Dialogue: Here’s Why We Can’t Agree On Cultural Appropriation


Cultural appropriation has become a heavily contested topic in our contemporary social and political spaces. But what does it actually mean? Are some definitions better than others? And if so, what are the implications? Can cultural appropriation ever be a good thing or is it always bad? And how do we separate cultural appropriation from exchange in an increasingly globalized world?
Recently, Steve Patterson re-published an article on Thought Catalog titled, Why Cultural Appropriation Is Actually A Good Thing. In an effort to understand where that position comes from and to challenge it, I decided to engage him in the subject matter, and to debate on some of the above mentioned questions.

Thought Catalog: Hi Steve, can you please introduce yourself? Tell us who you are, what your interests are, and what you do if you’d like.

Steve Patterson: Certainly. I am a philosopher working outside of academia. I’m interested in a lot of topics, from economics and epistemology, to social and political theory.

TC: First of all, having read your article, I would like to start with your definition of cultural appropriation. What is it in your own words?

SP: Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers. So I can’t say this is the “objective definition”, but my article considers cultural appropriation as “acting in accordance with a different culture than the one you were born into”. That could include wearing a different culture’s hairstyle, listening to a different culture’s music, using their language, etc.

TC: My response to that in the first place is that you’re right in saying that definitions may be dynamic or as you put it, “not objective,” per se. But I do think some definitions might be more comprehensive than others. For example, the definition of cultural appropriation as the mere use of an element of a different culture, or the mimicry of a different culture, is too simplistic to get to the heart of the social consequences that occur, and have the potential to occur, when cultural appropriation takes place.

I think a better definition would include taking into context the elements of power that occur when appropriation takes place. Simply borrowing features of culture can be mere cultural exchange. But cultural appropriation, I think, involves the use of elements of a culture outside of an individual’s own culture, such that a power imbalance occurs in how the feature is perceived by more powerful and less powerful cultures alike. Power here, is used to indicate economic and socio-cultural influence which admittedly some cultures have over others. In this context, do you believe that cultural appropriation, as you assert in your article, is never wrong?

SP: Unfortunately, the more nuanced perspective on cultural appropriation has been lost in the mainstream. A recent example in Ottawa, Canada is where a university shut down a yoga class that was being taught by a white woman because of supposed “cultural appropriation”. There are numerous examples of this kind of nonsense – where people of “wrong skin colors” are prescribed a certain list of approved behaviors – and that’s what my article argues against.

To your point, I can see the reasoning behind being aware of context and socio-economic history. But I’m still leery of group labeling. I consider the most accurate philosophic perspective to be a kind of radical individualism, where all humans are fundamentally individuals, and their “group membership” is ultimately periphery.

I recognize my skin color, for example, has shaped my experiences in the world, but it’s not something essential to who I am. Therefore, I don’t think it should determine what behavior I’m allowed to engage in. That doesn’t give me permission to be entirely unaware and insensitive to historical cultural issues, but it does give me the responsibility and permission to act as I choose, regardless of any labels put on me.

TC: In your example of yoga, I will say that I heard of that story in Ottawa and it did tickle me quite a bit. In the first place, I don’t think that’s a particularly general or common example of someone claiming appropriation because the context of yoga is such that it has transformed in different cultures into different things, including a form of exercise in Western cultures. But it is not necessarily a spiritual experience in the way it might have originally been practiced. However, even in that case, I would not be opposed to hearing an argument that questions its practice in Western spaces because I think when you’re coming from a position of power, it is very easy to laugh and scoff at the concerns of people in cultural positions where their power is relatively less. Of course, this example in particular is so loaded with global dynamics that it probably deserves an entire study of its own. That said, I did find that example unhelpful in showcasing cultural appropriation as something harmful. But again, context is key.

To your assertion of skin color as an example, is it fair to say that you don’t think of your skin color as intrinsic to who you are, because you’re white, and therefore in this country and culture (and world) you are in a dominant social position? And part of being in a position of social dominance is that you often don’t have to think about that identity. The same cannot be said for people of color, and as a black, African woman I understand that contextual difference. In African countries, I don’t think about my blackness, but rather, my ethnicity. But in the West, my blackness is not dominant and therefore, like it or not, it plays a role in my experiences – how I am perceived and how I am treated. But I don’t want to make this conversation in its entirety about race.

