Cultural appropriation describes the use and exploitation by a majority or dominant group, of cultural knowledge or expressions originally produced by a minority or dominated group. It is applied to media and popular communication when ideas, images, sounds, and narratives produced by one group are appropriated for personal, professional, or commercial gain by members of a more powerful social group. Linked to colonial histories, racist discourses, and disparate access to power and resources, cultural appropriation can occur within and across specific national communities and within a range of popular communication practices.
Distinguishing Cultural Appropriation From Related Concepts
Cultural appropriation must be distinguished from other types of popular communication and cultural exchange. Cultural appropriation bears some relation to processes of assimilation, acculturation, hybridity, and cosmopolitanism, but is distinctive in important ways. The term “cultural appropriation” came into widespread usage in communication studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its theoretical development marked a shift away from the anthropological concept of acculturation; the gradual adoption of majority norms, values and practices by a minority or subordinate social group. The concept of acculturation as a model of cultural contact presupposes a degree of cultural essentialism and lacks an analysis of global structures of power (Born & Hesmondhalgh 2000). Postmodern influences in anthropology led to revised understandings of cultures as undergoing continuous transformation through intercultural contact and exchange.
Cultural appropriation must likewise be distinguished from cultural assimilation. As Ziff and Rao (1997) suggest, assimilative practices occur when cultural minorities are encouraged or obliged to adopt the cultural forms and practices of dominant groups. Appropriative practices involve the reverse process; borrowing of cultural forms originating with subordinate groups. By the early 1990s scholars situated both these processes within theoretical analyses of power. Cultural appropriation developed as a negative concept to describe the exploitation of forms and expressions borrowed from other cultures by western societies without acknowledging their origins.
Cultural appropriation can also be compared to notions of cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Within postcolonial theory, hybridity is understood as both the transaction between past and present within a particular culture, and as the emergence of new cultural identities in periods of extensive contact between different cultures. This reinterpretation and mixing of cultural traditions is sometimes presented in a celebratory manner that obscures the histories of colonial violence from which hybridity emerges. Contemporary theories of cultural cosmopolitanism suggest that global citizens should reject narrow attachments to national cultures. This view resists the notion that cultural identities are exclusively linked to specific cultural knowledge, rather it encourages forms of cultural sharing and borrowing. These concepts of cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism neglect to consider how cultural difference is hierarchically ordered within international communication flows. In the realm of popular communication, critics have suggested that postmodern notions of “crossover” and pluralism in music, art, fiction, film, and television disguise inequalities in the status and legitimacy of cultural production. This conceals practices of cultural appropriation behind appeals to aesthetic choice and crosscultural exchange (Born & Hesmondhalgh 2000).
Disciplines And Areas Of Study
Because cultural appropriation occurs in a wide variety of domains, it has been studied by scholars in communication, cultural studies, anthropology, history, art history, sociology, ethnomusicology, literary studies, political science, and law. Studies focusing on popular communication have examined appropriation in music, art, narrative, performance, popular film and television, sport and advertising. Groups experiencing cultural appropriation can be defined in terms of ethnicity, race, and nationality. Researchers must define these groups according to their common identification with specific cultural values, forms, and objects. Thus, approaches to cultural appropriation depend upon the initial conception of culture employed.
As Rosemary Coombe (2004) suggests, culture is defined in two main ways in discussions of appropriation: either as the universal and common heritage of humankind, or in the plural anthropological sense in which different cultures have different properties. When culture is seen as universally shared and equally available to individual artists, musicians, or media producers, cultural appropriation is viewed more positively, especially if the borrowing is acknowledged and done respectfully. If cultures are conceived in relativist terms as collective entities with common traditions and shared identities, appropriation is viewed less favorably. This distinction is further problematized in the realm of popular communication because those cultures more often seen in the anthropological sense are indigenous, colonized, and minority cultures. Perceived as existing in a traditional and “natural” state, elements of these cultures are more likely to be used as a resource for western artists. Popular musicians such as Paul Simon and Moby, for example, have been criticized for producing commercially successful recordings that adapt the work of African performers or use samples from early African-American recordings. While the resulting commercial work is protected by the multinational recording industry and copyright law, the source material and samples originating in other cultures are implicitly viewed as a “free” cultural resource to be exploited (Taylor 1997; Hesmondhalgh 2006).
The analysis of cultural appropriation in popular communication must be situated within an understanding of colonial discourse and racist ideologies and stereotypes in the media. Where cultures have come into contact with each other through colonial and neocolonial relationships, aspects of the colonized culture are appropriated by the dominant one. In the North American context, “playing Indian” in a variety of popular practices, from summer camp tribes and rituals, images of Indian princesses in brand-name logos and advertising, and New Age “shamans,” is an example of cultural appropriation (Root 1995; Deloria 1999). These practices demonstrate the ahistorical use of images and identities from indigenous cultures in ways that disown origin or authorship and reproduce stereotypical and one-dimensional perceptions (Lutz 1990). Even when the appropriation of a minority cultural form is well-intentioned and more direct, as is the case when contemporary hip hop or bhangra artists sample original African or South Asian music, the authorship of the musicians sampled is often erased or obscured (Hesmondhalgh 2000). Using the example of “pygmy pop” to demonstrate how musical communication is shaped by colonial contexts, Steven Feld (2000, 262) argues that this case of appropriation marks “the historical moments and contexts where oral performance and cultural participation are transformed into material commodity and circulable representation.”
Motivation For And Effects Of Cultural Appropriation
Cultural appropriation is an aspect of institutional power that allows western media practitioners and cultural producers to objectify, reify, and authenticate nonwestern cultures. The motivation to appropriate has been traced to different needs and impulses within the dominant society. In the case of appropriation of African-American musical styles and sensibilities, Perry Hall (1997) argues that white musicians are attracted to the innovative rhythmic and aesthetic sensibilities emerging from marginal black communities. This attraction triggers a form of cultural dissonance in the face of racist attitudes and values. The initial social rejection of new popular musical genres like jazz, blues, rock, and rap is overcome once these genres have been adopted by white performers and penetrate the white-dominated mainstream. The attraction to exotic and marginalized minority cultures might also be understood as a metaphor for the rejection of bourgeois western norms and values. The popular appeal of stereotypical Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns and popular television drama may reflect the viewer’s desire to identify with the fictional victimized and “vanishing” Indian and avoiding the implications of real political struggles over indigenous rights (Root 1997). What might initially be perceived as a valorization of marginal and minority cultures can also be read as a desire to contain and control cultural difference and gloss over the unsavory details of the past.
Cultural appropriation in popular communication often takes the form of fetishization of the cultural other, the reduction of living cultures and social groups to a means of social and spiritual redemption for members of the dominant society. Thus, advertising campaigns like the “united colors of Benetton” that code cultural and racial difference as an exotic commodity are also a form of cultural appropriation. The mass appeal and commercial success of yoga studios and fashions in major North American and European cities involves the appropriation of South Asian culture emptied of its original spiritual meaning and reconstructed as a form of upscale urban stress-relief. In postcolonial terms, members of the dominant society become “touring subjects” in Asian, African, and indigenous cultures. In each of these instances, cultural appropriation must be seen as a systemic attribute of communication practices rather than merely the result of individual acts by cultural producers and performers.
Not all researchers agree that cultural appropriation is always related to unequal power relations and modes of subjugation. Goldstein-Gidoni (2003) studied the appropriation of Japanese culture in Israel through the commercialization of activities like origami, martial arts, mask-making, dance classes, and flower arrangement. Though she suggests that these activities involve the production and consumption of an essentialized and objectified “people-less” culture, she argues that they are not ultimately harmful to Japanese culture. Other scholars defend cultural appropriation because even though it is offensive to some members of the appropriated culture, it is not always wrong. James O. Young (2005) suggests that when cultural appropriation produces works whose social value outweighs the offense (giving the example of Shakespeare’s representation of Jews in the Merchant of Venice) it can be defended. Distinguishing between collaboration and appropriation, between mutually productive cultural exchange and exploitation, is sometimes difficult.
Although cultural appropriation includes the acquisition and use of cultural objects, its relevance in the study of popular communication is focused on the appropriation of intangible cultural forms. James O. Young (2005) distinguishes between subject appropriation; when outsiders represent members or aspects of another culture or make the culture or lives of others the subject of an image, story, film, or television production, and content appropriation; when artists, musicians, writers, or media producers use the cultural forms, expressions, music, images, styles of another culture in the production of their work. Young suggests that people are offended by cultural appropriation because of the derogatory nature of the image or content represented, because consent to use or adapt cultural elements and expressions should have been sought and was not, or because appropriation is perceived as misusing something sacred or private.
The effects of cultural appropriation on subordinate groups are social, economic, cultural, and political. Socially, cultural appropriation is experienced as offensive, insulting, and sometimes violating. Stereotypical images of the Native American warrior or chief used as “mascots” by sports teams or in advertising logos are viewed as demeaning to indigenous people. The appropriation of religious imagery such as the eroticization of Hindu religious deities at a major gay and lesbian social event in Sydney, for example, is experienced as a form of disrespect and violation (Velayutham & Wise 2001). In the domain of economics, cultural appropriation exploits and commodifies aspects of subordinate cultures while diverting financial compensation away from its members. The case of jazz is a compelling example. Musical innovations in African-American communities in the 1930s were appropriated and commercialized by white musicians to the extent that black performers received little exposure in the market, were rarely rewarded with recording contracts, and were ultimately unable to support themselves by playing the music they had created (Hall 1997). The cultural impact of appropriation lies in the misrepresentation of subordinate cultures by stereotyping, simplifying, and silencing them. In the American context, while images of indigenous people appear frequently in many domains of popular culture, and indigenous languages are used to name regions, cities, and streets, most people know little or nothing of the original inhabitants’ history or cultures. In European cultures, representations of formerly colonized African and Asian peoples abound in literature, art, music, and popular media, but contemporary inhabitants of the former colonies have limited access to current global communications and cultural industries. Finally, cultural appropriation has a political impact that flows from the relationship between power and representation. Appropriation is compounded by other exclusions from education, financial support, and access to the media, and has the end result of displacing, containing, and controlling subordinate cultures.
Responses to cultural appropriation have emerged from debates amongst scholars, critics, media practitioners, and cultural activists. While critics of cultural appropriation have sometimes been accused of promoting censorship, their goal could more properly be described as demanding respect and accountability in processes of cultural exchange. Both legal and ethical solutions have been considered to contain the negative effects of cultural appropriation. Legal debates have raised the problem of extending intellectual property rights to cultural forms and expressions whose ownership or origin may be collective rather than individual. Ethical questions have focused on shifting the balance of power in representation through cultural funding programs and media access policies. By this means, members of subordinate, indigenous, and minority cultures would have the resources to produce and circulate their own cultural forms to counteract appropriative processes.
- Born, G., & Hesmondhalgh, D. (2000). Introduction: On difference, representation, and appropriation in music. In G. Born & D. Hesmondhalgh (eds.), Western music and its others: Difference, representation, and appropriation in music. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 1–58.
- Coombe, R. J. (2004). The properties of culture and the possession of identity: Postcolonial struggle and the legal imagination. In E. Cameron (ed.), Multiculturalism and immigration in Canada: An introductory reader. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, pp. 133 –158.
- Deloria, P. J. (1999). Playing Indian. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
- Feld, S. (2000). The poetics and politics of pygmy pop. In G. Born & D. Hesmondhalgh (eds.), Western music and its others: Difference, representation, and appropriation in music. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 254 –279.
- Goldstein-Gidoni, O. (2003). Producers of “Japan” in Israel: Cultural appropriation in a noncolonial context. Ethnos, 68(3), 365 –390.
- Hall, P. A. (1997). African-American music: Dynamics of appropriation and innovation. In B. H. Ziff & P. V. Rao (eds.), Borrowed power: Essays on cultural appropriation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 31–51.
- Hesmondhalgh, D. (2000). International times: Fusions, exoticism, and antiracism in electronic dance music. In G. Born & D. Hesmondhalgh (eds.), Western music and its others: Difference, representation, and appropriation in music. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 280 –
- Hesmondhalgh, D. (2006). Digital scanning and cultural inequality. Social and Legal Studies, 15(1), 53 –75.
- Lutz, H. (1990). Cultural appropriation as a process of displacing peoples and history. Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 10(2), 167–183.
- Root, D. (1995). Cannibal culture: Art, appropriation, and the commodification of difference. Boulder: Westview Press.
- Root, D. (1997). “White Indians”: Appropriation and the politics of display. In B. H. Ziff & P. V. Rao (eds.), Borrowed power: Essays on cultural appropriation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 225 –236.
- Taylor, T. D. (1997). Global pop: World music, world markets. New York: Routledge.
- Todd, L. (1990). Notes on appropriation. Parallelogramme, 16(1), 24 –32.
- Velayutham, S., & Wise, A. (2001). Dancing with Ga(y)nesh: Rethinking cultural appropriation in multicultural Australia. Postcolonial Studies, 4(2), 143 –160.
- Young, J. O. (2005). Profound offense and cultural appropriation. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63(2), 135 –146.
- Ziff, B. H., & Rao, P. V. (1997). Introduction to cultural appropriation: A framework for analysis. In B. H. Ziff & P. V. Rao (eds.), Borrowed power: Essays on cultural appropriation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, pp. 1–30.