Cultural appropriation. The term alone leaves many people primed for offense. Unfortunately, as a tool for policing behavior, the concept makes little sense. It implies that extant cultural differences are precious and worth preserving at great cost; that cultural artifacts can be owned; that the bounds of ownership break cleanly along racial lines; and that the value of minority cultures is somehow contingent upon how members of dominant cultures treat them. The first claim is clumsy and misguided—an understanding of culture reveals the latter two to be both false and pernicious. After a quick appraisal of the current sociopolitical landscape, I will explain how a scientific understanding of culture and basic human biology drains cultural appropriation of its coherence, while a sufficiently broad survey of human history renders it petty and parochial.
No culture has ever formed in a vacuum. True, there are groups that have lived for long periods in extreme isolation, allowing them to pursue unique cultural trajectories. But even these groups have been shaped by a larger heritage of between-group interaction. The vibrancy of culture is as much a product of exchange—of members of one culture saying to members of another I like what you’ve got going on and borrowing it accordingly—as it is a product of internal innovation. Indeed, it is so widespread that anthropologists have recognized cross-cultural exchange (under the term cultural diffusion) as one of the primary forces shaping cultural evolution for well over a century.
Curiously, a subset of this pervasive ingredient of cultural evolution and human development has become increasingly stigmatized. These slippery and ill-defined, but nasty acts of trans-cultural interchange are called cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation, according to the folks most concerned, is what happens when a member of a dominant culture adopts a cultural artifact more commonly associated with a minority culture.
The prevailing social and political climate in the United States is such that examples of cultural appropriation are easy to conjure. The ascendancy of virtue signaling and call-out culture, coupled with the near-ubiquity of the searing dumpster fire that is social media, affords transgressions of social boundaries—whether severe or trivial—ample traction. Furor over a Utah girl wearing a Chinese-style dress to her prom—kicked off by a tweet—graced the pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today.
Granted, some instances of cultural appropriation are distinctly unsavory. White people flippantly sporting the ceremonial headdresses of certain Native American tribes as if they were vampire fangs or Frankenstein’s monster neck-bolts instantly springs to mind. But, instead of a thoughtful invitation to everyone to think carefully and compassionately about how they engage with cultural differences, the term cultural appropriation is widely used as both a cudgel and a signal flare.
While everyone would do well to be more courteous and circumspect in the way they approach unfamiliar cultures, the current clamor over cultural appropriation is openly insidious. It grossly mistakes the nature of culture, fetishizes victimhood, essentializes racial and ethnic differences and—by linking the ultimate value of cultural traditions to the way they are treated by members of dominant groups—robs marginalized communities of their agency and independence. The version of cultural appropriation that encourages discourse and debate is virtuous. The breed that reflexively vilifies in a blind rush for social currency—that is, the version that dominates most public conversations about cultural exchange—only serves to perpetuate the ethnic, racial and cultural divides that we should seek to overcome.
What Culture Is and What It Is Not
Perhaps the most obvious and egregious misstep in the cultural appropriation debate is its open, almost belligerent indifference to any understanding of what culture actually is. Writing in the late 1800s, E. B. Tylor defines culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society.”
That’s a little clunky, but it does capture something important. Culture is something humans acquire. It is not a concrete endowment of our biology. When it comes to culture, the only thing we get from our genes is the capacity to learn and transmit new ideas and, likely, a set of preferences that play a role in what kinds of ideas we find most appealing. Culture is simply information – sometimes manifest in observable stuff like food or rituals or technology, sometimes not—that isn’t explicitly tethered to our genes.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, researchers recognized that culture has the basic features of an evolving system—transmission, variation and competition. That means that culture can be sensibly talked about in terms of inheritance and adaptation. Cultural evolution is linked to, but not significantly constrained by, biological evolution. Our genetic evolution has influenced culture, and cultural developments have altered the course of our genetic evolution (anyone reading this who can metabolize lactose well into adulthood is a good example). Cultural and biological evolution are highly analogous, tightly interlinked processes.
