The Quagmire of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation has come up a few times in conversations in the past few weeks and I thought I’d try to tackle it here. It is a murky and nuanced issue and I will inevitably cock it up. Regardless, I feel that it is important enough that I must try.

For those who haven’t heard the phrase before, cultural appropriation is the acquisition of some aspect of another culture into your own. Also, it makes some people very very angry.


Well, it isn’t always done with the finesse and consideration that one might hope for. Rather, historically, it was done by invading a new territory, claiming it, and then bludgeoning the local culture until candy fell out. In many cases, the bashing continued in hopes of more candy, leaving the indigenous peoples shattered and subjugated.

I'ma keep hitting you till candy comes out.
I’ma keep hitting you till candy comes out.

It doesn’t require full force-colonial brutality for cultural appropriation to be problematic. Imagine taking a historically and emotionally significant piece of iconography and having it massed produced as a sex toy (nsfw). It’s not hard to imagine how someone might be hurt by the lack of consideration being displayed by their fellow human beings.

So that’s pretty much it; don’t take things from other cultures without permission because it’s inconsiderate and potentially hurtful. Unfortunately it’s a whole lot more complicated than that.

Cultures don’t exist in isolation; they mingle, they interact, they bleed into one another and they change. One idea inspires another and many great things come from the joining of ideas. Also, if one culture has a brilliant idea or tradition, it would seem beneficial to humanity at large to have that spread around. Imagine if the greeks got pissy about people using the scientific method. It was a greek that came up with it, it’s theirs by right.

There we have a problem. Taking aspects of other cultures is bad, but so is refusing to share. The fairly obvious solution, and one I’ve seen suggested, is to ask permission.

Asking permission sounds good, but how the hell do you ask the permission of a culture? That is obviously impossible. Clearly one would have to turn to a representative of that culture. That though, assumes that everyone in the culture agrees upon what is sacred and what is public domain. Having met several humans, I am fairly sure that getting a group of more than about three to agree on what is precious, offensive, or tasteless is a hopelessly lost cause. To make it even harder, there is a little ignorance paradox wherein the person asking permission may not know enough about the relevant culture to discern what a good representative might be.


Okay, new angle. What cultures can we take from without all this hassle? I have been given two answers to this: take from your own, or the dominant culture. Your own culture seems obviously safe, except that most cultures aren’t some pure, monolithic thing. They are typically a chimera of adopted, adapted, bought, borrowed and stolen memes from other cultures with no obvious owners or clear guidelines as to when the copyright expires and the initial offence might be forgiven. This is particularly troublesome for people in cultures like mine, that is, non-existent.

I do not have much of what you might call a traditional heritage. My ancestors are a motley crew of European emigrants that came to Canada to escape the poverty, persecution and oppression of their home nations. They abandoned or purposely rejected the culture of their heritage and intermingled and intermarried with each other and the native population of Canada, diluting any remnants of their ancestral traditions beyond the point of recognition. This means that I don’t have a culture of my own on which to draw. Those like me are necessarily pulling from the cultures of others for our inspiration.

That leaves pulling from the dominant culture. That, of course, is a vexed endeavor as well. The dominant culture in North America is an indecipherable stew of cultures. It’s difficult to pick out what is a home grown goodness, what is a butchered bit of someone else’s choice morsels, and what is exotic seasoning offered freely for the enjoyment of all.

What am I actually advocating for here? It would seem that I’m trying to say that nobody should ever do anything or make anything artistic or ceremonial because you might offend someone. Well that’s silly. Pretty much anything you ever do would offend someone. What might be a good start might be to make an effort to be aware and considerate of the issue and make an effort to be informed about what you emulate.

I am slightly concerned that paper cut-out bean people are a closely held tradition of a culture of which I am unaware.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I was totally with you until you said “This is particularly troublesome for people in cultures like mine, that is, non-existent.”

    “Not having a culture” was something that I felt keenly when I was growing up, for many of the same reasons you describe. I didn’t have a religion. My ancestors, like yours, were a mish-mash of various generally but not always European types who came to the US for a variety of reasons and could generally not be tracked back farther than about 100 years. I didn’t strongly identify as Russian, as German, as Polish, or as Jewish, or as any combination thereof. And I always dreaded those silly projects about “sharing your culture” — because I didn’t feel like I actually had one. But here’s the thing, and it’s something that I’ve only had words for very recently. One sign of privilege is that you are perceived as “default” — mankind is humankind while womankind isn’t; etc. So I think that the very fact that I thought of myself as “not having a culture” actually meant that I /did/ strongly identify with the dominant, privileged, culture.

