Andy Wang, Bryan Van Norden, Cambodia, Christmas, Japan, Jay Garfield, Jaya Sundaresh, Kassy Cho, race, Susan Scafidi
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.
I’m not an expert on this topic, but my current understanding of cultural appropriation is in line with the second sentence of the Wikipedia article about it: “This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.” For example, the section on cultural appropriation in Wikipedia’s article about Plains Indian feathered bonnets says: “The controversy is part of a wider effort by Native American activists to highlight what they view as the ongoing cultural genocide against indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada. The trend of musicians and festival-goers wearing warbonnets, in particular, has led to criticism by Native Americans, apologies by non-Natives, and the banning of the sale or wearing of them as costumes by several music festivals.” I agree with the Native Americans on this one, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true that it is “a joyous and wonderful thing when cultures make creative new use of other cultures’ ideas for their own needs and purposes” as this post concludes. Sometimes it’s a stupid thing, frankly. Individual cases need to be analyzed with close attention to the meanings involved: for example, at this point in time, any non-Native American who appropriates a feather bonnet and is surprised by adverse responses probably has not been paying close attention to preexisting meanings and previous conversations about them. But I’m sure there is much more that could be said about this.
Amod Lele said:
I know very little about Native American cultures myself. But as I understand it, traditionally the feathered war bonnet is held sacred by the tribe that used it: it is used only under specific ceremonial conditions and treated with reverence. Assuming that that is in fact the case (and I’m happy to be corrected by those who know more about that), I agree there’s a problem with wearing the bonnet as a costume accessory at public concerts, but the problem has to do with that sacredness: it is the same problem that would occur if one wore a rubber fetish nun’s outfit in front of a pious Catholic. “Appropriation” is a poorly chosen and dangerous framework for thinking about that problem of offending around sacredness. Power differentials (“dominant/disadvantaged”) do exaggerate the problem, as they do with any rude action: it’s worse to abuse the sacred symbol of lower status than you, just as it’s worse to cut such people off in traffic, since there’s less they can *do* about your action. But I don’t think the power differentials are the *main* issue there; still less is it an issue of “taking” or “appropriating”.
It is also relevant and important that those power differentials get complicated. One of the reasons I found it important to write this post is that, under the kinds of norms that have become popular in North American élite circles of the past few years, I am more “allowed” to say this sort of thing than a (purely) white person is: it is harder to Twitter-shame me as a racist or the like. That is a kind of power of its own, a power that I have and white people *don’t*. I think we often read far too much into the idea that one group, qua group, is “dominant” and the other “disadvantaged” (or synonyms to these), and that this makes a neat binary. I am in sympathy with the idea of “don’t punch down”, at least in theory, but to me it is unequivocally punching down when an Asian boss mocks her white employee.
Also relatedly, I do not agree or disagree with “the Native Americans” about anything, and neither do you, because, like any other group of human beings, “the Native Americans” are a diverse group who do not share an internal consensus about very much. The Washington Redskins mascot was removed because “the Native Americans” were supposedly offended by it, even though multiple different polls and surveys showed that fewer than half of their Native American respondents actually were offended, and several showed considerably less than that. (You can tell that much even from the numbers on the linked Wikipedia page, which as of this writing is clearly biased toward the idea that “the Native Americans” disapprove of the name.)
I don’t think “sacred” is exactly the right descriptor for feathered war bonnets, so I think the argument in your first paragraph is off target. As far as I can see, concern about “appropriation” in relation to North American indigenous cultural heritage is well founded.
I’m sympathetic to your point in your second paragraph.
Your third paragraph is based on a misinterpretation of what I wrote. To clarify, when I said “I agree with the Native Americans”, the term “the Native Americans” referred to the critics in the previous sentence (“The trend of musicians and festival-goers wearing warbonnets, in particular, has led to criticism by Native Americans, apologies by non-Natives, and the banning of the sale or wearing of them as costumes by several music festivals”), not to ALL Native Americans. The numbers in that Wikipedia article about Washington Redskins name opinion polls are all over the place, but I’m biased toward believing the higher numbers of Native American critics, because all of the Native Americans (not intellectuals, just ordinary people) that I’ve heard talk about Native American caricature sports mascots have been against them.
