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A Blog About Culture

Recognition, Situation, Identity, Reality

Even I’m sick of writing about cultural appropriation, but as a debate wages on my alma mater’s Facebook group, I’m choosing to write my thoughts here instead of adding to a back-and-forth thread there. I try not to be adversarial. I truly hate getting into debates with others about theories and beliefs because it is just so hard for me to accept that there are people out there who (gasp!) don’t agree with me. So instead I will write here, without being a direct response to anyone. 

BUT. That person who challenged cultural ownership as a limiting, static rulebook that ignores the opportunity to exchange, create, and fuse did bring up good points, too. I think I just want to defend the rights of ownership a little bit by explaining the following. 

Even though it is a problematic, constructed notion, heritage as a marker of identity is a strong indicator of community belonging, a feeling that has numerous psychological and social benefits. Other indicators of identity (what I always seem to call “cultural markers”) are expressions of that identity, and many of those markers (foodways, language, dress, art, etiquette, etc.) claim a shared heritage as a referent. When those markers are plucked and re-used out of a cultural context by outsiders to the community — especially for commercial profit — it feels wrong. It feels like those ties to a shared community memory have been violated. I think that’s why so many communities become defensive about it.

Imagine this scenario: 

Your parents downsized in retirement and sold your childhood home to a woman who happens to be an advertising executive. While she was cleaning out the attic, she found some old video tapes of your first Little League baseball game. Then she used the videos in a television commercial for a major sporting goods department store. 

Okay, before you say “She can’t do that because of copyright laws, etc.” think about the communities who aren’t protected by laws! It’s the same feeling, to me. 

While I think cross-cultural communication and evolution are great things, I also think that cultural identity is very important – crucial, even – to the health of some communities. Severing those ties by reusing cultural markers shows a lack of respect for the people who depend on or claim those ties.

But I don’t think I’m saying it shouldn’t ever be done. I think I’m saying it should be done respectfully. Just as a scholar wouldn’t copy-and-paste a quotation without explanation of its source and context, and definitely not without a citation, people who are borrowing or putting their own spin on expressions from other cultures should do the same.

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