The Cultural Appropriation Debate (Because You're Already In It)

Featured The Cultural Appropriation Debate (Because You're Already In It) Cover by "berds one" @berdsone on Instagram

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (this may include being an avid World of Warcraft player), you’re acquainted with the concept of cultural appropriation.

In the past 18 months, writers from Slate, Salon, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and countless more have tackled the subject. It’s been accused of pop stars like Katy Perry (for dressing like a geisha at the American Music Awards), M.I.A. (for shooting a music video that featured dancers in Côte d’Ivoire), and the Australian musician Iggy Azalea (for rapping in a bizarre African accent). And sensationalized reports of incidents from colleges, community centers, and elsewhere around the country have wedded it to the political dialogue of the moment. 

Recall, this was happening before the election of Donald Trump, and before the empowerment of white nationalist factions emerging from the depths of Breitbart, 4chan, Reddit, and elsewhere. We don’t know what a Trump administration will look like, but if there’s any indication from the behavior of these newly emboldened marshals of the right wing, set on exposing "identity politics" and "P.C. culture" as frivolous left-wing myths born of generational coddling, “cultural Marxism,” and hypersensitivity, the conversation isn't going away. We could be in for four-to-eight years of provocation, cultural erasure, and delegitimization.

The point is, it's happening — both the act and the difficult conversations about it. And scary as it all may be to participate in, people should become equipped with the tools to navigate it, whether through online research, and IRL conversation, workshops, or otherwise. When you encounter someone who earnestly wants to listen and learn, you should practice empathy for that person’s position. 

Most people understand the basics. Don’t dress in a sexy Pocahontas costume for Halloween. Don't be Rachel Dolezal. Don't combine your love of baseball with an acceptance of the Cleveland Indians' team name and logo, particularly when its owner, Larry Dolan, donates to politicians like Paul Ryan, who supports the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline through Native American reservations. 

Look closely at the Portland arts scene, and you’ll notice the conversation stirring as well. This piece is a response to these discussions both nationally and locally.

Portland is a small, tightly woven city. Everyone I’ve spoken with on this issue, personally and professionally, recognizes the issue's sensitivity. But they’re also scared, and unless they're the type that gets a thrill from provocation, they don't want to be called out as someone on the wrong side of the issue. Discussions about what is and is not cultural appropriation are necessarily difficult. And, when performed on social media, where people can often feel defensive and dehumanized and publicly shamed, they can be toxic.

For that reason, I'll anchor this piece with national analysis and context rather than local, because not a ton of people feel safe discussing it, and everyone is learning. And at a certain level, virtually everyone in the U.S. — including Portland — is guilty of it, from DJs to New American restaurant chefs to bartenders to art curators to newspaper editors. 

But despite all this, the reason why it's happening so often, is because cultural appropriation is one of the most fertile possible starting points for having discussions about power, profit, oppression, and the importance of representation. And those are conversations that absolutely need to happen right now.  


By its most basic definition, cultural appropriation is the act of borrowing a style, practice, tradition, or aesthetic from a culture that isn’t your own. Those on the right want to halt the definition right there. That way, the identity of the group being borrowed or taken from — the victims of appropriation — is unfixed. That means they can rhetorically slide their own ass right into that seat.

“Is it cultural appropriation whenever I eat sushi for lunch?” They’ll ask with a smirk. “How about democracy — should we return that to the Greeks?" They’ll point out, as the right-wing magazine National Review does in a 2016 essay titled “The Liberal Fantasy of Cultural Appropriation," that the sandwich was originated in a Jewish temple, and therefore if social justice activists are serious, they’d naturally renounce sandwiches. Ditto to whoever invented drama; Italy, pizza; ancient Judeo-Christian churches and the entirety of diatonic music.   

This is a trap. These front as rational arguments, but they're essentially tantamount to cries of “reverse racism." They're abstract and utterly unconcerned with historical dynamics as to appear bulletproof, and their ability to fold everyone into the issue's complicity is a cynical attempt to neutralize and silence the actual concern. 

In reality, cultural appropriation is complex. It’s not simply, as the right-wing would wish, a political tool to wedge between marginalized people and those in a dominant group who sympathize with them. Depending on a number of factors, appropriation can appear as valor stealing, neocolonialism, empty profiting off the backs of the oppressed, etc. Sometimes it's just a tacky, victimless gesture. Sometimes the accusations are specious and uninformed and fueled by anger, or by a performance of moral righteousness that casts the accuser in a glimmering light.

