Get ready haters, I’m about to give you yet another reason to call me a self-involved, entitled, culturally insensitive, ignorant, tone-deaf dudebro. So here it is: if I hear the word “appropriation” misused or overused one more time, I’m going to appropriate a can of whup-ass and start spraying uppercuts. (See what I just did there?)
Here’s the thing: I understand that historically Caucasians (I do so hate the term “white people”) have taken credit for creating entire cultural movements that were actually created by other groups, whether it be people from another country or oppressed minorities within their own countries. Whether it be art, food, music, dance, or pretty much any form of creative or personal expression, if it’s been done by someone a white person (and usually a white man) came along, repackaged it, and sold it as something “new”. And lots of people are still understandably angry about that. Add onto that a history of assimilation (read: be forced to do as we do or you’ll get nothing and worse) and the flames burn even hotter.
But then something strange happened: somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure exactly where, people of all ethnicities and backgrounds started getting credit for their original creations, and we even started going back and correcting the dominant historical narrative. There’s still work to do, and the debate about who originated what is likely to rage for decades if not centuries, but that’s actually normal (people still argue about who “actually” wrote Shakespeare’s plays). This extends beyond individuals to entire elements of society, such as African American culture, Asian culture, and “start-up culture”, and even localized geographical elements, such as Portland culture and Silicon Valley culture.
What many individuals seem to be missing in all of this, however, is that despite the deficiencies of the past, culture does not exist in a vacuum. It influences and is influenced by the society and cultures around it. Pop culture influences African American culture, which influences start up culture, which influences Portland culture, which influences Asian culture, which influences Silicon Valley culture, which in turn influence pop culture, and they all influence each other. When African Americans adopt some element of pop culture (whether individually or as a group) there is no great outcry of “appropriation!”, and yet as soon as some element of African American culture (or any other minority culture) becomes a part of the dominant paradigm, there is an immediate rush to cry foul.
And this is where I have a problem. This failure to acknowledge the intertwined and interactive nature of culture (and note I do not say modern culture, I mean culture across all time and all places) is a fallacy. The problem of appropriation (as I understand it) was not and is not one of the dominant culture being influenced by other cultures, it is that it tries to subsume those cultures, to take what it wants without even acknowledging that those other cultures ever even existed. Today I don’t see that happening so much as I see a blending of cultures, of people being inspired to try new things, to make something a part of their cultural lexicon that wasn’t there before.
Does that mean they have a complete grasp of the entirety of what it is they are exploring or are delving into? No, it doesn’t. In the same way that an artist may see a painting by another artist without understanding the entirety of the subject matter, the depth and composition of it, or even the cultural significance of it because she lacks the necessary referents, and yet still be inspired by it and tries to incorporate some elements of it into her own work. Just as there’s a fine line between tribute and plagiarism, so there is a fine line between inspiration and appropriation. But a knee-jerk reaction that assumes every cultural movement is an act of bad faith is simply a reflection of itself.