Reflections on Cultural Appropriation

Responses to criticisms of appropriation:

1. You are mocking my culture.

Some critics argue that cultural appropriation is wrong because it mocks other cultures. However, this can’t be the whole story. A person wearing a sari or kimono because they think it’s beautiful or value its designer is plausibly not mocking a culture. (If you disagree with this, you should probably get off the train here. A conversation between us probably wouldn’t be fruitful.) A person wearing a sari or kimono while performing an exaggerated stereotypical pantomime is mocking a culture. Sometimes cultural appropriation is mocking, sometimes it is honoring, and sometimes it is neutral. If you are against cultural mockery, be against cultural mockery, but cultural appropriation isn’t synonymous with it.

Also, sometimes mockery is appropriate.  If you are mocking aspects of culture that need reform it can be a tool for change. In Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, he argues that foot binding ended when the cosmopolitan Chinese intellectual classes realized that the practice of foot binding was bringing disrespect to China in the eyes of other nations. Mockery, even from outsiders, can be a tool of social change.

2. My culture owns it; you are stealing it.

Some critics claim that cultural appropriation is an act of theft. When a white person dons a Native American war bonnet, he or she is stealing that cultural symbol from Native Americans. When Selena Gomez performs with a bindi, she is stealing a Hindu religious symbol.

There are serious problems with the suggestion that one could steal from a culture itself.  A culture isn’t a person. It’s an aggregate of ideas, norms, and values. Saying abstract, fuzzy aggregates can “own things” is a bizarre view of property. Cultures do not have interests and cannot be harmed. A more plausible construal of the appropriation-as-theft model, then, is that the members of a culture are in some way being stolen from. However, it is worth noting that cultural appropriation does not typically involve a literal and direct act of deprivation. As John McWhorter points out, the notion that cultural appropriation as theft “… is misleading when applied to something like culture that is not a limited resource: unlike appropriating a physical object, others imitating a cultural concept doesn’t inherently deprive its original users of the use of it.”

McWhorter is right to draw attention to the fact that culture is not a finite resource. It is not necessarily the case that, by wearing a sari or a cross or some other cultural icon without being a member of the culture in question, that I am somehow stripping a member of that culture from the ability to do so themselves.

Nonetheless, this should not lead us to overlook that the social conditions may differ between the group being appropriated from and those doing the appropriating. For instance, despite their foundational role in the development of rock music, black people were sidelined in favor of more socially acceptable whites. As a result, black musicians lost out financially and socially, unable to enjoy the wealth and status that came with performing popular music to wider audiences. In these cases, it certainly seems appropriate for musicians to give more credit to their influences, and active measures should have been, and should continue to be taken to ensure that racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination don’t hinder members of historically oppressed cultures from enjoying the fruits of their own culture. Even so, it is far less clear that anyone stands to lose status, wealth, or anything else of importance in more recent, widely-publicized cases, such as Selena Gomez’s performance with a bindi.

3. You did not educate yourself in my culture before using it.

This is not an argument against appropriation in general. This is an argument against certain types of appropriation. One could be for cultural appropriation, but against uninformed cultural appropriation. But nonetheless, is this worry reasonable?

Education is in general good. Curiosity is a virtue. Everyone should go learn about other cultures. But requiring extensive knowledge before using other culture’s goods, symbols, or ideas risks being far too burdensome. Paper was invented in China. Our symbols representing numbers were invented in India. Is there anything in our culture that wasn’t partially borrowed or remixed? Plausibly not. Why do we have to educate ourselves before using kimonos but not paper? There are too many things we would have to educate ourselves on if this view were right: tables, fireworks, arithmetic, glass-making, haircutting, the number 0, drums, the alphabet. We don’t know the cultural and historical origins of most of those things. It’s very plausible that they originate in cultures that are not our own. Learning the origin of all the ideas, goods, symbols around us would be impossible given time constraints. (Especially given that each object will have origins in multiple cultures and subcultures.)

4. Your ancestors killed my ancestors therefore you can’t wear it.

I am not responsible for what my ancestors did. You are not responsible for what your ancestors did. We should only be held responsible for things we ourselves did.

It may seem distasteful for the descendants of historical oppressors to adorn themselves with symbols of the people their ancestors historically oppressed. But this is mostly a holdover from the idea that people are responsible for what their parents did—an idea whose time has passed.

5. It’s a token of respect for my group. You didn’t earn it. You are disrespecting it, and your use cheapens it.

Many things called cultural appropriation, like white people making jazz music or cornrows, are obviously not tokens of respect, so again, one could be for cultural appropriation but against wearing unearned symbols of respect.

Wearing a symbol of honor that you didn’t earn is often bad. Doing so is usually deceptive and/or unfair. But if you are dressing up as a specific war hero and depicting them with dignity, it doesn’t seem that disrespectful to wear the medal of honor in the costume. Costumes differ in how much respect they show.

Perhaps if a symbol of honor is dazzling, like a crown or a war-bonnet, people being desensitized to it will take away the “wow factor” of the symbol. “You are cheapening my symbol by commercializing it,” one might say.  But, does the extra dazzle conferred upon the sacred object (and its owners) because it has not been copied truly outweigh the joy of  large numbers of people seeing beautiful objects?

6. You get to use it and I don’t, which is unfair.

Instead of grounding the immorality of cultural appropriation in honor or property rights, some writers and thinkers have tried to ground the wrongness of appropriation in fairness.  Here are two realistic examples:

  • A)  If you wear a sari it’s exotic and cool. If I wear a sari, it’s othering and marks me as an outsider.
  • B)  Your unkempt hair is considered professional for business. My unkempt hair (dreadlocks) is not.