“I consider the most accurate philosophic perspective to be a kind of radical individualism, where all humans are fundamentally individuals, and their “group membership” is ultimately periphery.”

I do want to address too that you might also be likely to adopt radical individualism because you’re already from a culture that is individualistic relative to, for example, those who might be in subcultures in the United States or globally, who come from collectivist cultures. What I’m essentially saying is that culture is so important in perspective that it is ultimately the framework many of us use to see the world, to determine our values, etc.

But it is also true that when you’re from a dominant culture (the United States) and in a dominant position in that culture (white and male), the cultural features that you participate in, in other cultures has a different consequence for you than for other people – even for people who participate in their own culture. This is to say, that one of the things I think a lot of people miss about cultural appropriation is not that it is “wrong” for someone of a certain skin color or culture to participate in other cultures, it is often that those who are from less dominant cultures face prejudice and sometimes effective discrimination within a larger culture for doing so. Does that make sense?

SP: There are a lot of good points here, but I want to focus on one. You have implied a couple of times that my beliefs are a function of my skin color or group identity. This is precisely what I argue against in my article. I call it an “abstraction error”. I think you’re viewing the group label first, then the individual second. My individualism is not a function of the culture in which I was raised – my beliefs are far more radical. For example, in stereotypical “white male culture,” nationalistic pride is a big deal. In my case, “being American” is an essential identity. I reject this label too. I am an individual who happens to have been born in a particular geographic area – just like I happen to be born with white skin. Both of these things affect my experience of the world, but they are not essential to my person.

“What I’m essentially saying is that culture is so important in perspective that it is ultimately the framework many of us use to see the world, to determine our values, etc.”

You have said, and correct me if I’m mistaken, that your self-identity is as a “black, African woman”. I also view this as a philosophic error, and it unnecessarily divides you and me. I see you fundamentally as an individual with black skin and African heritage. This conversation isn’t between “a white, Irish man” and “a black, African woman”. I see it as a conversation between two individuals who happen to have differences – and they aren’t even responsible for having those differences. Neither of us chose the groups that we were born into.

I also think it demeans the individual, to a degree, by thinking his or her beliefs are only a function of their social environment. My peers – and you might say “white culture” in general – is wrong on a whole host of issues, from my perspective, and I don’t think it’s fair at all to lump me in with them. My beliefs, and your beliefs, are fundamentally chosen by us as individuals.

Not only do I think this is a more accurate way of seeing the world, I also think it fosters a greater degree of sympathy between individuals. I recognize that black humans in the United States face outrageous – infuriating – discrimination in the justice system especially. But I don’t feel like, “Oh, isn’t that a shame it’s happening to ‘black people’.” I think, “Damn the unjust police and court system that unfairly targets my fellow humans – my peers and equals – who have black skin!”

This doesn’t mean I am unaware of imbalances of power in societies. Instead, it allows me to sympathize with any individuals who are in the unfortunate position of being less powerful, due to no other reason than their skin color or ethnicity. My sympathy, however, does not need to be coupled with restricting my behaviors because of a fear of cultural appropriation. When you look at the world through an individualist lens, “having a list of approved behavior based on group identity” just doesn’t make sense.

TC: I’ll start by saying with no malice but with the perspective of multiculturalism that determining how someone identifies themself as a “philosophical error” is exactly a form of cultural condescension, coming from a global perspective in which you and I might live in the same world, but we do not encounter the same reality.

Moreover, I think while we can argue all day about whether the individual is in the primary position, or the culture he or she stems from is the primary – it is a chicken and egg situation. I cannot scientifically prove that culture is more important or the individual is more important, but there is an argument for how they are both intrinsic to perspective.

“When you look at the world through an individualist lens, “having a list of approved behavior based on group identity” just doesn’t make sense.”

