Jay Garfield, Bryan Van Norden, and most of my colleagues on the Indian Philosophy Blog are shamelessly committing massive acts of cultural appropriation. Perhaps I am too. And that’s a wonderful thing.
The concept of “cultural appropriation” has gained massive popularity over the past several years, in this time of renewed radicalism on the left and right. It refers to the phenomenon of people from one culture taking up or making use of ideas or practices from another culture. What startles me is that those who use the concept typically treat such cultural borrowing as a bad thing. A typical example of the idea of “cultural appropriation” was a 2019 tweet by Kassy Cho proclaiming: “friendly reminder that you don’t get to celebrate lunar new year unless you’re literally from a country that does or if you are invited by someone who is from a country that does”.
So why don’t you “get to” celebrate lunar new year? What is so wrong with “cultural appropriation”? The most commonly cited definition of cultural appropriation, from Susan Scafidi, is “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” The caveat is bizarre. How can “a culture” give permission? Do you just need the permission of one person from that culture? If so, when there are thousands or more of such people, there is nearly always someone happy to “give permission” – often someone like me who believes permission shouldn’t be necessary in the first place – so the idea of cultural appropriation disappears entirely. (Andy Wang brilliantly responded to Cho’s tweet by declaring “I hereby formally invite everyone to celebrate lunar new year”.)
Or, conversely, does the entire culture need to get together, form some sort of legal entity that does not yet exist, and provide the culture’s official seal of approval? Since such a seal doesn’t exist and that there is therefore no way for “a culture” to get together and give permission, such a view effectively means that all “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artefacts from someone else’s culture” is wrong. So the medieval Muslims should not have “taken” Aristotle from the Greeks, the Chinese should not have “taken” Buddhism from India, modern Indians should not have “taken” cricket and afternoon tea from the English. For that matter, we’d all better stop listening to the Beatles – and the Clash and U2 and Nirvana and the White Stripes and Imagine Dragons and every other white act that “took” the African-American art form of rock’n’roll.
All of this should suggest why there is something off about the very idea of knowledge or cultural expressions being “taken from” another culture. The very idea of treating cultural expressions as a culture’s property, which can be taken, seems to extend the capitalist logic of private property into ever further spheres: to use the currently popular jargon, this idea seems a quintessentially neoliberal one. As good capitalists, we all know everything comes down to private property, and private property must be respected. Learning from other cultures is a form of stealing, just like progressive taxation and sharing PDF articles. When did leftists start thinking that this was an idea they wanted to embrace?
There is one case where I think “cultural appropriation” genuinely is appropriation and is a genuine problem. That is when a culture’s ability to use a cultural product is actually taken away from it – as when Disney trademarks “hakuna matata” or pharmaceutical companies get patents for medicines used traditionally in the Amazon for years. That is a crime and a theft, from the people of the originating culture and from human patrimony. But such cases are not what “cultural appropriation” is most commonly used to mean. Too often, the term “cultural apropriation” is itself used to take away – take away the supposedly dominant culture’s ability to use something, just as Disney takes away a marginalized culture’s. Either of these is a loss, a depriving humanity of its cultural potential, for reasons that do not justify that depriving.
I’ve sometimes heard the argument that it is unfair that Westerners can adopt foreign symbols and be viewed as cool when Asians have been looked down upon for doing the same thing – for example in this article by Jaya Sundaresh. Sundaresh says “If the use of the bindi by mainstream pop stars made it easier for South Asian women to wear it, I’d be all for its proliferation — but it doesn’t. They lend the bindi an aura of cool that a desi woman simply can’t compete with, often with the privilege of automatic acceptance in a society when many non-white women must fight for it.”
But Sundaresh’s case seems nonsensical to me. If the bindi is being lent “an aura of cool”, how is “a desi woman” then “competing with” that aura – rather than benefitting from it? The problem in those situations is not at all that white people can wear these items without social disapproval; the problem is that nonwhite people can’t! I see no evidence to indicate that white people’s wearing Asian styles makes it any more difficult for nonwhite people to do so; it would stand to reason that it makes the wearing of these items less weird and more socially acceptable in general.
Cultures have always borrowed freely from one another, changing the meaning of objects in the process – without “permission” – and the process is never unidirectional. I remember once being in a restaurant in Phnom Penh that displayed a video of Cambodian women in scanty Santa outfits singing “Jingle Bells” – in August. So too, Christmas is now one of the most popular holidays in Japan – as a day when couples go out to celebrate their romantic relationships by eating at KFC. The process of cultural borrowing is often funny and sometimes awkward, and it leaves humanity all the richer for it. Western Buddhism is very different from original Buddhism – just as Chinese Buddhism is. But the world would be much poorer without Chinese Buddhism or East African Islam, and it frightens and saddens me to imagine a world where such cultural mixing is prohibited.
As someone who is racially mixed myself, I hope I can be excused for worrying that such prohibitions on cultural mixing feel dangerously close to still more problematic ideologies that say I should not exist. It does not bother me in the least when a white woman wears a sari. Rather, what offends me, and even scares me, is when someone tells white women – women like my mother – that they should not wear a sari.
The idea of “cultural appropriation” is directly antithetical to all the work that cross-cultural philosophers have done so hard to get accepted. Because if we accept that it is possible and illegitimate to “take” traditional knowledge or cultural expressions from “someone else’s” culture, well, again, that is exactly what Van Norden and Garfield have advocated for, and what most of the philosophers on the Indian Philosophy Blog are doing. White people thinking constructively with non-Western philosophy is exactly that “taking” of traditional knowledge from another culture. (So, for that matter, is people of Indian origin “taking” philosophy from China.) And it is never clear how exactly they were supposed to get “permission”. To treat “cultural appropriation” as a bad thing is to say to the likes of Garfield and Van Norden: how dare you white people take Chinese philosophy from China or Indian philosophy from India? It is not your property. Stay in your lane. Philosophy departments in the West should remain departments of Western philosophy as they always have, because their white professors have no right to teach non-Western thought.
If the ideology of “cultural appropriation” were correct, it would mean that traditionally white-dominated philosophy departments have been entirely right in their long avoidance and ignoring of non-Western philosophy. It would mean white people shouldn’t be studying the philosophies that “belong to” people from other cultures. They shouldn’t be “taking” and “appropriating” this property, they should stay in their lanes and remain as narrow and parochial and hidebound and Eurocentric as they always have been. The idea of cultural appropriation effectively tells white people to be more Eurocentric – to drop even that far-too-limited exploration of other cultures that they have already engaged in. Intellectual diversity, learning from other cultures and their ideas, is – according to cultural-appropriation ideology – a bad thing. The ideology of cultural appropriation is a way of telling white people to make their culture even whiter.
Fortunately for those of us who do study other cultures, this ideology is entirely wrong. Cultures are not property. Humanity’s cultural heritage belongs to humanity. The acts named by the phrase “cultural appropriation” are things we human beings need more of. It is a joyous and wonderful thing when cultures make creative new use of other cultures’ ideas for their own needs and purposes. Let us celebrate it.