Despite all this variability, the reason why it's happening so often is because cultural appropriation is one of the most fertile possible starting points for having discussions about power. And those are conversations that absolutely need to happen right now. 

In a more useful definition than the above, the website Everyday Feminism defines cultural appropriation as “a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”

Okay! That's helpful! It’s still not always clear who gets to determine who belongs to an oppressed group. (It wouldn’t explain, for example, what to do with white Western teachers and practitioners of yoga, a spiritual study that has been sponsored by the Indian government with expressed intent of propagating throughout the world.) But it's a start.

This is a conversation that regular Mainers will have to get comfortable with. As a predominantly liberal, increasingly cosmopolitan city that nonetheless lacks ethnic diversity, the cultural appropriation dynamic here is unique. 

The prime determinant for who does and does not get to live here is the “logic” of market liberalism, a system which rewards those who practice or assimilate into Western culture. And though it's not often the direct "fault" of its adherents, that system reinforces the dominance of one culture over another, and, typically, the practices of cultures outside that.

Moreover, we’re about to live in a period governed by administrations both federally and locally that are hostile to immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ folks, disabled people, and most other marginalized people.

LePage can always hide behind the mantra of fiscal responsibility and the reduction of the tax burden for moves like these, but his war on social welfare can never be divorced from its racial implications, and leaving the issue of representation and empowerment to the market is doomed to fail. 

Ultimately, there’s no way to "fix" cultural appropriation. It’s impossible to police the flows of cultural influence, and it’s not at all as though a world in which that were true is any better. Even more alarming, the ideological arguments on both extremes — social justice advocates with separatist tendencies and the white nationalist advocates of cultural purification — can seem to blur into one another. “White nationalists aren’t too bothered by protests of cultural appropriation,” writes Shuja Haider in a recent Viewpoint Magazine essay titled “The Safety Pin and the Swastika.” The argument's sting fits right into their belief that cultural influence is essentially an act of contamination.


While no one should expect to solve the issue of appropriation, there are ways to address the power dynamics behind it, and that’s building and supporting cultures and institutions where people of color are in ownership or leadership positions.

Broadly defined as “the ability of a nation or community of people to forge their own path of development,” self-determination serves as an antidote to the systems that make cultural appropriation toxic and oppressive, and an option besides the dynamic of assimilation that forces people of color into dominant structures in order to survive. It's also a core principle of the manifesto released last year by the Movement For Black Lives.

“The oppression of Indigenous people, immigrants, and nonwhite people more generally pervades American society," writes Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in in her recent book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. "The challenge for the movement is transforming the goal of ‘freedom’ into digestible demands that train and organize its forces so that they have the ability to fight for more, the movement must also have a real plan for building and developing solidarity among the oppressed.”

And in Maine, the movement for POC self-determination is underway, in the arts, media, social services, political alliances, and elsewhere. 

In media, the writer Shay Stewart-Bouley made BlackgirlinMaine, her blog, a full-time thing in 2015. 

“In Maine and Northern New England, there simply are not enough media spaces and representations for POC,” Stewart-Bouley writes in an email to the Phoenix. “After eight years, BGIM the blog is really well positioned to become that space.”

Of the print media outlets in Maine (including this one), only one is owned by a person of color (The Arabic language newspaper The Hanging Gardens, which began publishing in November, 2016). And there’s historically been a shortage of writers of color published in local print media.

“When I started writing in Maine back in 2003,” she continues. “it was pretty radical to discuss race openly and while it is normalizing, I know for many up and coming writers of color in Maine, the media landscape can still be pretty inhospitable at times.”

Shay Stewart-Bouley was a contributor to the Portland Phoenix from 2006 until 2014, when it was sold to new ownership. Her column, "Diverse-City," will return in these pages later this month.

“It’s important for women of color to establish autonomous organizations first,” writes Mufalo Chitam in an email, who launched the leadership organization Empower Maine Women Network, a leadership organization for Maine immigrant women, in 2015. The group meets once a month at the Cumberland Club, with a mission to bring women in Maine from different cultures, color, ethnicity, and class to network for professional and social purposes. “Empowered women change their communities and society as a whole," Chitam continues. (The Empower Maine Women Network host their second annual Empower the Immigrant Woman Conference, which includes a resource fair and workforce integration panel, at USM's Wishcamper Campus on March 18 at 9 a.m.)

