Aaron S. Bayley
cultural appropriation (kuhl-cher-uhl uh-proh-pree-ey-shuhn): The adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgement, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with a relatively privileged status.
The term "cultural appropriation" is one of those academic terms, like "white privilege," "systemic racism," and "diversity," that triggers a strong emotional response and resistance among right-wing conservatives and those who are least qualified to judge the term's merit and usefulness. You can find various definitions for cultural appropriation in the online dictionaries of Cambridge, Dictionary.com, The Free Dictionary, Macmillan, and Oxford Learner's Dictionaries. (The American Merriam-Webster dictionary does not recognize the term, which is telling).
I am not interested in arguing whether cultural appropriation exists or is a valid term; it does and it is. (Even the psychologist Jordan Peterson, who called cultural appropriation "nonsense," conceded that "[it] doesn't mean that there's no theft between people; there is. It doesn't mean that just because you encounter someone else's ideas you have an immediate right to those ideas as if they were your own.") What I want to explore is whether all forms of appropriation are bad and whether cultural appropriation deserves blanket condemnation.
Let's examine examples of cultural appropriation used in the sports and entertainment industries. For decades now, the use of names, logos, and mascots depicting Native Americans in professional sports has attracted both criticism from those seeking the end of their usage and resistance from those who benefit from their continued use. After years of debate, the Cleveland Indians baseball club agreed to stop using Chief Wahoo, the team's logo and mascot, as part of their uniforms as of 2019. Inspired by a comic strip from the 1930s, Chief Wahoo, with his red skin, hook nose, and wacky, toothy grin, is clearly a racist caricature of a Native American. The name "Wahoo" is similar to "yahoo," which is used to refer to someone who is brutish and uncivilized. Taken together, the name and logo are a demeaning racist stereotype based on old imagery and ideologies used to mock minorities. Even if Chief Wahoo was not intentionally created to situate the Native American as a symbol of ridicule and amusement, that is the result.
But what about the argument that Chief Wahoo is part of the ball club's storied history, seen by fans not as a racist logo but as a symbol of pride and honour? That is a disingenuous argument. Something cannot be made harmless just because you want it to be. As a kid, I used to draw sports logos, Chief Wahoo included. I was too young to see it as anything other than a cool logo. But as I grew older and became more informed about the racist American cartoons from the Jim Crow era on, as I was exposed to images of large-lipped black caricatures eating watermelons or dancing in front of banjo-playing cats ("Felix The Cat: Uncle Tom's Crabbin"), or cartoon cows wearing headdresses and mocking Native American dance rituals ("Molly Moo Cow and the Indians"), it became increasingly clear to me that these cartoons, drawn and voiced largely by white male animators, were trivializing the lives and cultures of African- and Native Americans. The emotional attachment to merchandise and memories by Cleveland baseball fans is irrelevant. It goes without saying that the dignity of a racialized people and culture is more deserving of preservation than the petty nostalgia of a sports fan. The Washington Redskins football team finally figured that out, after decades of resistance from owner Daniel Snyder. In July of 2020, the organization agreed to change the racist "Redskins" moniker and logo after pressure from corporate sponsors, among them FedEx and PepsiCo. As CNN's John King astutely observed, "This is not altruism, this is capitalism."
The name and logo of hockey's Chicago Blackhawks represents another example of cultural appropriation of Native American imagery, albeit one not so blatantly racist. Blackhawk fans have always felt their mascot is hallowed and exempt from the appropriation war due to its solemn and respectful stylized depiction of the Illinois-born Sauk warrior chief, Makataimeshekiakiak. And while it's true that the logo is not visually offensive and a far cry from that of the Cleveland Indians, insult and defamation are not prerequisites for appropriation. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are not native American warrior chiefs, and the crest they wear on the front of their jerseys does not represent them. The names of American Indian tribes and their cultural artifacts are not props or gimmicks for marketing sports teams or Halloween costumes. On the heels of the Washington Redskins' decision, the Blackhawks announced they were banning Native American headdresses at home games, although their uniform will remain the same.
What's so wrong with cultural appropriation? Here, the Cambridge dictionary is helpful: it describes appropriation as "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture." Macmillan Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines it in even more specific terms as "when people from a dominant culture adopt the practices, language, artistic expression, etc. of a non-dominant culture without fully understanding or appreciating them." White capitalism has profited from native Americans and black Americans for generations.
But what if the artistic expression of a non-dominant culture is taken with full understanding and appreciation by the taker? Is it still appropriation?
In 1977, the Canadian folk singer Joni Mitchell released an album called Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. On the album cover, she appears in blackface as her alter ego, Art Nouveau. In David Yaffe's biography of Mitchell, the singer explains how she came up with the character:
"So there came Halloween, and I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard. There were a lot of people out on the street wearing wigs and paint and masks, and I was thinking, 'What can I do for a costume?' Then a black guy walked by me with a New York diddybop kind of step, and he said in the most wonderful way, Lookin' good, sister, lookin' gooood. His spirit was infectious and I thought, 'I'll go as him.' I bought the makeup, the wig, the sideburns, I went into a sleazy menswear [store] and bought a sleazy hat and a sleazy suit, and that night I went to a Halloween party and nobody knew it was me, nobody."
Art Nouveau was a combination of "pimp and artistic creation" (Mitchell would sometimes refer to the character as Claude the Pimp), inspired by the singer's desire to role-play as a black man. According to Yaffe, Mitchell's Art Nouveau was a "dead ringer" for Zip Coon, a minstrel blackface character who dressed as a dandy and was mocked for trying to appear sophisticated. It is doubtful that Mitchell even knew of Zip Coon, but that is hardly relevant. At worst, Mitchell is trivializing the black experience by indulging lazy stereotypes; at best, her genuine curiosity about black culture resulted in a misguided attempt at authenticity.
But is Joni Mitchell guilty of cultural appropriation? In the late 70s the singer was being influenced by black jazz artists like Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock. It can be argued that her Art Nouveau character was created with full appreciation of black people and black culture. According to Macmillan's definition then, the answer to whether Mitchell is guilty of appropriation hinges on whether the requisite "understanding" and "appreciation" of the dominant culture renders the act of taking a benign one. Complicating the question is the fact that the otherwise authentic Mitchell, who famously sang of the injustice of paving paradise to put up parking lots and farmers using DDT, is hardly a symbol of capitalist exploitation.
The question is difficult to answer because there is no universally accepted smoking gun to signal an act of cultural appropriation. How do we differentiate between "stealing" and "inspiration"? Chaka Khan loved Mitchell's album cover and her Art Nouveau character. Many Native Americans feel honored by the Blackhawks. Does acceptance by members of the non-dominant culture excuse acts of appropriation?
The ideal world is one where people are inspired by the creativity of others, without transgressing cultural and moral codes, while providing proper acknowledgement and compensation for the use of cultural symbols, art forms, and practices of the non-dominant culture. There is nothing immoral about Elvis Presley being inspired by the black gospel singers he heard growing up, and wanting to play rock 'n' roll music as a result. What is immoral is that white musicians, from Elvis to the Beatles, were able to capitalize on music made by black musicians, while black musicians watched them getting rich performing covers of their songs. There is nothing immoral about Led Zeppelin being influenced by American blues; what's immoral is that the band was notorious for not giving credit to its influences, whether it was Joan Baez or Willie Dixon. Cultural appropriation does not occur in a vacuum. The act of cultural appropriation is tethered to institutions, organizations, and ideologies which cater to the privileged classes at the expense of minority and oppressed communities. It's why young, white, suburban males can embrace hip-hop culture's clothing, music, and mannerisms without being exposed to the racist ideologies and brutality inflicted upon black males in urban spaces.
This is why black women were outraged when Kim Kardashian posted selfies on Snapchat and Instagram wearing "Bo Derek" braids. (Derek, of course, was the poster girl for cultural appropriation when she appeared in the 1979 movie 10 wearing pleated and braided cornrows, a hairstyle worn by the Fulani women of West Africa. White women have copied Derek's look ever since.) It's not that every white girl who braids her hair is guilty of cultural appropriation. That's a ridiculous assertion. It's that Kardashian, as a wealthy white woman with influence and power, used her privileged position to flaunt not her Fulani braids, but her "Bo Derek" braids. It might seem trivial to complain about Kardashian's braids (or bindi, or kimono), and it would be if black and Asian women received the same opportunities as white women in American society. But when a woman with almost 200 million Instagram followers exploits African, Japanese, and Indian culture to play dress-up for 'Likes,' she sends a message to all of her followers that the accoutrement of non-dominant cultures only has value when it appears on a white woman. Kim Kardashian's cultural appropriation is not on the same abhorrent level as that of the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins. Some examples of cultural appropriation, like borrowing musical ideas or cooking techniques, are more benign, or at least less exploitative or harmful, than others. The tragedy is that those truly guilty of exploiting others' culture for personal gain have no interest in understanding why cultural appropriation is so harmful. As Kardashian clapped back to her critics, "Hi, can I get zero fucks please, thanks."