What is Cultural Appropriation?

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approximate reading time: 9 minutes
created by pur on 2022/06/13 - last changed on 2022/09/10


For me Cultural Appropriation was a difficult and vague concept. It was often used in context or contrast to Cultural Appreciation and I wasn't sure where to stand. In this article I want to clarify Cultural Appropriation for me.

Key Takeaway: Cultural Appropriation is the act of taking a cultural practice and placing it in a new context with little or no transformation.

What is Culture?

I argue, that culture is at the base of the human experience. We are only as human as we are because of our culture. Culture is everything what is shared from person to person through communication (passed by social learning) and not inherited through genes. This encompasses language, how we eat and prepare food, our political systems, moral values, sciences, arts, ideas. All these are part of our culture. We are not the only ones to have culture, though: chimps in Taï in Côte d'Ivoir use different tools in neighboring groups, whales use dialects, the same chimps use grammar(original source) which can be seen as culture and potentially even elephants who grieve (see also)

What is Appropriation?

I came across the definition of appropriation when I read a Wikipedia article about Jean-Michel Basquiat, where it says:

"He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting".

The first sentence of the Appropriation Wikipedia article borrows the definition of appropriation in art from "Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art (Oxford University Press)" as:

"Appropriation in art is the use of pre-existing objects or images with little or no transformation applied to them."

and the article continues with

"Inherent in our understanding of appropriation is the concept that the new work re-contextualizes whatever it borrows to create the new work."

For me re-contextualization is very important for defining Cultural Appropriation. The original context is lost.

What are Examples of Cultural Appropriation?

Obvious examples include:

What is the Problem of Cultural Appropriation?

Culture does only evolve because old ideas are reapplied to new context and humans have only achieved what they have until now because of what millions of humans have created for us to build upon. What we call culture, I would say, is only what emerges from countless of generations of building (partly random) practices on top of each other.

The problem now is that when culturally appropriating from African culture, credit is hardly given to the original source. This happens with Afro American vernacular dance (also known as street dance) at the moment, this has happened to jazz dance and jazz music, this has happened to Rock music(see above).

Why is African Culture not given Credit?

One reason for ignoring African achievements is to support the belief of white supremacism. Ultimately, because of the ambivalence (state of conflicting beliefs) of late medieval christian rulers. On the one hand they wanted to sustain their luxurious life style, but medieval Europe was dirty (see also), plagued and poor. So, they had to look else where in order to maintain their luxury. Easy money could be made with money crops (like tobacco, sugar cane or cotton) and forced labour (enslaved people). Enslaving indigenous American population proved difficult. When they escaped from plantations they could survive easier than African who weren't familiar with the environment and had less refuges. So, masses of Africans were deported to the Americas in order to make more money for rich Europeans (capitalism). Due to the incompatibility of their deeds with their christian beliefs of every human soul is created equally, they had to lower Africans humanity by erasing their history, neglecting any of their achievements and denying their contribution to world culture. This then morally allowed them to enslave Africans due to their claimed lesser humanity as in the European narrative only Europeans contributed to "important" advancements. This claimed lesser humanity was mainly reinforced by racist European scholars (e.g. Hegel) which have never set foot into Africa.

How did Africans influence Europe historically?

One historical major influence was Egypt's astronomy, math and medicine. Ancient Egypt's history dates back multiple thousands of years (e.g. the year 1 BC (before common time) is closer to today than to when the pyramids of Giza were build). Ancient Egyptians influenced the Greeks who influenced the Romans who in turn influenced a large part of modern day Europe. Another influence on Europe's history is Christianity, which is in it's roots a kemetic sect.

If I copy it then it's not cultural appropriation, but just copying. NO, because by copying something we don't know a lot about the original context, we automatically re-contextualize without noticing.

Cultural Participation

A much nicer counterpart is Cultural Participation rather than Cultural Appreciation. Two reasons:

"I participate, therefore I am" rather than "I think, therefore I am".

Further reading: