This is a heavily revised version of a post on the contentious topic of ‘cultural appropriation’. It was originally posted in about 2011 on a previous version of this site. All posts were lost after it was hacked, but I recently rediscovered a word processor draft and decided to revisit it.
I can’t remember when I first came across ‘pocahotties‘? It is apparently the term used for young women who dress up in ‘Red Indian’ outfits in order to prance around on Halloween. I have to confess that at first, being as happy to watch scantily dressed young women capering around as the next male, I would have seen this as essentially harmless, although it isn’t prevalent in the UK. However, looking more deeply, I realised that in practice this is just as offensive as putting on blackface and an ‘African Princess’ outfit.
When following it up, I came across the term cultural appropriation. I can’t remember if I was aware of it already. However, I was prompted to dig deeper. The first definition I found was:
Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation by Bruce Ziff (Editor), Pratima V. Rao (Editor) (1997)
‘The taking from a culture that is not one’s own of intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge.’
I had immediate problems with this, since almost every term used has further problems of definition. What does ‘taking’ mean? What is a culture? Can we locate the source of ‘intellectual property, cultural expressions or artefacts, history and ways of knowledge’ at a cultural level? Indeed, what are ‘ways of knowledge’? Can the appropriation of objects like works of art be considered in the same way as appropriation of content like artistic styles, or in the same way as culturally significant rituals?
As the term has passed into wider usage, its meaning has become further confused, muddled and riddled with inconsistencies. It has become used to justify claims that the use of any concepts or images from other cultures is always unacceptable, to be avoided and probably racist. The most egregious example I have come across was in Portland, Oregon when a couple of white women tried to open a weekends only food cart selling tacos. In response, they were subjected to harassment and death threats and made to feel so unsafe they closed the business.
This is in the USA, home of Macdonald’s Burgers, Tex-Mex food and Chicago pizzas. And how can we ignore that monstrosity, the Hawaiian pizza – developed in Canada by a Greek-Canadian who adapted the sweet and sour principle from Chinese food, and named Hawaiian from the brand of tinned pineapple he was using.
Look at social media or dig into blog comment threads, and you will find arguments to that effect about judo and other martial arts, yoga, textile patterns, food, music and a huge range of artistic endeavours. Most of these arguments moreover take the ‘donor’ culture at face value, without looking to see how far that is itself a synthesis. There is also an implicit suggestion that these cultures cannot stand up for themselves but must be defended by others and effectively fossilised, which is at best patronising and potentially racist in itself.
To take this further, let’s look at some cases of alleged content appropriation in the arts.
Jazz and blues are generally considered to have their roots in African-American culture. It was often argued in the past that when non African-American musicians attempted to play jazz or blues, they lacked the right sensitivity and feeling and were also damaging the culture from which they were ‘stealing’. So far as the first argument is concerned, there is plenty of contradictory empirical evidence.
Many years ago I saw a TV interview with musicians Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee in which they recounted how, when they first heard a recording by the British artist Lonnie Donegan, they thought it was by Leadbelly, so accurately had he captured the sound and feel.
Philosopher James O Young in his book Cultural Appropriation and the Arts recounts how the trumpeter Roy Eldridge (Young calls him ‘Ray’) bet the music critic Leonard Feather that he could reliably tell the difference between jazz performances by African-American and non African-American musicians. Eldridge failed miserably.
The second argument about damage to the donor culture also fails to stand up to investigation. The classic ‘St James Infirmary Blues‘ is a case in point. The words and melody are believed to have their origin in an 18th century traditional English folk song called “The Unfortunate Rake” (also known as “The Unfortunate Lad” or “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime”). There are numerous versions of the song throughout the English-speaking world. It evolved for example into other American standards such as “The Streets of Laredo”. Effectively, the song is the product of a long process of adoption, adaptation and transmutation into the blues we know. If there is a ‘donor’ culture, it is that of 18th century rural England and well past damage.
A similar case is the song ‘Goodnight Irene’ recorded in 1950 by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. This was an adaptation of a song called ‘Irene’ by Leadbelly. The Seeger recording proved controversial at the time. The Leadbelly song, despite the fact that he had copyrighted it, was based on a Southern folk song he had learned from his uncle. That song was in turn an arrangement of a waltz written in the 1880s by Gussie Lord Davies, an African American composer who wrote however for a largely white audience. Davis of course had in turn appropriated the waltz from the music of Vienna. The song has now permeated British culture to the extent that it has become the club song for supporters of the English football club Bristol Rovers.