Amod Lele said:
On the last point, that’s totally fair. I’ve gotten sick of loud complainers of Indian ethnicity (and I don’t mean Native) telling people what “we” are offended by, when I’m usually offended by the exact opposite. People these days very often assume that those loudest voices are entitled to “speak for” the whole group, and that touches a nerve with me: they are making my life worse and doing so in my name, and I do not appreciate this, to put it mildly. But yes, I do see how by “the Native Americans” you merely meant “the particular Native Americans referred to in the last sentence”, so I apologize for my misreading that and being too hasty to jump on that hobby horse.
Re war bonnets: I need to read up more on war bonnets before I say anything more about them in particular. But I would say that in general, concerns about “appropriation” are not well founded with respect to things that are not sacred in the relevant sense. By that I mean the sense in which the American flag or a Marine’s uniform is sacred, not any sense parasitic on “religion”, which, as ever, I find a highly unhelpful concept.
Amod, I realized later that my first comment above originated from a personal experience that I had forgotten (it wasn’t consciously in mind when I wrote my comment) but that shaped my perception of Native American cultural property. The experience happened when I was a teenager, decades ago. My dad, a white man, was personally and professionally involved with a local Midwestern Native American community (I’ll omit the specific tribal identifier here). He was asked by some Native Americans to give up a drum that he owned that he had bought from a Native American craftsperson. They thought that he had no right to own the drum because he wasn’t the proper ethnicity. He had bought the drum at a booth at an ordinary pow wow, open to the public (no one had objected when he bought it), and he had always handled the drum with due respect. He dealt with their request by donating the drum to them, and then he taught himself to build his own drum. (I still have the drum he made.) I guess this incident was the origin of my attitude about respecting Native American concerns about cultural appropriation. My dad could have refused to give them the drum, but he didn’t; he respected their beliefs by acquiescing to their request. He had other Native American friends who didn’t agree with this and who apologized to him, but he felt that keeping the peace by giving up the drum was the right thing to do. I’m sharing this so that you know more about where I’m coming from, and if you have any thoughts about this I’d be interested to hear them.
Thanks, Nathan. I guess my next thought would be: why did this group think his ethnicity made him unsuitable to own the drum? What was it about such a drum, what was it about his ownership, what was it about his and their ethnicity? Especially considering that there wasn’t agreement about the point even among the Native Americans he was speaking with.
I think it is often good to have a general principle of “don’t do things that piss people off if they’re not that important to you to begin with”, and if your dad was living by that principle that sounds like a good thing to me. Keeping the peace, as you say. But sometimes – in art, in philosophy, in humour – it can be really important to borrow from other cultures, even if it does piss people off. And I think that creating a general principle of treating cultures as property will, overall, do much more harm than good. I prefer to think in terms of sacredness because I think that gives us more of a sense of the “why” at issue: there is a problem with taking objects of reverence out of their context (though again, even there I would want to make exceptions for art, humour and philosophy).
Put another way: often it’s worth acquiescing to people’s wishes even when they’re wrong, in order to keep the peace and get along. But that doesn’t mean they’re right to ask for what they’re asking. To determine that, we need to look at the reasons.
Again, you note that some of your father’s Native friends disagreed that your father had no right to the drum. We shouldn’t be hasty to declare those friends’ view wrong and the others’ right.