I think that what you say about identification would be accurate in a world where identities are not unequally treated, or socially located in dominance and disadvantage, but that is simply not the world where we live in – where our identities have real consequences. And people self-identify as particular cultures not from philosophical errors as you say, but to associate heritage, to assert particular experiences with others and identify with those experiences, and also as a form of resistance because the truth of the matter is I simply cannot live my life in America as an “individual”.

I am a black, African woman and that does have real consequences in this society everywhere from legally to socially and politically, and even potentially economically. This isn’t a matter of opinion – it is an observable fact that can be scientifically measured in society. And again, I think that your perspective on individualism may be a function of your individual thought, but individuals don’t live in a vacuum – they are influenced by their environment, culture being one of them.

That aside, I want to address the notion in your article that people’s labels are divisive. This exists, I argue, because of power and dominance of some cultures over others. In a perfect world, this wouldn’t have to exist because difference would be seen as a good thing, rather than a bad thing. Is it not more practical to accept that people wish to be different and wish to identify as different from each other, and that should be acceptable? (This difference doesn’t negate the fundamental equality of each human individual, mind you.) Indeed, I don’t take the relativist view that all things in all cultures are acceptable. I take the post-positivist view that some things are objective across cultures or at least they ought to be. But when those human rights are fulfilled (which can be contested, by the way), then differences should be allowed to exist and be celebrated, rather than be dominated by one group over another.

SP: “Cultural condescension” only exists once you accept the debatable premises of “group label first, individual second”. I reject this idea – not because my culture rejects it, but because I, as an individual do. I would be so bold as to say, “There is no such thing as cultural condescension! Only individuals can condescend to one another,” which I am certainly not trying to do.

Also, another wonderful philosophic topic, you say “you and I might live in the same world, but we do not encounter the same reality.” I couldn’t disagree more strongly, and perhaps this is one of the underlying premises we disagree on. Reality is, by its definition, something objective and external. Our experiences of reality might be different, but reality remains the same. For example, somebody born with a neurological disease will have a very different experience than somebody born healthy, but that doesn’t mean reality is different. They are still two individuals who happen to have arbitrary, unchosen differences between them, who are experiencing the same world from different angles. Implying that “reality is different between two people” creates an uncrossable divide between them, and I don’t think this is true.

One more note on this point: you say you “cannot live in America as an individual”. Again, I must disagree. Not only can you live as an individual, you are living as an individual. Groups are not something that can act; they cannot live. Groups are simply abstractions – they are conceptual, not physical. Now, as an individual, you might closely identify with other individuals, and you might choose to strongly unify your behavior. A lot of individuals, for example, can choose to march on Washington. But it’s not “a group marching on Washington” – it’s “a lot of individuals that we label as a group marching on Washington.” This might seem like a minor point, but the idea has big implications.

“Groups are not something that can act; they cannot live. Groups are simply abstractions – they are conceptual, not physical.”

In regards to labels, I do agree with you that they exist largely because of differences – and imbalances of power – between people. There’s a reason that most people don’t strongly self-identify with their eye color; it’s because eye-color is usually not associated with political or ethnic power. It’s not nearly as relevant to people’s experiences of reality, you might say.

I also agree that in a perfect world, labels would be entirely arbitrary (as the amount of freckles on your arm, or the size of your kneecaps – totally irrelevant). I certainly don’t want to imply that labels aren’t powerful, or even useful at times. But I do believe, if we want to reduce the power of labels in society, we can start immediately by seeing each other as individuals. Let other people label us and make abstraction errors – you and I, and anybody else, can see the world clearly and reject the artificial categories into which people place us.

It’s like any other set of ideas. Lots of people have really nasty and destructive political ideas. That doesn’t mean a) we can’t have more accurate political ideas, or b) we have to “go along with” their ideas. So just because labels are powerful and pervasive in our society, doesn’t mean we can’t see through them in the present.

Another benefit of this way of thinking: you can expose people to radical individualism who might never have encountered it. I have relatives who are only surrounded by racism and abstraction errors. They might not even know there’s another way of thinking. By promoting this kind of radical human equality and identity, I think more people will become persuaded by it, getting us one step closer to a post-labeling society.