There are, however, key differences. In particular, while genetic evolution is (mostly) a one-way street, cultural evolution is not. The scientific literature distinguishes between horizontal and vertical transmission. In biological evolution (at least among animals) information passes from parents to offspring. This is vertical transmission. Cultural evolution, on the other hand, affords room for horizontal transmission. People learn a lot from their parents. But they also get information from their friends and siblings, cousins and grandparents. Parents can get information from their children. Aunts can learn new tricks from their nieces. With the advent of better and better means of transportation and communication, it has even become commonplace to pick up ideas from total strangers.
What this means in practical terms is that cultural evolution can build up huge differences between human groups. It also means that these differences are always bridgeable. Not so with biological evolution. At some point, if enough novel genes accumulate in populations that share ancestors, they will no longer be able to produce viable offspring. Such is the case with humans and our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. We share a common ancestor with our great ape cousins, but— absent some significant laboratory tinkering—you are never going to see a human–chimp hybrid.
The same is not true within the human species. At some point, probably a couple of hundred thousand years ago, Homo sapiens’ culture was probably fairly homogeneous. A few tweaks in fire management techniques here, a novel way of making stone tools there, and some variation in food choice were likely the most that distinguished the first human groups. Mostly, early Homo sapiens’ ways of getting a living and thinking about their place in the world were pretty similar. Eventually, our ancestors spread across Africa, up through the Middle East, across Asia and Europe and into Australia, the Americas and the islands of the Pacific.
Since our emergence in Africa, humanity has followed an accelerating curve of cultural diversification and innovation. Some human populations spent millennia in relative isolation. It was here that we built up huge cultural differences. These have defined the past few centuries of human interaction. People in East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, the High Arctic and so forth developed vastly different ways of living in and thinking about the world. The history of human re-acquaintance has too often been characterized by brutality and exploitation, a reality that has led many to forget something essential: nowhere, in any of this, did any of us cease to be human.
Drop a random human and a chimpanzee on a desert island. They might be able to develop some crude form of cross-species collaboration, but it will be painfully frustrating and inefficient. Now do the same cruel experiment with a person from Calgary, Alberta and another from Jaipur, India. The last shared great, great, great … great grandparents of these two are lost to history. A huge divide of custom and language separates them. Yet they will be able to swiftly understand one another. Cooperation between them will be enormously successful. If they have the right arrangement of sexual organs and happen to get along well, they will be able to have kids together. These kids, then, will be heirs to a thoroughly unique blend of cultures, seasoned with any number of delightful and surprising new tricks.
This is the nature of culture. Capable of deluding people into sacrificing one another to unseen gods or bringing them together to cooperate to cure diseases or launch each other to the moon. Instead of marveling at its dynamism and plasticity, the cultural appropriation crowd fetishizes its ability to divide us.
Race, Cultural Essentialism and Cultural Appropriations
Anthropologists and biologists have long recognized that human populations exhibit structured genetic variation. Put simply, this means that genes are not randomly distributed around the globe. Rather, they are geographically clustered. To a significant degree, this structure reflects the distribution of physical traits like stature and complexion. A person who looks to be of recent Scandinavian descent is extremely likely to be more similar, genetically speaking, to another pale-skinned, blonde-haired person than they are to a person who looks to be of recent Southeast Asian descent.
This has led some folks to erroneously conclude that race, as popularly construed, is a biological reality. This is true if we confine our conception of race to population structure. That, however, is not how people think of race on the ground. This is particularly true of the people we call racists. Race, as a socially and politically motivating force, is a product of culture. The between-group differences people latch onto as targets of or justifications for bigotry aren’t produced by genes. They are the unambiguous products of non-genetic learning and innovation. That means that, in the grand sweep of human history—much less the depths of geologic time—they are incredibly fleeting.
Reactionary concern over cultural appropriation not only grants these cultural differences exaggerated importance, it implies that the ones dividing us today ought to be permanently cemented into the wider tapestry of human culture. Worse still, invoking cultural appropriation as a guardrail for the scope of human exchange suggests that modern racial and ethnic boundaries should form the foundations of how we engage with one another. On the one hand, it says that ownership of cultural artifacts commonly associated with black people in modern America is defined by racial boundaries imposed by centuries of cruel bigotry and exploitation. On the other, it says that individual white people are culpable for heinous acts committed by other individuals whom they have never met, are only very distantly related to, but happen to look like.
Cultural boundaries are the hallmarks of ethnic division. We clumsily like to think that there is such a thing as a black or white or Asian race. We fail to recognize that people within these coarse categories have always managed to subdivide and racialize one another according to differences in language and custom. These little quirks of behavior and belief are often invisible to people without the right package of traditional knowledge. In the United States, a person with a single black parent—or even grandparent—is considered black. In South Africa, a person with similar ancestry is considered colored. Today, Native Americans are commonly treated like a monolithic racial group. Prior to European colonization, cultural and linguistic boundaries between tribes were sometimes cause for intense inter-ethnic hostility. Until quite recently, white Europeans and Americans of European descent racialized one another endlessly. The Irish, Italians, Germans and French all cast one another in starkly racial terms.
Misunderstanding the fundamental fluidity of race and ethnicity can lead to all manner of conceptual errors. People lost in this ambiguity stumble into thinking strange things, such as that dominant cultures and minority cultures are features of the natural world. These distinctions can be useful but taking them too far masks important realities. It disguises the fact that cultures bleed into one another at the edges. Biological populations do likewise, of course, but not to the same degree as culture does.
A genetic test can say with a very high probability where on earth an individual’s ancestors were living a few hundred years ago. Similarly, a test could be designed in which an unseen individual is described according to a suite of cultural traits—what kind of music they listen to, what foods they prefer, where they live, how much money they make, how they vote, etc.—and some people could probably do better than chance at guessing their ethnic affiliation. However, they would do so with much less reliability than a genetic test can determine population affiliations. And crucially, their success would hinge on context. If the details specified were highly stereotypical, that would make a difference. So too would the degree to which the test-taker was ingrained in a culture that recognized those stereotypes as reliable markers of some currently recognized ethnic division.
It makes sense to say that Japanese culture or black American culture are defined by a certain set of traits. This view makes little room for nuance, but this is more or less the way in which culture and ethnicity are intertwined. It does not make sense to say that all people who look Japanese or look black are stewards of the cultures commonly associated with them, or that the bounds between them are inalienable. Even less sense can be made of suggesting that those cultural traits define Japanese or black American individuals. Worse still is the claim that the bounds of cultural appreciation and exchange should cut cleanly along those superficial, ever-changing boundaries—that certain cuisines or fashions are off limits to entire groups of people because of the way they look. That is cultural essentialism. And cultural essentialism, often enough, is the seed that grows into full-blooded racism.
To Whom Does Culture Belong?
Not long ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center marked the Mexican holiday Cinco de Mayo by preemptively scolding Americans for their inevitable failure to properly appreciate Mexican culture. “Mexican culture cannot be reduced to tacos, oversized sombreros and piñatas,” they wrote on Twitter.
Does anyone really think they have tasted the full breadth of Mexican culture by donning a giant sombrero, eating a taco, and battering a piñata? Maybe. But rather than reflexively racializing the offense as an example of colonizers befouling the frail culture of an exploited or marginalized minority, why not first look to more mundane, universally human foibles? Someone who thinks tacos and Mexican culture are synonymous is guilty of slovenly incuriosity and shameful ignorance. That’s a trick anyone can accomplish, regardless of their heritage.
According to the SPLC, “Most of the festivities surrounding #CincodeMayo in the US are textbook examples of cultural appropriation, relegating the history and culture of Mexican people to novelty item [emphasis mine].” Crass and thoughtless acts by Americans of European descent have the power to relegate entire histories and cultures to novelty items? This is one of the most shocking harms that comes from stigmatizing certain forms of cultural exchange. It suggests one culture has the power to diminish another simply by borrowing—and, yes, often misunderstanding—its traditions.
Cultural exchange is not a zero-sum game. It can’t be because culture isn’t built from exhaustible resources. Culture is a body of endlessly evolving information. Inarguably, there are instances of cross-cultural borrowing that are gross and insensitive. But the suggestion that these trivialize or diminish the mishandled culture suggests that the value of minority cultures is contingent on the way people from dominant cultures handle them. This hardly seems like a way to empower minority cultures or the oft-marginalized people who shape them.
Any culture we recognize today is a hodgepodge of other cultures. Mexico, for instance, is a highly diverse country. It doesn’t make sense to talk about Mexican culture as a homogeneous entity. The culture in Hermosillo, Sonora isn’t the same as the culture in Merida, Yucatán. They are shaped by a wildly uneven distribution of cultural subgroups and ethnicities—Spanish colonists and the black slaves they brought with them, indigenous Mogollons to the north and Mayans to south, with countless other minority influences sprinkled throughout. Those tacos American yokels are vulgarly appropriating are built from ingredients domesticated and dynamically employed by cultures in Asia, Mesopotamia, Europe, the Americas and the Mediterranean long before anything resembling a Mexican ethnic identity existed. Big hats for keeping the sun out of an equestrian’s eyes probably originated in Mongolia. Large portions of not only Mexican culture, but all cultures, are the product of someone appropriating someone else’s ideas at some point in time.
This is not a novel or shocking point. Genius originality—either culturally or individually—is a myth. Everything is built from something that preceded it. The Scotsman James Watt built his steam engine as an improvement on Englishman Thomas Newcomen’s design, itself inspired by earlier work done in France and Spain. Albert Einstein was a German. His revolutionary theories were influenced by an Italian, a Dutchman, a Scotsman and an Englishman, who were in turn influenced by Greek and Arab thinkers. The same is true of all art, cuisine, religion, fashion, music, literature and culture writ large.
In their misguided Cinco de Mayo tweet, the SPLC links to an article. Its author writes that “cultural appropriation occurs when a person or other entity—a sports franchise, for example—claims as their own an aspect of culture that does not belong to them. Doing so can, knowingly or unknowingly, deny the authenticity of that culture, particularly if it belongs to a marginalized group, and it can send harmful messages rooted in misinformation, prejudice and stereotypes.” This is a reasonable definition of cultural appropriation and the harms it might produce. It is nonetheless deeply problematic. Culture is not and can never be something people own. It can’t be locked away in a vault or poured into a vessel and buried in the desert.
Ultimately, arguing otherwise mixes up the boundaries between cultures, groups and individuals. The first two are terms we use to describe ephemeral patterns and regularities. The latter is an essential feature of the natural world. Cultures and groups can’t be hurt or abused. They can’t thrive, experience joy or deal with disappointment. When people talk about them as targets of cruelty or offense, they are implicitly using them as a shortcut to talk about something happening to individuals. Dominant groups can’t abuse marginalized groups. Collections of individuals with a certain range of shared traits and access to certain resources, however, can abuse other collections of individuals with certain shared traits. They do so by highlighting and institutionalizing the things that divide them.
An individual white American can borrow elements of black or Mexican culture in a way that is insensitive or hurtful. This is cause for thoughtful discussion and, perhaps, an occasional rebuke. Not because a member of a dominant culture is stealing from a minority one, but because one individual is doing something that, either accidentally or deliberately, hurts others. If possible, the cause of offense should be uncovered and resolved. But the suggestion that certain cultural elements belong to one group and are strictly off limits to another, based on superficial traits like modern ethnic divisions, is distinctly anti-progressive and anti-humanistic. This is not the sort of thing that is going to reduce cross-cultural animus or improve the plight of marginalized peoples. More likely, it will just serve to perpetuate destructive patterns of us versus them thinking. That’s not a recipe for thoughtful, vibrant cultural exchange. It’s a recipe for accidentally perpetuating racism.