Thanks. I don’t know the answer to your questions and can’t easily find out because my dad’s no longer alive and I’m not in touch with the other people involved. One other detail was that the drum came to be used in a small church started by a Native American minister that combined Christian and Native traditions, and in principle the church was open to everyone. My dad (who was formerly a Christian minister for a decade) got involved with the church. He had learned drumming by being invited to participate in a drum circle elsewhere, where he was the only white guy among Native Americans. So those who asked my dad to give up the drum may not have been objecting to the fact that he was white; they may have been objecting to the mix of Christian and Native traditions (traditionalism against innovation—one can imagine Christian traditionalists being just as opposed to this church as Native traditionalists), but in any case my dad was the one who was criticized by Native Americans about having the drum, and the criticism concerned what we would now call “cultural appropriation”. My dad had Native allies but capitulated to the traditionalists. I would have done the same if I were in his shoes. After remembering this incident, I’m trying to rethink it in light of your arguments. I like your distinction between interpersonal/intergroup politics and deeper philosophical reasons.
There is some valuable work in this area that is worth reading before dismissing the harms of appropriation. Nguyen and Strohl do a good job surveying several views before presenting their own in this paper: https://philpapers.org/rec/NGUCAA
Amod Lele said:
Thank you, Jeremy, and welcome. Some of the “intimate practices” this article discusses overlap with the idea of sacredness, as in my response to Nathan above – and that is not limited to those conventionally classed as “religious”. (Note how the Gonçalves quote speaks of the history of headwraps as “a symbol of faith”, and indeed of others as making it “profane”.) Again I think this is not about “appropriation”, but about sacredness and the respect for it.
Beyond sacredness, though, I’m not convinced by their more general argument. It’s wrong to post someone else’s love letters publicly because those are private, as the authors themselves state. Such an issue of privacy might apply to, say, esoteric tantric practices, which were traditionally not supposed to be shared with those who hasn’t received the initiation. But there’s nothing private about a sari or Lunar New Year. And it definitely does not depend on “what the group decides together”, for cultures (let alone races!!) are not the sort of group that can make such a decision. The authors rightly wrangle with this point near the end of the piece, and it doesn’t seem to me that they come up with a solution. I’d rather simply adopt the position they call “universal entitlement”, with a caveat for sacredness. (No caveat is needed for the case of Disney taking “hakuna matata”, for that act of copyrighting itself violates “universal entitlement”.)
Nor is it necessarily a good thing to protect “the unity and identity of a group”. Video gamers have constituted a group with a collective identity for a long time, in a way typically identified with masculinity, and many found that group’s “unity and identity” threatened by the growing number of women gamers for whom games meant something different – and reacted with an [often violent response](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamergate_controversy). To that unity and identity, many said good riddance.
I read the article by Nguyen and Strohl that Jeremy suggested, and I found it to be extremely illuminating. It helped clarify my own thinking about this issue.
I noticed that the authors address a couple of Amod’s objections: First, privacy is an illustrative analogy that they use to help the reader understand part of their argument, but the argument doesn’t depend on privacy. In a footnote they say: “We do not claim that appropriation in general can be considered a privacy violation.” Second, they agree with Amod’s point about the objectionable intimacy of a morally contemptible group, their example being the KKK. They say that other considerations outweigh group intimacy in the case of such a group.
Amod’s objection that “cultures … are not the sort of group that can make such a decision” seems to have hit upon a genuine weakness in the article. Sometimes the authors use the word “culture” to mean a kind of group (e.g., “A major focal point of this debate has been the phenomenon of style appropriation—that is, the use of stylistic cultural innovations distinctive of one culture by members of another culture”) and sometimes to mean practices that people do (e.g., “An appropriation claim is a request from a group member that non-members refrain from appropriating a given element of the group’s culture”). This mix of meanings is congruent with ordinary usage, but if they had instead precisely restricted the meaning of “culture” to practices, and if they had explicitly acknowledged that culture includes an entire spectrum from practices that only one person does to practices that everyone does, then they would have come closer to addressing Amod’s objection. (Yes, I think a “one-person culture” in this sense could be a thing: certain practices of particular hermits, as an extreme example. Why not?)
