Why Cultural Appreciation Might Be Theft

America’s remix history has given us some incredible food, music, and art mash-ups, but it’s also left some people harmed in ways you’ve probably never considered.

(Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

Jul 17, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

Have you heard about Columbusing? It’s “the art of discovering something that is not new,” according to NPR’s Code Switch blog. Apparently, few are innocent of this form of cultural hijacking, with the author postulating that “if you’ve danced to an Afrobeat-heavy pop song, dipped hummus, sipped coconut water, participated in a Desi-inspired color run or sported a henna tattoo, then you’ve Columbused something.”

You don’t have to read the rest of the story to guess what happened next. The piece drew hordes of “PC police” commenters who said things like, “What do you expect? Reparations because I enjoy authentic Mexican food?” The article provokes controversy in the appreciation-versus-appropriation debate, one that’s lately been raging.

College student Sierra Mannie recently voiced her take on Time’s website with a controversial missive imploring white gay men to stop stealing black female culture. It sparked plenty of rebuttals, some accusing Mannie of homophobia and Time of cravenly pitting two oppressed groups against each other for page views. Then Clutch proposed that black women reclaim twerking from Miley Cyrus and fellow co-opters. A brilliant work of either satire or cultural activism, it got women talking about the U.S.’s painful legacy of cultural appropriation.

The idea of Columbusing is about as American as it gets. It seems there isn’t anything we won’t “discover” and claim for ourselves—see Manifest Destiny, the moon, even the Middle East. Culture is no exception. “The U.S. has a remix history,” said Matt Delmont, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University who teaches popular culture, urban studies, and the histories of race and ethnicity in the U.S. “It’s about people borrowing and stealing, loving and hating, different things that people produce.” Historically, that’s usually meant the dominant white, Western European population appropriating African American and Native American cultures for profit.

The act, Delmont said, often played on a fear or a fantasy of a particular marginalized group. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the popularity of Native American attire and “Buffalo Bill” shows was a reflexive way to assuage guilt for decimating the native population. In the first half of the 20th century, music execs cherry-picked entire catalogs of black jazz and rock and roll, two forms of music born from the struggle of the black experience. Repackaged for white audiences, the music stripped artists of the economic agency and credit they deserved.

“There’s always been a vast inequality in terms of who can profit from different types of cultural performances,” Delmont said. “Whites can cross those boundaries fairly freely and bring aspects of African American culture back. For African Americans those boundaries are very fixed, with fewer opportunities in terms of education and in terms of employment.” Not only couldn’t appropriation go both ways, but for formerly enslaved or colonized cultures, taking on Western culture wasn’t a choice at all: It was a matter of assimilation and survival.

Given that messy legacy, Americans can’t seem to decide on clear answers to a few important questions. How do you responsibly engage with a facet of culture that isn’t “yours”? Who really owns culture, and can it be possessed at all?

Complicating the issue is the fact that there’s almost no purity left in our culture, yet some groups still lay claim to certain forms of expression. “One of the tricky things about appropriation is that some things can only be ever owned by or performed by one specific culture,” said Delmont.

Nowhere is this more contested than in hip-hop. It was once the only vehicle for giving disenfranchised black Americans a voice and visibility. Now hip-hop is so mainstream that at least two generations of white suburban kids have grown up with it. Many are now eager to interpret the form for their own purposes. “You can claim that rap is strictly the province of one group,” Delmont said, “but you can’t expect a white person of Macklemore’s age to not rap.”

Then there’s Iggy Azalea, a poster child for what happens when appropriated culture gets commodified. Whatever your opinion of her talent, you can’t argue that Azalea isn’t a marketer’s dream. She’s young, blond, and so pretty that she’s a model. She uses the voice of a Southern black female to rap, yet she speaks with an Aussie accent. It’s an odd affectation, considering that other international acts such as Dizzee Rascal (from the U.K.) haven’t felt the need to adopt an American delivery to win acclaim.

In an interesting reversal of historical music industry gatekeeping, Azalea didn’t achieve mainstream success until she was anointed by T.I., a black music heavyweight. So when a Forbes headline says “Hip Hop’s Unlikely New Star: A White, Blonde, Australian Woman,” it’s a laughable claim. It’s also a sad reminder that even when they’re at the top of the game, black artists are still marginalized.

For people who helped create a specific expression of “stolen” culture, there’s a choice of whether to preserve or reclaim that space, and even close ranks. But policing participation in certain realms of music, art, food, or speech feels like a massive step backward.

The reality is that our culture is one that’s been endlessly remixed, often on the backs of others. One way to acknowledge our debt? Pursue a deeper engagement with the food, art, music, and films you enjoy. “A more responsible way of consumption is prioritizing or praising a nerdiness about culture,” said Delmont. “That’s not just wanting to listen to what’s new right now, but using the Internet to learn more about how that came to be.” Your open-mindedness doesn’t have to stop with cultural consumption. How about having a conversation with the Bangladeshi owner or the Ecuadorian cook at your favorite restaurant?

You don’t have to genuflect at 45 cultural altars before you press play or eat a meal. That’s what the Columbusing conversation about hummus and coconut water gets so wrong. Focusing on innocuous enjoyment distracts us from focusing on larger institutional inequalities and who perpetuates them. It’s on all of us to ask hard questions about which aspects of certain cultures continue to get stolen, and why. That means calling out Pharrell Williams when he wears a headdress on a magazine cover, and challenging Miley Cyrus when she treats black women as set dressing on her stage.

We can also tip our cap to Kanye West (yes, really) and others who create more nuanced work. “For all his problems, West’s performance of ‘Blood on the Leaves’ at last year’s MTV VMAs was an amazing example with layers of complexity,” said Delmont. “He referenced Kara Walker’s artwork and 12 Years a Slave with the imagery [and] Nina Simone and Billie Holiday with the ‘Strange Fruit’ sample, all in a three-and-a-half-minute clip.”

There will always be people with good taste and bad ideas, whether they love Chipotle and want to repatriate Mexican immigrants or claim credit for cultural discoveries that aren’t their own. Their Columbusing could be an act of ignorance or just immaturity, like a teenager talking ad nauseam about unearthing Led Zeppelin. Either way, they require education, not a pass. Just don’t expect the marginalized to do the schooling.