OPINION: Cultural Appropriation Is Not An Inherently Negative Concept
Wikipedia defines ‘cultural appropriation‘ as “a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.” The Huffington Post cites the Cambridge Dictionary definition which defines it as “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.”
In the past few years, this term has entered the mainstream more and more, yet still many people do not fully understand this concept. There are many people who have been accused of cultural appropriation. One popular example of cultural appropriation is the presence of Caucasian people in African-American-dominated music industries. Artists who have been accused of this include Post Malone, Eminem, Macklemore, and Iggy Azaela. They have all responded in various ways. Post Malone, in particular, has been expressing his rock and roll influences and has been hesitant with calling himself a rapper.
Speaking of rock and roll, apparently white people completely ‘stole’ that. Admittedly, the truth is so much more complex than that. Rock and roll did borrow from African American music styles such as gospel, jump blues, jazz, boogie-woogie, and rhythm and blues. Yes, many of the pioneers of the genre were African Americans such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Little Richard. But there were Caucasians such as Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Amidst the civil rights movement, this genre became ever more popular and may have even helped racial tensions. Both white kids and black kids were listening to Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, that is remarkable. Who could possible paint that as a bad thing?
The answer is, many people in today’s world. In my opinion, feeling as something from another culture is good enough to take on is appreciative. Many disagree with me, and they have erected this ‘tricky’ line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. They have their own standards that are subjective. A recent HuffPo article quotes Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant of Africana studies at Williams College as saying, “I think of it, in the most rudimentary terms, as this very fluid exchange of culture that happens among human beings but the way that we think about it, especially now, is that it refers to taking someone else’s culture ― intellectual property, artifacts, style, art form, etc. ― without permission.”
Now I will agree with the first part of that definition, this is a very fluid exchange of culture that is natural. This is especially true for countries like the United States that have such a mixture of cultures all under the banner of ‘American.’
The part I abhor though is the concept of ‘taking’ someone else’s culture without permission. Manigault-Bryant specifically uses the legal term ‘intellectual property.’ An intellectual property is “a work or invention that is the result of creativity, such as a manuscript or a design, to which one has rights and for which one may apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc.”
You cannot patent/trademark/copyright a specific hair style or a musical genre or a dialect. That is simply not how it works. Therefore, any time someone uses this term to defend cultural appropriation being this evil thing, they are essentially undermining their own argument.
Does a white person wearing dreads somehow harm African-American culture? Does Darius Rucker singing ‘country music’ somehow harm white American culture? I would honestly answer that with a resounding ‘no.’
Nevertheless, the implications for treading upon someone else’s culture is editorial after editorial written about how you have no right to ‘take’ that aspect of another’s cultures. You cannot express yourself how you see fit, despite the fact that you are not taking away that minority’s right to express themselves how they see fit. There is the argument that white people can wear dreads but African-Americans are ridiculed for it, but that also does not seem to be true. White people who wear dreads get a lot of hate for that choice of hair style. My friends and I poke fun at white people with dreads, not because we feel their choice of hairstyle is racially insensitive in any way, but because we honestly think that white people with dreads look silly.
So, to end this, I would like to say that you have the freedom to express yourself in any way you wish. BUT you will face ridicule for various reasons. You have the freedom to do something, but not the freedom from people’s criticisms. If you want to wear your hair in a certain way, why not? Don’t worry about your Halloween costume being ‘insensitive’ or your preferred genre of music ‘not belonging to you.’
Culture is fluid, and it moves and spreads through societies. People of various races, religions, and creeds live close together here in America. Us sharing culture is to be expected. It is a natural occurrence and you do not need to ‘ask permission.