I think when people use the phrase “cultural appropriation” in the sense of condemning someone’s behavior, they’re generally doing it out of a sense of appropriate righteousness and a desire for respect of a people they believe are being maligned. The problem is there’s a meaningful difference between personifying and stereotyping—the former being admirable, the latter usually being derogatory. I think Freddie deBoer sums up the problem well: “no one has the slightest idea what is and isn’t cultural appropriation:”
The noble purpose of moral critiques is to try and inspire better behavior. The destructive purpose of moral critiques is to elevate the person making them in relation to those being critiqued – “you are bad and I am good and saying so gives me power over you.” Most of the time, I sincerely believe people are operating based on the first purpose, even when I disagree with them about what right behavior entails. But I have never encountered an argument about cultural appropriation that does not fall squarely in the second group. Not once.
Read this complaint (in Cosmopolitan, which is funny a number of levels) about how a Nepalese woman being inspired by other cultures for Victoria’s Secret is an act of shameful cultural appropriation. Then let’s ask ourselves: what vision of better, alternative behavior does the writer suggest? If this is indeed cultural appropriation, what would righteous inspiration from other cultures look like? In other words, what would it take to get to a place where you don’t get the righteous satisfaction (and clicks) of finding other people below your moral standards, but where people are no longer guilty of the behavior you say is immoral?
I think anyone who complains about cultural appropriation who actually cares about getting to a more just world, as opposed to getting the personal, social, and career benefits of sitting in judgment, has to answer these basic questions.
What is “a culture”? What are the boundaries of “a culture”? Are they only national borders? Aren’t there very distinct cultures within national boundaries? Can a person from the Midwest appropriate Southern culture? Can someone from Guangdong province appropriate Sichuan cuisine? Are there varying degrees of appropriation based on your geographical proximity to “a culture”? When does “a culture” become sufficiently defined that it gains the right to demand that its cultural objects not be appropriated? What if someone is raised in two or more cultures, are they allowed to cross-pollinate them? What if they themselves were not raised in either cultures but their parents were?
His conclusion is that it’s ultimately about personal (not cultural) behavior: “If you intend to be seen as part of a group that you know you would not naturally be perceived as part of being, then it’s wrong.” I’m not sure that I agree with this conclusion, because it seems like a recipe for cutting the even the good festivity out of every holiday, but it’s at least an attempt at a reasonable, non-absurd guide for collegial behavior.