TC: We can have a debate about the philosophy of reality later, but my use of it in this context is to inform a simple observable fact of living in this country in any given space: when you are a white, American male walking into anywhere, you are labeled and perceived and ascribed to certain characteristics and privileges. Those things will be different from me as a black, African woman. Even without considering the vantage point and context, the “reality” of our experiences will be different. And especially with privilege, one of the functions of privilege is that you can’t accept or deny it – it simply exists in cultural spaces because of history and power.

There are simply some experiences that you and I will not “share” because of our differences. I will never know what it’s like to have the privilege of Whiteness – or be able to do the destruction it does. Neither my class nor my education level makes that possible. My class or education might make it possible for me to have some privileges in society as well as do some damage. But you will not share all the experiences of what it is like to be a black woman in this country either. I don’t even share all of it because of my nationality – which makes a measurable difference. These are some basic things that are supported by data collection, and showcasing patterns of groups in terms of social experiences, from the workplace, to how you and I will get perceived walking into an expensive clothing store, to just about any possible space where human interaction occurs. One can understand, one can empathize, but that does not mean one can partake in all experiences of another group of people.

“There are simply some experiences that you and I will not “share” because of our differences.”

To the point about me being an individual, that is rather archaic to the understanding of how lived experiences operate. I may have my own individual thoughts and actions and experiences. And they may be different from everyone else in the entire country, and in the world for that matter. But there are things that I will share with other black women and other black people and other African people and other African women that are similar. And denying this is not only a denial of a lived experience, it is potentially dangerous for safety and survival of some people whose primary identities exist in disadvantage bodies.

Groups are abstractions, sure. As is race and nationality, and arguably gender, and many other identities. I am not arguing that these things exist in nature – that is not what cultural scholars determine. Rather, what we know is that despite the social construction of these things, the consequences of these constructions are not an abstraction – they are real, identifiable, measurable things; they exist in the real world with social consequences. I think the notion of radical individualism is one that is simply not pragmatic in the world’s current state of affairs. I would argue too that for many cultures, it is not desirable as long as inequality is a reality of their lived experiences, as a group, and as individuals.

However, philosophical exchange aside, I want to wrap this up, and finally ask: in your opinion, is there ever any harm done in cultural appropriation or is it always just acceptable “to borrow” without consideration of context and power and consequence? Because my position is not that individuals shouldn’t borrow. But rather, when entire cultures face discrimination and social displacement and distortion because of another culture’s (not individual’s) systematic exchange, then we have to reconsider how cultures engage in this exchange.

SP: You keep wanting to divide us! I agree that our experiences are different, entirely as a function of our skin colors and the environment in which we find ourselves. It’s true that my experience shopping is different from yours. I would have to be a fool to deny this. But it’s not essential to who we are as humans or how we can relate to each other. We have lots of differences which change how we experience the world. I am 6’4 with a bad back. I assure you, in nearly every circumstance in which I find myself, the construction of my skeletal system affects my experience in a negative way. But that’s not essential to my person. Can other “tall people with bad backs” relate my experience more than “shorter limber people”? Certainly, but that doesn’t mean I am a different kind of human.

(Of course, I am not saying “height changes my daily experience as much as skin color”, but the point is to say there are many, many differences between us that do not change our mutual identity as humans.)

To answer your question about appropriation, I do not believe “cultures” can exchange anything separate from individuals. Can individuals act in a way which is callous and ignorant of history? Certainly. Say somebody is a fan of the swastika as a religious symbol – it’s arguably the oldest in existence. That person, even if they have the best of intentions, should be aware of the history of that symbol and the connotations made when wearing it. But that’s not because “he’s in the wrong ethnic group to be wearing a swastika”. It’s not about appropriation at all. It’s because certain symbols are associated with ideas, and most people don’t want to be associated with the ideas conveyed by a swastika.

So I suppose my answer is “There is no ‘cultural appropriation’ that is separate from the actions of individuals.” I am not responsible for the behavior of other individuals who have white skin, and they aren’t responsible for mine. If individuals with white skin have abused positions of authority, historically or in the present, then that’s awful and condemnable. But I am not liable for it nor do I think my behavior should be suppressed because of it.