Cultural Appropriation: What is all the fuss about?

Imagine for a second that your likeness wasn’t on the cover of almost all the magazines on the news stand, and that you didn’t see your likeness on television ads eating cornflakes whenever you turned the TV on.  Chances are if you are not a member of a racial minority you will have a hard time even imagining it as you never have experienced that (unless you lived in Asia of course) but give me permission to speak generally here.  Let’s add to our imagining that the only time you saw your likeness on TV or magazines was in the form of a clown type character or advertising chocolate because it matched your skin, you’d probably get a little pee’d off.  Imagine if you dared to get a little angry and speak up, you were told to ‘STFU’ or ‘stop your whining’ by a member of the dominant culture it probably wouldn’t help the situation.  So, I’m going to start the conversation here.  Here is parts of a report I’ve just completed on cultural appropriation vs cultural exchange.  I’m seeking to create clarity or a framework around what the issues actually are.

Popular Culture – Public Perceptions of Cultural Appropriation or Exchange

When researching this topic I looked widely first to academic resources, but found it is helpful to look at what general understandings or misunderstandings were regarding this topic. As an ongoing discussion among minority lobbyists and academics, cultural appropriation is a discussion that is not recognised commonly in the news, as it is not an issue for the dominant colonial cultures.

The conversation was raised in contemporary America when actor Amandla Stenberg from movie The Hunger Games(2012) released a YouTube video named ‘Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows’ where the young actor addresses white appropriation of black culture, using black hair styles as example. (Stenberg 2015) This YouTube video inspired a great amount of public discourse on cultural appropriation and demonstrated the lack of understanding, by dominant cultures on what cultural appropriation and why it is a problem. Typical responses were something like this:

Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 12.47.16 PMThis type of response was not limited to discussions on Amandla Stenberg’s video. I found this type of response common when speaking about the appropriation of Native American images in regards to sporting team mascots.(SmithsonianNMAI 2013)

Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 12.56.15 PM

Figure 2 (YouTube, 2015)

As relevant to my discussion on film are the responses to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the 2012 release The Lone Ranger. Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 1.19.03 PMNoticeably discussions regarding Johnny Depp’s overt appropriation of Native American culture had a greater number of respondents that were not comfortable with the portrayal, many of them didn’t know why, but admitted they felt uneasy.Screen shot 2015-11-11 at 1.54.20 PMJust reading through forums on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and various personal blogs the need for an informed analysis and discourse on the topic is clear. We used randomly selected comments from online forums to demonstrate existing attitudes and ignorance of the minority experience. Even Dr Adrienne Keene on her blog in a post named ‘Repost: Why Tonto Matters’ which was at the center of much of the appropriation debate after her critical posts were made public on, she explained to how shocked she was at the number of passionately negative responses she received, ‘I’ve been surprised at how many people have basically told me and others with similar opinions to STFU and “get over it”’.(Keene 2013)

So, what are we actually talking about?  Lets define it…


Dictionary definitions

The Oxford Dictionary defines culture as ‘The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively’ or ‘The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society’.(Oxford 2015). The verb appropriate means to ‘[T]ake (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission’. (Oxford 2015) So in simple terms the dictionary definition of cultural appropriation is to take ‘the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society’ ‘for one’s own use, typically without the owners permission’.(Oxford 2015)

Exchange means ‘An act of giving one thing and receiving another (especially of the same kind) in return’.(Oxford 2015) So then simply cultural exchange would mean to ‘give’ something of one’s culture and to receive equally.

Academic Definitions

In his paper ‘From Cultural Exchange to Transculturation: A Review and Reconceputalization of Cultural Appropriation’, Richard A Rogers writes of how cultural appropriation is ‘often mentioned but undertheorized in critical rhetorical and media studies’.(Rogers 2006, p.475) Rogers goes on to create definitions of cultural appropriation as ‘the use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies by members of another culture’.(Rogers 2006, p.474) Rogers’ paper identifies the need for a political or power disparity to exist within the definition to constitute appropriation. This idea is not new. A definition by Helene Shugart in the Quarterly Journal of Speech asserts the following ‘Any instance in which a group borrows or imitates the strategies of another—even when the tactic is not intended to deconstruct or distort the others meanings and experiences—thus would constitute appropriation.’(Shugart, 1997, p.211) Shugart also cites a political or power disparity in her discussion of appropriation, writing ‘Although dominant groups certainly practice appropriation, in such contexts, it tends to function as a reinforcement of existing oppression (e.g Chapman, 1992; hooks. 1990; Marcus, 1984; Said, 1978,1989)’.(Shugart 1997) It is this reinforcement of oppression that is another distinguishing feature between appropriation and exchange.

A Personal Definition

Being of Native American, African American and Irish Australian ancestry, I reflected on what I know cultural appropriation to be. Cultural appropriation is the ‘taking’ of another cultures property, physical or intellectual, by a member of a dominant culture and making it one’s own without right or permission and creating harm, intentional or not to the ‘other’ usually oppressed group. Exchange would indicate that both parties ‘give’ and both parties ‘receive’. Therefore cultural exchange is when cultural property, physical or intellectual, is ‘given and received equally’ in a situation where the power is balanced between the two parties and there is no ‘other’ and there is a benefit to both parties without a residue of harm.

This discussion is by no means over, but I have to go take the dog for a walk and think up some other distractions to avoid writing my short story…


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