Bianca Postrata teaches a self-defense course for women at the Choi Institute, a course she originally wished to provide for women of color alone. In an email to the Phoenix, Postrana, a woman of color herself, articulates the tension and hurt around the struggle for justice among even its most ideologically compatible actors.

"There is a massive amount of fear present on both sides," she says. "This is a tragedy for those who are seeking help, wanting to reach out but unable to due to the deeply conditioned reliance on the survival tactic of not allowing oneself to trust, and those attempting to authentically, humbly offer it. There is an incredible amount of anger (rightfully felt and expressed) from POC that could prevent a bridge from being constructed. There is a shocking and bitterly disappointing lack of true empathy and responsibility by white people to own up to the damage they have done (and continue to perpetuate) and the constant and lifelong work they need to endeavor to heal this devastating wound."

The nascent drama troupe Theater Ensemble of Color was launched by a cohort led by René Johnson in late 2015, addressing a lack of diversity and opportunity for people of color within the Maine arts scene that had become systematic, owing to the state’s demographic and audience, educational opportunities, and more. [Read Megan Grumbling’s preview on TEoC’s play, The Others, opening at SPACE Gallery this weekend.]

Samaa Abdurraqib and Marena Blanchard (the latter of whom has been a contributor to this newspaper), launched the project For Us, By Us in the harrowing first few days after last November’s election. Aiming to “create capacity for PoC in Maine,” For Us, By Us plans to produce a spectrum of events, and hosted their own women of color self-defense course last January 7 of last weekend.

“It has become clear that PoC in southern Maine need resources and safe spaces to organize ourselves, heal ourselves, and to create.,” they explain on the organization’s Patreon. “Our communities face unique challenges partly because we live as such an extreme minority of the population. While some of us are able to find time and space to gather on occasion, few of us are able to pull together resources with any consistency. This lack of capacity means that we remain isolated in our terror, unable to connect with each other and support one another as needed.”

These are, of course, just a few of the examples in and around Portland.


_Sidebar 1_

The Brooklyn College academic Fredrik DeBoer describes the rush to decry an act as appropriative as a sort of gestural moral outcry. “The noble purpose of moral critiques,” he writes in a blog post last month, “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.’” 

 DeBoer, a white American and critic of liberalism and the right-wing, writes that one of the biggest problems with those expressing hard-line opposition to cultural appropriation is the absence of any better solution for engaging in cultural influence and exchange. 

 “Let’s ask ourselves,” he writes, ”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? Where does righteous inspiration end and shameful appropriation begin?”

Sidebar 2

 The handwringing about being called out on appropriation is a symptom of white grief. If it were along the 5 Stages of Grief model, it’d be somewhere between denial and anger. White people, particularly those on the lower ends of the economic spectrum, are being asked to share capital, both cultural and monetary, with folks their forebears did not have to share with. As the adage goes: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Right or wrong, privileged people are feeling a type of loss from no longer having free, unrestricted access to capitalize on anything they want.

Sidebar 3

If, say, young white people in Maine only felt permitted to engage in and appreciate traditionally white practices of their own people, there would be a lot of bored, trapped, paralyzed kids in rural America, who have no positive incentive to engage in any art or cultural practices besides the ones their parents did. As DeBoer writes: “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.” But that doesn’t preclude observing influence from other cultures.

Sidebar 4

  1. Listen! This discussion is thorny. This piece is obviously not a panacea — it’s one person’s attempt to responsibly frame and address a subject of local and national cultural interest. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth critiquing, but there’s no way each of our politics are going to align completely, and while some of what I’ve written here might read like I think it’s definitive, it’s really an attempt to work through some ideas and analysis. Also, it’s my job. Which brings me to…

  2. I’m a college-educated white man writing for a media organization whose ownership is comprised of 100 percent white people, in a state where media is very nearly 100 percent white and major media outlets are, in fact, 100 percent owned by white people, and whose advertisers are, almost by default, owned nearly 100 percent by white people. It’s not useful to blame anyone in particular for those conditions, but it seems preciously myopic to ignore them, or ignore my complicity in them, for the purposes of this conversation or for efforts of seeking justice, equality, and representation for people of color living and working in the state. Just saying.


An earlier version of this story misstated Iggy Azalea as Welsh. She is in fact Australian

Last modified onSaturday, 14 January 2017 16:40