In both cases, these songs have been passing in and out of African-American culture over an extended period. The extent to which they can be placed within a specific culture is minimal, and the extent to which any culture has been harmed by the process is probably zero.
In music, genres like tango, salsa, Tejano, flamenco, klezmer, and high life are all syntheses from a range of cultures. Tango combines music and dance rhythms from Africa with European musica, Tejano music (also called Tex-Mex by English speakers) includes elements from the brass band music of German immigrants. Flamenco incorporates Arabic and even Indian influences via Gypsy music. Klezmer, an instrumental musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, ended up in the USA and adopted elements from big band and jazz. The rhythms of Cuba, themselves a synthesis, were transplanted to New York by Cuban immigrants such as Celia Cruz and Beny Moré, where they blended again with other Latin forms from people like Tito Puente of Puerto Rican origin.
Other examples can be found in the Afro-Cuban jazz of Dizzie Gillespie and later the adoption of Bossa Nova rhythms by Stan Getz. In a different genre is the Missa Luba, a Christian Mass using traditional Congolese music.
Film is another example of appropriation resulting in positive outcomes. The great Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa made numerous films based on Western literary sources. Perhaps the greatest of these are Ran (derived from King Lear) and Throne of Blood (derived from Macbeth). Going the other way, Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai was in turn remade as The Magnificent Seven, while his film Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars.
Shakespeare was himself an arch appropriator, from Holinshed and others. His themes and plots have a mythic quality that stands above any specific culture, and so easily slip from one medium to another and from one cultural setting to another. As well as the Kurosawa films, Lear was almost certainly an inspiration for the film Broken Lance, while the musical Kiss Me Kate is based on The Taming of the Shrew and most well known of all perhaps, West Side Story, comes from Romeo and Juliet. His work was also the stimulus for the suite Such Sweet Thunder by Duke Ellington.
Appropriation of content then has been the source of much great work. The adoption of artistic elements from a culture and their remaking into something new is a positive thing. Examples have been cited from jazz and film, but there are many others. I quoted Andrew Marr before, (here,) in a different context, but it is still apposite:
…the history of painting is also the history of copying, both literally and by quotation, of appropriation, of modifying, working jointly and in teams, reworking and borrowing.
Have any of the examples cited taken anything away from their culture of origin, even if that can be identified? It seems to me that the answer must be no. The creation of these musical forms has increased the sum total of human happiness. Cultural and artistic change is inevitable. It is part of being human. Trying to prevent it is doomed to failure and probably causes damage rather than preventing it. Everyone loses.
So, is anything left of the concept? I’m not convinced. Nor am I alone in my doubts. Bernardine Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker Prize, has described the idea of cultural appropriation as “total nonsense”, saying it was ridiculous to expect writers not to “write beyond your own culture”.
For me, my starting point of Blackface and ‘Pocahotties’ seems to be about racism and offensive behaviour not appropriation. Kwame Anthony Appiah, ethics columnist for the New York Times, has said that the term cultural appropriation incorrectly labels contemptuous behaviour as a property crime.
(It) “wrongly casts cultural practices as something like corporate intellectual property, an issue of ownership.”
“The key question in the use of symbols or regalia associated with another identity group is not: What are my rights of ownership? Rather it’s: Are my actions disrespectful?”
The use of traditional African textile patterns in Western fashions, is also a common target. The artist Yinka Shonibare uses batik patterns because they suggest authentic African-ness, yet they were first sold in Africa by the Dutch in the 19th century and are actually derived from Indonesia.
“I’m not one of these people who challenge cultural appropriation in that way,” he says. “Of course, I recognise power issues. I recognise that the dominant culture can misuse something.” But Shonibare delights in the exchanges, crossovers and ironies that can ensue.
As Appiah points out, in the Ashanti region of Ghana there’s a traditional form of dress called ntoma. In fact, the most common form of ntoma is a wax print, locally sometimes called a Java print, because the first designs were made in Indonesia. If cultural appropriation were wrong, Ashanti people shouldn’t be wearing it.
A different view
A different approach to the topic here: https://www.breachbangclear.com/cultural-appropriation/ – quite good apart from knee-jerk nonsense about the far left.