what is cultural appropriation?

Matt Walsh, who writes from the perspective of the religious right, garnered widespread attention after sharing his dismay that Christians indulge in “Hindu worship” like yoga. … It’s worth noting that he’s not necessarily wrong. Yoga derives from ancient Indian spiritual practices and an explicitly religious element of Hinduism …. Modern practice has been commodified, commercialized, and secularized, and has been as controversial among Hindu scholars of religion as it has among members of the Christian right. Last week, Shreena Gandhi, a religious studies professor at Michigan State University, published an academic paper critiquing how the modern Western yoga industry is a form of “cultural appropriation … intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” —Tara Isabella Burton, in Vox.

“Appropriation” is bad. But we have other vocabulary for such cases: “imitation,” “borrowing,” “exchange,” “influence,” “confluence,” “mashup,” even “admiration.”

No culture is pure and free of influence, nor is purity desirable. Just for example, the word “Hinduism” derives from Greek. Traveling from the Mediterranean to explore or conquer the subcontinent, Greeks had to cross the River Indus, which defined India and its many systems of belief for the them. Later, similar words and meanings suited Arab and Western European imperialists who also arrived from the same direction. “India” and “Hindu” were then creatively appropriated by South Asians to promote religious unity from the immense diversity of the region. Thus to say that yoga is an appropriation of Hinduism is to use a European concept that Indians have powerfully appropriated for their own purposes.

I’m not suggesting that there is no problem with cultural appropriation: just that we need a sophisticated apparatus for distinguishing appropriation from other forms of interaction that we should celebrate.

One issue is respect. If you imitate a practice or aesthetic from somewhere else, do you demonstrate appropriate respect for the people who originated it? Are you making fun of them and treating their work as easy? Or are you striving to appreciate its excellence? (By the way, respect is not always merited; there is also room for satire.)

Another issue is quality. In borrowing a cultural product, are you making something excellent or are you cheapening the original? That judgment involves some subjectivity, but there are clearly wonderful examples of cultural imitation–and very poor ones.

And a third issue is the right of ownership. To “appropriate” often means to profit from something that should not be yours. If, for example, a group of people have been using a medicinal herb for centuries until a pharmaceutical company learns of its benefits and patents the compound, I would say that their intellectual property has been appropriated. Although intellectual property is a social construct (not a law of nature), the indigenous people get a raw deal in such cases. Likewise, if Western yoga somehow supports the economic exploitation of South Asians, that is bad. But this is a causal thesis that needs evidence. When a community converts to Christianity, they are not “appropriating Western culture,” and they owe nothing to the West (although some missionaries have thought that they do). Who owes what to whom depends on the context of power.

A deeper question is: What is a culture, anyway? And to whom does any culture belong?

Per the Oxford English Dictionary, “culture” can now be a “count noun,” a noun that makes sense in the plural. In that form, it means “the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.”

This usage is not old. It is first attested in English in 1860, and since then, related uses have emerged, such as contact among cultures (since 1892), the idea of cultural gaps or boundaries (since 1921), culture clashes (since 1926), and the culture of an organization (since 1940).

These uses reflect a profound shift in the way English-speakers see the human world. For many centuries in Europe, it was assumed that there was one best way to do the most important things in life. A good building should have pointed arches and stained glass in 1400, baroque ornaments in 1700. “Culture” was not a count noun: there were not many cultures.

The word had originated in the middle ages with agricultural meanings, but it evolved to mean the cultivation of the mind or spirit–e.g., Sir Thomas More in 1510: “to the culture & profitt of their myndis”–and then a state of refinement. In 1703: “Men of any tolerable Culture and Civility must needs abhor the entering of any such Compact.” The world was divided between those who had Culture and those who did not.

To be sure, some authors, such as Herodotus and Montaigne, were fascinated by the diversity of human customs and beliefs. Still, to be cultured was to do things right, and differences either reflected superficial variations or the unfortunate fact that some people were uncivilized.

However, an alternative theory had emerged in Europe by ca. 1750. On this view, there were many cultures, each reflecting the spirit of a particular people or an age. A person could thus be assigned to a culture as a descriptive category.

I am not qualified to discuss whether other communities across time and space have viewed culture as singular or plural. I suspect that singular views have prevailed in some other places, e.g., in China and Islamic civilization before modernity. In any case, the shifting European theory of culture had global significance because of European colonialism.

One consequence of modern view is a distinction between authentic and borrowed culture. If you are actually English, then to behave like an Indian is inauthentic (and vice-versa). That framework depends on the premise that there are multiple and distinct cultures in the world, and each person really belongs to one.

Another consequence is a marked anxiety about whether we are doing anything right. If there are many cultures, then our cultural norms are local and perhaps arbitrary. Just as Europeans were beginning to understand styles of art and architecture from around the world, they stopped having a normative style of their own. Almost all 19th century European and American architecture is revivalist: it borrows (or “appropriates”) styles from other times and places: Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Mughal, and countless others. High modernism is then a revolt against revivalism that seeks new universals–heroically, but without lasting success. And postmodernism is often revived revivalism with a layer of irony.

In this context, it’s important to remember that there are no cultures. Each person has a large set of more-or-less related beliefs, values, and habits that change over her lifetime. The person next door typically shares most but not all of these components. If you examine the components carefully, you’ll find that the come from all over the world and they fit together imperfectly.

A culture is a handy shorthand for this array of components. It’s useful for generalizing about groups of people but always risks overgeneralization. For almost any population, it is possible to draw the cultural boundaries in different places. Nothing they do and believe is completely original or immune to change. Everything is impure–wonderfully so, as a testament to the interconnectedness and avid interactivity of human beings.

Putting up walls and blocking out influences is foolish. But that is not to say that particular acts of borrowing are always respectful, excellent, or fair. When and how to imitate is a hard question for ethical and aesthetic judgment.

See also: when is cultural appropriation good or bad?cultural mixing and powerMaoist chic as Orientalismhorizon as a metaphor for culturewas Montaigne a relativist?is a network a good representation of a person’s moral worldview?are religions comprehensive doctrines?is society an artifact or an ecosystem?; and avoiding the labels of East and West.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.