‘If it’s just inadvertent imitation
A pattern in all mankind
What’s got the whole world fakin’?
-Stone Gossard, Mankind
Criticisms of cultural appropriation are overstated. First, cultural appropriation can’t be separated from culture in general. Second, it occurs unintentionally and without conscious planning. Third, there are no strict boundaries between cultures allowing us to determine who is creating and who is doing the appropriating.
Wikipedia1 defines cultural appropriation as:
“the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, as the use of elements of a minority culture by a cultural majority are seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity or intellectual property rights.”
It makes sense to criticize the appropriation of particular ideas, practices, or norms. For example, if one culture prevents girls from attending school and another culture starts to copy this practice, this particular example of appropriation should be criticized. Denying girls education is a problem because it’s a bad idea, not because it was appropriated from another culture. Cultural features should be judged on their merits, not on their origins.
However, criticizing cultural appropriation itself doesn’t make sense. Culture is cultural appropriation. Cultural is what gets copied, and cultural appropriation is how culture is created, survives, and spreads. A person can be said to belong to a culture to the extent that they have personally appropriated some set of the features of that particular culture. We can’t do away with cultural appropriation unless we want to do away with culture itself.
Cultural appropriation/cultural evolution occurs, like biological evolution, without foresight and without a designer. We could call it “inadvertent imitation”—the unintentional appropriation of culture. Susan Blackmore describes this phenomenon in her book The Meme Machine:
“The creative achievements of human culture are the products of memetic evolution, just as the creative achievements of the biological world are the products of genetic evolution. Replicator power is the only design process we know of that can do the job, and it does it. We do not need conscious human selves messing about in there as well.” 240
The unconscious nature of cultural evolution is clear in the evolution of language. Who decides what a word means, or how that meaning changes over time? There is no particular individual or governing body making these decisions; the meaning of words are negotiated and continually renegotiated in networks of speakers, with no one in particular leading the charge. Most relevant to our discussion, who decides to appropriate loanwords from other languages? Who can be held responsible for appropriating entrepreneur or fiesta or schadenfreude? There is nowhere to point our finger.
Finally, the notion of cultural appropriation contains the assumption that cultures are discrete units, and that it’s possible for one culture to take from another, in the way that one child could steal a toy away from another, clearly transferring control or ownership of the toy. But cultural groups are not discrete units; they have blurry, porous boundaries which overlap, and continually change. Cultures are like milk that’s been poured into coffee. You can see the coffee, and you can see the milk, but it would be hard to say where one ends and the other begins. And the more you stir, the harder the task becomes.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation; retrieved 23 January 2016
Some readers may frown upon citing Wikipedia. Even Wikipedia warns against citing Wikipedia—but of course some anonymous moron from the internet posted that warning, so we should probably ignore it. In any case, this definition seems relevant and accurate enough for the purposes of this essay.
Note: This essay leans heavily on ideas drawn from Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine (2000); Richard Dawkins’ essay Essentialism, https://edge.org/response-detail/25366; and Matt Ridley’s talk “The Evolution of Everything” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUAIIQFoufs