Cultural appropriation: a look at a popular conceptWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Last year, Netflix released a series called Iron Fist, about a young man named Danny Rand, orphaned as a boy when his family’s private jet crashes in the Himalayas. Danny survives and is raised by a reclusive band of monks who train him in martial arts. In due course, he returns to New York to avenge his parents’ murder and reclaim their company from the man who stole it.
The show received a fair amount of negative criticism, not just on creative grounds but also for ideological reasons. It seems that for more than a few critics, the mere idea of a privileged white male practicing martial arts was an intolerable expression of cultural appropriation.
Accusations of cultural appropriation in general have been flying quite freely of late, levelled at any form of white involvement in traditionally non-white cultural activities – white musicians playing jazz, white parents dressing their daughter as Moana for Halloween, the fictional Danny Rand using martial arts against his foes. Like many hot-button issues, it has in fact generated more heat than light, more polarizing opinion than thoughtful discussion.
The concept of cultural appropriation comes from the field of sociology, used to describe a situation in which a dominant culture adopts elements from a minority culture, such as its religious symbols, fashions, music or language. Typically these elements are adopted without regard for their context or significance in the original culture, and are used to reinforce stereotypes and provide exotic fads for the dominant culture.
A coarse analogy to this practice can be found in ancient history, when a conquered people would be put on display and forced to perform their music or dances for the amusement of their conquerors. An example of this is recorded in the book of Psalms, when the exiled Israelites were required to sing their sacred songs for the entertainment of their Babylonian captors (Psalm 137).
Closer to home, a contemporary (and controversial) example of cultural appropriation may be seen in the traditions of several professional sports teams, which use Native American symbols for their logos, or racially charged terms for Native Americans as their team nicknames.
However, in recent years, the concept of cultural appropriation has trickled down into popular usage, fuelled on social media, and wielded without restraint against any remotely imagined offence – including many that go beyond remote to nonexistent.
Young white girls are sent home from school or bullied online for braiding their hair or wearing hoop earrings. Food bloggers are upbraided for “fuelling racial stereotypes” by showing chopsticks with non-Chinese food. A Mexican restaurant is criticized for handing out sombreros to non-Mexicans at a UK university’s orientation event. Novelists are told they have no business writing about people or stories that aren’t part of their own culture. White musicians are pressured to justify playing (or enjoying) jazz or blues or hip hop, or in fact any music from outside their own context, however that may be defined.
These sorts of accusations betray an unkind generalization about people’s motives. They assume that even the most innocent examples of cultural borrowing are the result of submerged racist impulses, of a subliminal desire to reduce other cultures to stereotypes. But would it not be more reasonable – and more charitable – to grant people the benefit of the doubt, to assume they simply wish to enjoy the products of another culture because they find them beautiful and worth learning about?
Perhaps that young girl just likes the look of braids and hoop earrings. Maybe that novelist simply wants to tell a story that explores another culture or looks at the human condition from a different viewpoint. And when I eat at my favourite Indian-Canadian fusion restaurant, it’s not because I’m an imperialist secretly pining for the halcyon days of the Raj. It’s because I like to enjoy a nice curry now and then.
Cultures are fluid and porous
If the extreme version of cultural appropriation theory is to be believed, then cultures are homogenous and monolithic, with razor-sharp divisions between them, like barbed wire fences. No trespassers are allowed. It’s a bit like the kid who’s a picky eater and wants his dinner in a partitioned tray, so that nothing on his plate touches anything else.
But that’s not how cultures work. In the real world, cultures are fluid and porous. They’re like a stew in which diverse elements combine and interact to produce new and wonderful flavours. It’s the way all languages have evolved, both ancient and modern, borrowing words and concepts from one another and adapting over time. The same is true of all forms of music and art, fashion and cuisine.
To be sure, this process hasn’t always been equitable to all parties involved. The English language, for instance, is the product of several waves of conquest that swept across the British Isles over the course of centuries. But cultural interplay is as universal as it is inevitable. Resisting it is like trying to pass a law against gravity.
Cultures are enriched by interaction
It cannot be denied that dominant cultures have a history of appropriating the ideas and artefacts of minority cultures in ways that demean or stereotype those cultures. This is a sinful reality in a fallen world, and should indeed be resisted by people of good conscience.
However, the majority of common cases that get labelled as cultural appropriation are merely examples of cultural exchange or cultural borrowing. It’s the natural process by which people learn from each other, grow to appreciate their differences, and are ultimately enriched by the experience.
From an evangelistic perspective, adapting to a culture is also the way to earn that culture’s respect and to gain a hearing for the Gospel among its members. The Apostle Paul outlined this as his basic missionary strategy:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
One would hope that most Christians with a high view of Scripture would not accuse the Apostle Paul of cultural appropriation.
But beyond the specific focus of evangelism, cultural exchange in general is a profoundly good thing. It’s the way cultures were designed to function. Like all good things, it can be twisted to serve sinful ends, but that doesn’t negate its essential goodness.
God has created humanity to reflect His image in a wonderful kaleidoscope of cultural activity, which we bring together for our mutual enrichment and enjoyment, and for His glory. And in the new heaven and the new earth, there will be representatives of all nations, cultures and languages, still maintaining their distinctiveness but united in worship of their Creator, who loves unity in diversity.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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