In response to (A):

(Notice though this argument is contingent on the society in question. If we were in a context where there were a deep asymmetry in ability to wear things, then this argument would be better. I’m imagining we’re talking about life in Massachusetts because that’s where I currently live, and that’s where I would have these conversations.)

We need to disambiguate “wearing as performance” and “wearing as ordinary fashion”. It’s plausible that both Indians and non-Indians can wear saris in performances and this is socially acceptable in both cases. It’s also plausible that neither me nor an Indian could wear a sari in day-to-day life without raising eyebrows. I would get flak for extravagance and self-indulgence. They would get flak for not seeming assimilated enough. So it’s not clear there is a deep difference in ability to wear saris as ordinary fashion. Maybe the asymmetry is at a higher level of abstraction? White people can wear traditional Western clothes, but Indians can’t wear traditional Indian clothes. But this fails too. A typical white Bostonian couldn’t wear traditional Scottish or Jewish garb to work.

In response to (B):

If Sikhs were banned from buses in Paterson, NJ, it would maybe be obligatory to boycott that bus system. But, boycotting specific companies is different from boycotting whole categories of activity. It’s one thing to say we won’t use the Paterson bus system because it’s racist. It’s another to say that no non-Sikhs anywhere on earth should use buses because the Paterson bus system is racist. Banning dreadlocks is the latter.

7. Us being able to demand compliance on this shows that we have social power. We are already marginalized, so give us this thing.

This is an okay principle. This is an argument for why white people shouldn’t say racial slurs. But with cultural appropriation, you are often depriving members of more than just a word. A lot of the culturally appropriated objects are beautiful or useful or interesting. It seems a bit much to demand that another person not appreciate beauty or think interesting thoughts or learn a new craft just because you want to be able to demand compliance.

8. It’s a symbol of in-group. You using it makes it harder for me to identify who’s in my group and who isn’t.

It is useful to distinguish group members from non-group members. Certain commonly worn cultural items like punk band t-shirts and Christian crosses serve this function. It would be annoying to Christians if non-Christians started wearing crosses around. But annoying is not the same as immoral. And most cultural items are not group membership markers: An Armenian guy wearing a kimono in Boston is not making it harder for Japanese people to meet each other and form communities.

Also, a lot of groups don’t have reasonable arbiters for who counts as a group member. Groups like companies and small social clubs can have official membership policies. Decentralized collections of hundreds of millions of people (especially ones that are already amalgamations of multiple empires, cultures, and peoples) do not have this.

9. We invented it so we need to be given credit.

Wanting to give inventors credit and banning other people from benefiting from an invention are distinct.

10. It reinforces stereotypes of people of color.

This is not a blanket argument against appropriation; it is an argument against clumsy, stereotypical representations.

11. It’s inauthentic.

An essay on what authenticity is and whether or not we should value it would take too much time, but briefly: It’s not at all clear that a white, suburban 15 year old who loves listening to Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters is being inauthentic. If you honestly love items or ideas made far away, you are not being false to anyone by declaring your love of them.


Responses to arguments supporting cultural appropriation:

1. Racial and cultural essentialism are bad.

Are you saying black people have to do black things and white people have to do white things? Doesn’t that sound a little weird? Doesn’t it sound a little bit inappropriate? We should not conflate a person’s genealogy with their culture or identity: A description of how a person or group of people does behave is not a prescription for how they should behave.

2. Sharing is good.

If you know a delicious recipe, show your friends! Saying “no, this is my recipe” is petty. You should want other people to be happy, and enjoy the splendid stuff you’ve found.

3. Combinatorial creativity helps us collectively.

Language is powerful partly because it is combinatorial. I can take a finite set of words (20,000 or so) and string them together in new ways to create an uncountably vast number of new ideas. Just imagine how impoverished writing would be if we forbade half of the words in English language. Culture is also combinatorial. Impressionism was influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e art prints. The structure of benzene molecule was inspired by Friedrich August Kekulé visualizing an ouroboros. More cultural appropriation means new ideas, better ideas, better art. Matt Ridley describes this process as “ideas having sex.” Be sex positive.

4. Cultures are often robust.

Or as one Tumblr user put it: “You think that the 4800 year old culture of India is in any way threatened because Britney from Eugene Oregon wears a bindi?  I think that if the Mughal Empire didn’t succeed in destroying the culture of India, then Indian culture is probably going to survive Britney.

5. Fascination is good.

We’ll be better off collectively if we have an attitude of curiosity and openness towards the ideas and art of outsiders.



Be skeptical when people tell you not to culturally appropriate. The vast majority of cultural appropriation is neutral or good. Don’t desecrate sacred symbols needlessly. Do twerk, do wear saris, do wear kimonos, and do get dreadlocks. The world is beautiful. Find what is meaningful to you. Go explore.

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3 Responses to Reflections on Cultural Appropriation

  1. Valerie says:

    Hi, Sam. Nice post did you hear about the controversy around the MFA kimono day? It was very interesting because there were all these Japanese-born adults who wanted Japanese culture to be appreciated in that way, but young Asian-Americans were protesting. There was young one woman who equates her rape with cultural appropriation in her sign, which I think demonstrates what we call “victim culture.” This woman experienced an undeniably traumatic event, but instead of learning how to be resilient she became involved with this subculture that encourages her to make category errors that actually re-traumatize her. Anyway, this is why changing people’s mind on cultural appropriation isn’t likely to happen. It is an ideology built on cognitive biases.
    Here is the link the the article:


  2. stopthecult says:

    Very interesting article, whilst I can say i don’t agree with many of the subject brought to light. I can say that your view is appreciated and it does make me take into consideration many different points of view. ” The vast majority of cultural appropriation is neutral or good. ” though is a suggestion we don’t very much agree on but hey we are a campaign that aims to stop cultural appropriation (as we do see it as a negative). But good article nonetheless!



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