Seth Zuiho Segall said:
Amod, I commented on this topic in an early draft of “Buddhism and Human Flourishing,” which I eliminated later in the writing process, but which seems appropriate to share here:
“… This, of course, raises the thorny issue of cultural appropriation. The term is used to apply to majority or colonizing cultures that borrow from the cultural patrimony of
colonized peoples or oppressed minorities. What are the sociopolitical ramifications of
Westerners adopting and adapting from Asian religious traditions? This question is
fraught with difficulty because Western convert Buddhists—usually of white European
descent–have often ignored Asian natal Buddhist communities of color, or worse,
treated them with condescension, as if their Buddhism was somehow inferior. How,
we might wonder, do Asian Americans react to seeing white European-descent
Buddhists clothed in traditional Japanese Soto Zen clerical garb? These are difficult questions that require serious consideration and a willingness to hear the complaints of minority and/or formerly colonized cultures and engage in genuine dialogue with them.
At the same time, it is normal and natural for cultures to borrow from their neighbors. The English language is studded with words borrowed from abroad. As an American Jew raised on blintzes, bagels, and kugel, I’ve come to enjoy tacos, tapas, sushi, and dim sum. The “folk music” I play on my guitar isn’t the folk music of my native Brooklyn or of my Eastern European Jewish ancestry, but the folk music of Appalachia, Ireland, and the Mississippi delta. When we learn to appreciate the cultures of our neighbors, our lives are enriched.
Tracing the provenance of “culturally appropriated” ideas can sometimes be tricky. In
1956, Lonnie Donegan, the British “King of Skiffle,” recorded a cover version of Huddie
Ledbetter’s 1940 recording of the chain-gang style folk song, Stewball. Ledbetter,
better known as “Lead Belly,” was an incomparable African American folksinger and
blues musician. Donegan’s version of Stewball wasn’t terrible, it was just, well you
know, kind of “white.” One critic at the time chastised Donegan for inauthentically
borrowing from African American culture: “…it can only be described as phoney [sic]… Lonnie might do well to discard his incursions into the dead Ledbetter’s library of folk ballads, and let the husky negro folk artiste rest more easily in his grave.”
Donegan was one of the first British musicians to borrow from the African American
blues tradition, repackaging and selling it to a young white audience. Other British
musicians soon followed his example, exporting their recordings to America as part of
the so-called 1960’s “British Invasion.” Donegan had his own brief moment of fame in
the U.S. when his recording of “Does Your Chewing Gum Loose Its Flavor (On the
Bedpost Overnight)” became a hit in1961.
But let’s get back to Donegan’s recording of Stewball. As it turns out, Lead Belly
didn’t write Stewball. He learned it from folklorist Alan Lomax who, in 1933, recorded
African American prisoners singing it at a state prison farm in Oakley, Mississippi. How did those prisoners come by the song? If you research the provenance of Stewball back far enough, you discover it originated as an eighteenth century British broadside ballad. In the process, the eponymous Irish racehorse of the British ballad
metamorphosed into a California steed in Lead Belly’s version. Who was borrowing
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Seth. I agree with the vast majority of this. Perhaps not surprisingly, my only objection is about the concept of “the complaints of minority and/or formerly colonized cultures”: cultures don’t make those complaints, people do. And some of us people counted as “minorities” are getting a little sick of the complaints made on our behalf.
Albert Lin said:
Thank you so much for posting this. You did a great job of articulating some of the very same thoughts I’ve struggled to find the words for. From a LARP community perspective, I was worried about people *not* taking cultural elements from my own own culture. That would effectively end up with cultural erasure and force an impossible burden on minorities to provide that representation.
Amod Lele said:
Thanks, Albert. It’s great to see you here. I deliberately left LARPing out of this discussion because I’m aiming at a wider audience, but all the things I said above apply to it. I think LARPing in the past few years has become more Eurocentric, more culturally white, because so many people were worried about cultural appropriation, and that saddens and pains me. It took me a while to work up the courage to say this all publicly, but I’ve been wanting to say it for a long time.