea of culture as an individual or collective possession. Coombe’s essay, in fact, is primarily a challenge to the notion of culture as a possession, written to point out just how fundamentally Western and Romantic the idea of culture-as-property is. As if culture can be owned!

These two points, taken together, suggests radical skepticism of the very idea of cultural appropriation. If we cannot accept that banh mi is a fixed cultural product that is somehow the property of some community, then it follows that banh mi cannot be “appropriated.” Poorly executed banh mi is nothing more than poorly executed banh mi, objectionable only insofar as one subjectively believes that one holds in one’s mind a normative ideal of what banh mi should taste like. That ideal is normative, and it is itself a social product, not an artifact of something called Vietnamese Culture that can be picked up like an archeological find and whisked away by an outsider.

(Phew, say the purveyors of Java Bread banh mi.)

And Yet…

I nevertheless find the above argument discomfiting. Like Jacob Levy’s political theorist who “insists on remaining tethered to some core intuition,” my own core intuition is that when people talking about cultural appropriation are talking about something real and meaningful. I’m currently in Malaysia, and while shopping for souvenirs for my children, I found myself considering buying a cheongsam or kebaya for my daughter, and ultimately deciding not to. The decision was driven by the argument I read by Maisha Johnson here, which I read as I first started writing this post. That just happened.

Indeed, the works I cited above as ammunition against cultural appropriation are written by authors who do think that cultural appropriation is a thing, and usually a bad thing at that (although Rogers’ typology of appropriation allows there to be variation). In perusing the academic literature on cultural appropriation, this essay on race and hip hop culture in particular stands out to me.

So I am left in a bind. Everything I know about culture says that it does not have the properties of something that can be appropriated. Yet my instinct is that there is something problematic about the Rolling Stones breakthrough album being comprised primarily of old blues standards, mostly by African American composers who never enjoyed the commercial success that the Stones enjoyed. It seems, well, appropriative. There are plenty of other examples I can give. I have no resolution to this tension between argument and intuition.

What’s at Stake

Here’s why this tension matters, especially for educators.

Johnson describe cultural appropriation as happening when “I’m taking from an oppressed group to which I don’t belong.” When we learn, and when we teach, about global issues, we inevitably do this: we can be careful, we can be critical, we can be circumspect, but we always do. Take me, for example. I teach about Southeast Asia, which I certainly do not “claim” as “my own” culture or heritage. And yet, I teach about culture in Southeast Asia, and I get pretty deep into topics like “Asian values.” I pose normative questions about the authoritative allocation of values for half a billion people in the global South. I also enjoy doing this. And I am paid to do it.

Is this appropriative? I don’t think so. But the same argument that says that Oberlin’s dining hall food is appropriative says, I think, that my teaching is appropriative. Unless we are to adopt the position that only Authentic Others can speak for Others—and I find the suggestion both impractical and offensive—then allegations of cultural appropriation in education is not just likely, it is inevitable if we are to encourage students to think beyond what is familiar to them.

Comments 3

  1. Andrew Loh January 8, 2016

    As a Malaysian, I think you should absolutely buy that cheongsam / kebaya.

    Seriously. I think I speak for most Malaysians when i assert that we’d be more insulted if you didn’t.

  2. Jamila Michener (@povertyscholar) January 9, 2016

    Tom, I am also deeply suspicious of the idea of culture. I constantly challenge my students to think closely and critically about “Black culture” and most especially about a supposed, “culture of poverty.” These are never easy conversations. Culture is a tough nut to crack for precisely the reasons you point to: it is conceptually suspect but undeniably intuitive. We all (sort of) think that culture is “a real thing” but often cannot identify its substance or boundaries. This makes for some very productive classroom discussions, but it remains the source of some intellectual consternation on my part. In grad school, I tried to write a paper on race, class and culture in the U.S. My goal was to somehow make theoretical headway in an arena I felt scholars of poverty (in the U.S.) had prematurely abandoned. I eventually gave up. I promised myself I would return to it when I was a more seasoned scholar, better equipped to grapple with the complexities of culture. I am clearly not there yet. I may never be. In this context, the issue of appropriation is hard. Of everything you said, your comments about appropriation in the realm of education are especially thought provoking. If teaching about an oppressed group to which I do not belong is inherently appropriative (as you suggest), then many educators are appropriators (and probably many of the best ones). So it can’t be such a bad thing, right? I am not so sure. Unlike you, I am hardly convinced that, “when we learn and when we teach” we necessarily “take from” an oppressed group to which we do not belong. I think that whether these acts are appropriative depends on how we teach/learn, what we teach/learn and why we teach/learn. Of course, that doesn’t help clarify anything, it only muddies the waters even more. Luckily, I never promised any insights☺ I have lots of other thoughts RE: cultural appropriation, but I am out of energy. I will admit this: I was a bit worried about what you would say as I began reading this post (because I like you and for some crazy reason, I don’t enjoy it when people that I like write things that I disdain about issues I really care about). By the end of the piece, however, I was relieved (and hardly surprised) because you wrote thoughtfully and with nuance. I suspect that we would part ways on certain issues if we talked about this in depth. But I could welcome such divergence, and perhaps even learn from it. That’s refreshing given my experience of how the cultural appropriation debate can go when the interlocutors are from very different backgrounds.

    • tompepinsky January 9, 2016

      Thanks for reading and commenting, @povertyscholar. I’m glad that we don’t disagree too much, and eager to have that discussion where we can learn where we do disagree!

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