Thinking about Cultural Appropriation

The past few weeks saw no shortage of writing on the teenagers from Covington Catholic. By now, most people realize that the media’s coverage of this event is a textbook example of why the term “fake news” resonates with the public: despite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many mainstream “news” outlets continue to insist that the adults who were harassing these adolescents were actually the victims. One thing that received little coverage was that percussionist and anti-personal space crusader Nathan Phillips initially refused to meet with the students to discuss the incident. Later he agreed to meet the students and their families -- but only “to have a dialogue about cultural appropriation.”

The term “cultural appropriation” used to be one that was familiar only to those masochistic enough to spend time a lot of time on college campuses, but like most academic drivel, it has trickled down into everyday speech. Cultural appropriation is when one commandeers the cultural property of an identity group to which one does not belong for one’s own purposes. There used to be agreement that appropriation wasn’t inherently malevolent -- that some appropriation can be an appreciation of or homage to cultural difference. But in the push to the far-left over the last decade, a new consensus seems to be rising: that any appropriation is an egregious wrong, regardless of intent or context.  This is why white people who choose to wear their hair in dreadlocks might be verbally attacked in public and why a dress influenced by Asian trends can provoke a backlash if worn by someone who is not Asian.

Instances of appropriation drive much of the leftist outrage culture on social networks and in the media. But if people on the left followed their thinking about identity, racism, and discrimination through to the conclusion, they would see that their accusations of appropriation do not work to end white male privilege.  On the contrary: the appropriation gotcha game actually perpetuates (and indeed, even produces) the set of phenomena that they (somewhat inaccurately) call white privilege.

Conceptually, appropriation requires a notion of “cultural property.”  Cultural property is the stupid idea that the race, gender, or culture that invented and/or make most use of something (whether that is a style, object, belief, or otherwise) own that thing and thereby have a right to dictate and police who uses it and how. By this logic, people with black African heritage “own” dreadlocks because their hair more readily lends itself to the style and it is a more popular style in black culture than in others. Also by this logic, Belgians “own” the saxophone because it was invented by a Belgian named Adolphe Sax in 1846. But only a fool would say that John Coltrane should have sought permission from the Belgians before picking up the instrument. There’s another problem. Like most inventions, the saxophone relied on earlier ideas and technologies that were pioneered by other cultures. The sax was influenced by certain design features of the clarinet, which has potential origins in cultures all over the map. Was Sax “appropriating” when he designed the saxophone? Who “owns” the clarinet? Who cares?

The contemporary American left is obsessed with “white privilege.” By their account, white privilege is maintained by the “invisibility” of whiteness -- that is, white ways of understanding the world come to be viewed as not simply white, but “normal.” They argue that this normative power of whiteness makes it imperceptible -- and this invisibility is the key to white hegemony. Of course, “white privilege” in America is really majority privilege, which is not particularly insidious given that it exists in virtually every culture in the world except ones where a minority is able seize cultural power via brute force (as was the case in a place like South Africa under apartheid). But critics on the left go even further: many argue that white Americans consciously work to maintain this invisibility because it enables white privilege. It would seem, then, that to make whiteness “visible” its critics would need to explicitly identify the aspects of culture that are associated with whiteness. Put differently, the left would need to define the cultural property of whites.

But exactly the opposite is true. There has never been a high-profile media outrage about some appropriation of white culture. This is because when it comes to whiteness, the left throws the idea of cultural property out the window. It seems to be impossible to wrongfully appropriate white culture. This is because any of the cultural inventions that are historically associated with people from an ethnically European background really don’t belong to them.  They belong to everyone.

The saxophone belongs to everyone. Treating a bacterial infection with penicillin belongs to everyone. Clothing with plaid designs belongs to everyone. And that is how it should be. The problem only arises when minority cultures in America are granted the right to “own” cultural property and majority cultures are deprived of this right. The problem is exacerbated when minority cultures are given license to zealously guard and police uses of their cultural property, while majority culture is for everyone. This builds resentment among people: members of the majority resent that they are barred from owning cultural property and members of the minority resent unauthorized uses of their cultural property. But further, and more importantly, depriving white Americans of cultural property is precisely how whiteness is allowed to operate invisibly as a cultural norm. Whiteness is emptied of its content and this is what allows it to escape definition and representation.  In short, the left’s dedication to the idea of appropriation is producing and maintaining white privilege. The solution, of course, is to abandon the notion of cultural property for all groups. In fact, one would expect the left would be eager to do so, given their misgivings about property rights at large. But that can’t happen.  Because maintaining cultural property and appropriation-outrage is essential for ensuring the attitude of victimhood that the far left relies upon to advance its agenda.

And these things were what I thought about as I looked at the images of Nathan Phillips, the man who sought to lecture his victims and their families about cultural appropriation. I noticed his glasses. It’s debatable whose cultural property spectacles are, but I don’t think Native Americans are in the mix. Looking at pictures of him on the internet, I noticed that he often wears clothing that does not conform to the styles of traditional Native American dress. Is that appropriation? The truth is that if cultural property exists, then we are all appropriating all the time. And if that’s the case, then it seems silly to be furious about some benign appropriations while we are so blasé about others. In a pluralistic democratic society, cultural borrowing and sharing should be expected. If (as critics on the left insist) “our diversity is our strength,” then that cannot be true if the strongest ideas, practices, and beliefs cannot be adapted to the need of the public at large. Understood as an oppressive act of hate, the very notion of “appropriation” is a hindrance to a society that prides itself on being one -- one people -- forged from the many. It would be interesting to hear Phillips’ thoughts on the abolition of cultural property and appropriation. But something tells me that won’t be part of the lecture.

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston -- Downtown. His interests include persuasion, political philosophy, music, and the cultural zeitgeist writ large. Contact him at

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