Cultural appropriation: compliment or theft?

Battle of Ideas festival 2017, Saturday 28 October, Barbican, London


Throughout history, the most successful societies have been the ones that were open to cultural exchange and borrowing. The development of religion, philosophy, science, the arts and technology is the cumulative outcome of communities borrowing, assimilating and copying aspects of each other’s cultural achievements. Today, however, such mingling and remaking is viewed with suspicion if not hostility, denounced by some as ‘racist theft’. Critics of ‘cultural appropriation’ insist that cultural engagement is one thing, but the taking up ‘without permission’ of another culture’s practices, symbols and ideas is another.

Denunciations of usually white celebrities for appropriation are now a regular part of the entertainment and fashion landscape. Singer Selena Gomez has been slammed for wearing an Indian bindi; fashion designer Marc Jacobs was attacked for styling models in colourful dreadlocks; fashion house Valentino and high street brand Mango were both slammed for failing to use African models to promote Africa-inspired clothes. Even eating has become a political minefield, with college cafeterias denounced for serving samosas, kebabs or burritos. In the US, one of the highest profile cultural furore has centred on white girls in Oregon selling tacos; there is even a ‘Feminist Guide to Being a Foodie Without Being Culturally Appropriative’.

Last year, American novelist Lionel Shriver controversially denounced the whole concept as a passing fad, but it still seems to resonate well beyond celebrity call-out culture. When New York’s Whitney Museum displayed white painter Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, the victim of a 1955 racist murder in Mississippi, black British artist Hannah Black wrote to the curators, calling not only for the artwork to be removed, but also destroyed. Hal Niedzviecki was hounded out of his job at the Canadian Writers’ Union for proposing an Appropriation Prize for the ‘best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him’. Jonathan Kay of The Walrus magazine and Steve Ladurantaye of flagship news programme The National were also forced to resign after tweeting in support of Niedzviecki. And bestselling British children’s author Anthony Horowitz claimed he was ‘upset and disturbed’ to be told by his editor that it was wrong for him to create a leading black character. US academic James Anaya is even spearheading an international campaign for the UN to: ‘obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognize and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional cultural expressions’; expressions, not just artefacts.

Are there unbridgeable differences in experience and understanding between different groups of people and do particular cultures have distinct, unique and irreducible essences? Is cultural appropriation a zero-sum game analogous to the seizure of land or theft of artefacts, especially if some cultures are marginalised and at risk of being forgotten or misunderstood? Are Enlightenment and universalist ideas about shared humanity now relics of the past? Or were they never any more than a cloak for imperialism? Why is cultural appropriation such a key focus for anti-racist campaigners today? And what does this mean for challenging racism, historically a struggle based on solidarity and overcoming difference rather than preserving difference?

Dr Sarah Cheang
senior tutor, History of Design, Royal College of Art; co-editor, Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion; author, Sinophilia (forthcoming) on role of Chinese material culture within histories of Western fashion

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Kunle Olulode
director, Voice4Change England; creative director, Rebop Productions

Bijan Omrani
historian and classicist; editor, Asian Affairs Journal; author, Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul

Sameer Rahim
managing editor, Prospect Magazine

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panelist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive