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Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Tough Topics #47: Cultural Appropriation. Get it together please.

Oh wow! Ok, this is actually a decent definition. I've looked and looked the last several years now for a decent definition of what cultural appropriation is, or is supposed to be. And just now, not even expecting anything, I looked again, and here we go!

Cultural appropriation is defined as the act of co-opting symbols and practices from one culture (usually a minority culture) without proper understanding of, or respect for, its original significance.

That, I will cosign. It works. Clear. Slight bit wonky in a couple parts, but overall, this is the best definition I've seen. Because it is clear, it can be used meaningfully to discuss the problem and call out instances of it.

Note, I deliberately took it without crediting the originator!

However, think about it: it's justified. He presents this as the definition of the term. If so, it is neither his definition nor anyone else's, but everyone's. It is simply what cultural appropriation means. I will take him at his word, and I'll further say that if this is the definition that wins out wide, cultural appropriation will be a useful term. For as long as the term is promulgated in such a way that people diverge widely all over the map on what it means, and in particular, on how and why (and whether and when) it is wrong, the term's usefulness is badly hamstrung. When half your discussion is wasted on trying to come to agreement on what it is, that term's utility is highly arguable.

Almost literally.

That battle for clear, strong consensus is still being fought. These processes have to work themselves out, as to how the term should be used and understood so that it best identifies and confronts a real problem. But it's heartening to see at this stage, least one clear, concise definition has emerged that doesn't suck bugs. So many weird, self-contradicting, nebulous or overbroad definitions are currently struggling with and against each other - including far too many that don't give any sense of how cultural appropriation is wrong.

Example, here's Oxford:

The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

Ok, "unacknowledged" is easy enough. But let's say it's very clearly acknowledged, though. What then will make it inappropriate? Typical fucking effete Brit nonsense, assumes we all have taste and can tell for ourselves! The definition does not define. It does exclude, though! If it is acknowledged, and if it is also appropriate, the cultural adoption is not cultural appropriation, by this definition. So that's something.

But what about Cambridge? Do let's:

the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.

Okay, that "especially" there means that part is severable. That absent the lack of the "especially without" items, the rest of the definition still holds. It is still cultural appropriation, the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, even if you do show you understand and respect this culture. It's cultural appropriation, and disapproval-worthy, as per the definition's parenthetical header.

Both these definitions are useless, but the difference between them is instructive. Oxford gives no hard information on what the substance of the offense is, by which an act of cultural adoption can be judged inappropriate or appropriate. But at least they do indicate that only inappropriate acts (or inappropriately unacknowledged acts) can be called "cultural appropriation." Cambridge, though, calls all acts of borrowing cultural appropriation, identified as a term of disapproval, and then adds an implication of especial disapproval for the ignorant and disrespectful acts.

Oxford assures us that only the bad ones count as cultural appropriation. Bad how? Bad why? Undefined.

Cambridge assures us that all cultural adoptions are (disapproving!) cultural appropriation - especially the bad ones. The good ones should still be disapproved, though, because they're cultural appropriation. Again: bad how? Bad why?

Personally, I'd prefer a definition of cultural appropriation that is based on the act itself, with an admission that depending on things like acknowledgement, understanding, respect, or accuracy, a given act of cultural appropriation can be good, bad, even neutral. But I will gladly accept our first definition cited (can it be cited but not attributed?). It describes the act, it describes clearly that the act must be done with ignorance or disrespect: and this is what makes it cultural appropriation. Ok.

I do think the dude might want to add in the more "woke" angle, though: the oppression factor (I bet he originally had that in there, and an editor pruned it for "clarity" - leaving those ghost traces such as "one culture" where you'd expect "a culture"!). A couple suggestions, then, on behalf of that. Either:

Cultural appropriation is defined as the act of a dominant culture or its members co-opting symbols and practices from a marginalized, oppressed or minority culture without proper understanding of, or respect for, its original significance.

That'd be the "strong formulation." A little less hard, we could go:

Cultural appropriation is defined as the act one culture (usually a dominant culture) or its members co-opting symbols and practices from one culture (usually a marginalized, oppressed or minority culture) without proper understanding of, or respect for, its original significance.

I could work with either of those.

Or the original one! Taken from Dillon Johnson writing for Teen Vogue, of all places. I think Dillon will find soon if he hasn't already that there's a strong push out there that cultural appropriation must be conceived as a one-way wrong: the dominant culture can be guilty of cultural appropriation from a minority et al culture, but the minority et al culture cannot be guilty of cultural appropriation from the dominant culture (analogous to racism).

I'm fine with any of those three definitions, though, or any other definition that makes it clear 1. what cultural appropriation is, 2. whether it is wrong by definition, and 3. when it's wrong, how it is wrong. All three work, it's just a question of how best to shape the term to target the problem.

That clarity is what we need, and what we currently very lack.

Thanks, Dillon!

Dillon's article:

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