    None of that changes your point, which I still very much agree with. The most important thing is to face the world with thoughtfulness and consideration.

  2. I agree that I’m in the privileged, default class. But I’ve always felt that there was no artistic heritage that belonged to me. Any art that I engaged with was from another culture. I feel like I have no choice but to take from other cultures. I think that this might be even stronger in Canada. Even the music I listen to and the TV I watch is from a foreign culture, yours.

  3. @Ryan: I find that surprising. Maybe we’re just thinking on different scales. Myself, as a member of the cultural majority in almost every possible way (maybe being a non-Christian as the only exception), I feel almost duty-bound to accept the default Western-European as my cultural heritage. Fortunately, it’s not all bad — as a skeptic, I’m happy to embrace much of the Renaissance, for example.

    I will admit the converse of your point, though — as an American, I also feel morally compelled to accept my share of the responsibility for modern television and movies. To those who read this, let me deeply apologize for so many of the products of my fellow citizens.

  4. Culture is appropriation. And since the essence of culture is ideas that are taken up so widely they become commonplace, and the taking up is used to define the boundaries of the culture, complaining about appropriation is (IMO) usually an attempt to police those boundaries. So it’s often reasonable to respond “I disagree with your desire to exclude me”. Especially because the margins are normally where the contest is.

    It’s common for artists to acknowledge that they shamelessly steal from others – reading the history of classical music in the light of modern notions of copyright and the pronouncements of the various state-created monopolies is very funny. Did Bach and Handel run the risk that the folk music they were using in their works might offend the traditional owners of that music? Probably not. Is “A whiter shade of pale” bad because it’s a reworking of Bach’s “Air on a G string”? I don’t think so. Appropriation is what it’s all about.

    And FFS, we’re using the english language. A language famous for, about all else, appropriation. A language notorious for “that’s a handy word, I’ll take it”. No Bureau Francais for us, we’ll take the bureau and you can keep that other word.

  5. I feel that Moz may have missed the points I was trying to make. I worry that my explanation has failed somewhat, but yay for conversation happening.

    The English language is an interesting talking point. First, it’s not art. Nobody consciously sat down and created it and what I am mostly talking about here is artistic creation. But ignoring that, would we as a society ever choose English with full knowledge of how it came to be? Our language is a story of conquest, oppression and war. England was invaded repeatedly, the indigenous people frequently forced to adopt the customs of the conquerors or perish. When England became strong enough in its own right, it set out to conquer, colonize and crush, taking bits of language as they went.

    The English language is an example of exactly how NOT to do something. It is a story of atrocity and oppression. Of course I am not saying we should stop using it; we must work with the hand we’re dealt. However, when creating something new, would you ever consider following the creators of English? I hope not.

  6. Ryan, it’s not that I don’t see your point, it’s that I disagree with it. I think you underrate the strength of “but who do you ask permission from?” and overestimate the purity of artistic invention.

    The question I think you’re asking is: how does someone gracefully acquire artistic techniques from others?

    I use the language as an example because it is a major repository of culture, as well as a great example of appropriation. Much art is produced in English, and many artists coin or introduce words and phrases. From Shakespeare to, English is both the building material and the output.

    I could talk at length about the different ways musical appropriation has traveled, especially in regard to european plainsong and folk music, but even a superficial knowledge of the subject (like mine) suggests there is no “pure” music that hasn’t been stolen from somewhere. So the question of “who do I ask” is nonsensical, even the use of 12-tone equal temperament would need permission (especially since it seems to have been independently invented at least twice). It would make all art more challenging than obtaining permission to use modern music in a film (ie, nigh on impossible).

    I fear that I’ve constructed a strawman out of your argument, but my intention is more to show that I think you’re starting down a silly path. By all means, if you want to produce or closely mimic a particular artform practiced primarily by an identifiable group, ask them for help or permission. But beyond that it rapidly becomes silly.

    Another side is that culture that isn’t used dies out. Culture has to live to exist, and narrowly policing who can use it almost always fails (either it dies out or the restriction fails). I also see art as about communication (or masturbation, but I avoid the latter). If it doesn’t mean something to the people exposed to it, it’s a failure. I’ve met artists who disagree, but none have managed to explain why they make their art public if they don’t want people to react to it. From that perspective, surely it’s better that an expression of culture is widely seen and taken up by others, than ignored and left to die?

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