What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a function in a system, not a system in and of itself.


Sydney Sketoe

Old painting of a native American man. Artist is unknown.

By Evan Elkins, Staff Writer

‘Tis the season of outrage and crude misrepresentations of the culture of marginalized peoples! This time of year is always a mix of people being outraged about “cultural appropriation” and others being outraged about people being outraged, and really, through the haze of all this outrage, none of us really understand what is going on. Let’s try and mitigate that.

What does cultural appropriation mean? Is the dictionary definition sufficient, or do we require a more specific definition? And, why does it matter?

Firstly, before we try to unlock the lexicon of cultural appropriation, we need to construct a working definition of cultural appropriation. The Cambridge Dictionary provides a solid foundation for this purpose: “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.” However, this definition is incomplete without additional contextualization: within Western capitalism, cultural appropriation is the taking and re-purposing of culture from non-power holders by those with power, often coupled with the extraction of monetary or social capital in doing so.

What does cultural appropriation mean? Is the dictionary definition sufficient, or do we require a more specific definition? And, why does it matter?”

With this definition we can also make the important distinction between appropriation and exchange; appropriation involves an imbalance of power between the two and, most importantly, a re-purposing of culture to suit an outcome, while exchange is a neutral exchange that isn’t done for a certain outcome.

Take Elizabeth Warren’s outing as ~1% “Native American”: she admits she is not a member of any tribes, she practices no tribal customs, and she has no substantial ties to any Native American community. Meaning, she has not gone through any of the hardships or persecution of the marginalized group she is adopting. Moreover, she is repurposing this culture to achieve some sort of means, thus when making and releasing this video she derived a rhetorical benefit, or as a Marxist would say: she acquired social capital.

This is not the most egregious example of cultural appropriation; however, it still matters. Elizabeth Warren is symptomatic of capitalism, she lives in a system that incentives cooping marginalized identities to derive social capital. This slimy game of identities is an indictment of the system, not the individual.

All in all, capitalism forces us to see identities as a form of intellectual property, a concept that has and will continue to, make power holders the benefactor of such a construct.