Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Love, Hate, and Culture Wars

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Love, Hate, and Culture Wars

Article excerpt

What to wear? What hairstyle? What to eat? What are unacceptable names for sports teams? How to create music and other artistic works that may use elements from other cultures? These sometimes seemingly simple questions may obscure complex realities of how we engage with culture in our everyday lives. Today, our choices about, for example, how we use and present cultural elements, including hairstyles, costumes, fashion, cuisine, and music, may lead to accusations of cultural appropriation.

Accusations of cultural appropriation raise important questions about the nature of culture. Allegations of cultural appropriation may arise in contexts where particular uses of culture may be questioned by some and seen as uncontroversial by others.

The term cultural appropriation is typically used to describe cultural borrowing that is in some way inappropriate, unauthorized, or undesirable. Notably, debates about appropriation unfold in real-world contexts in which many of us use a broad range of cultural elements in daily life activities.


Contestation leads to significant variation in language that may be applied to describe various types of uses. A use that is deemed acceptable may also be characterized as borrowing or paying homage. Unacceptable uses are more likely to be described as thefts or appropriation.

Narratives of appropriation may reflect underlying assumptions about a range of issues, including cultural mixture and hybridity, cultural ownership, cultural authority, and conceptions of creativity. In human experience, borrowing and cultural mixture are widespread. This is evident in language, religion, agriculture, folklore, food, and other cultural elements. Cultural boundaries are fluid and shifting. Cultural systems may be significantly transformed by different forces and influences. At times, discussions of appropriation may fail to take account of borrowing, diffusion, collaboration, and other factors that lead to cultural material being shared. Distinguishing borrowing from appropriation can sometimes be challenging because context plays a critical role in delineating acts of borrowing from appropriation. Interpretations of borrowing and appropriation may at times contain gray areas of uncertainty and may change with time, place, and actors. Discussions of appropriation also may not sufficiently acknowledge the importance and potential benefits of borrowing.

Debates about uses of culture are not new. In the United States, pervasive and ongoing debates about uses and misuses of African American music have been evident since the early days of the recording era. In recent months, public discussions have occurred about appropriations of African American culture by Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, as well as Justin Bieber, who was criticized for wearing his hair in dreadlocks. Even the general public may encounter vocal criticism of choices they make about personal presentation: in March 2016, a viral YouTube video showed an African American woman physically confronting a white man she said should change his hairstyle because dreadlocks belong to her culture.

The allegation of appropriation in the YouTube hairstyle encounter is based on a logic that is far from persuasive and may in fact diminish the significance of manifestly appropriative acts. This video and clips about it reflect a structure of argument that is not atypical of discussions of cultural appropriation. The woman speaks of her culture in a possessive fashion, accusing the young man of stealing. In a later video, the young man discusses his choice of hairstyle in language that characterizes his choices as an act of love or affinity. At the same time, the young man makes references to the "colored community" in his discussion about his hair, perhaps highlighting an inattention to contextual factors relevant to his choice of hairstyle. Most particularly, he does not demonstrate knowledge that the term "colored community" may be offensive, particularly to African Americans who historically have been referred to with derogatory terms they had limited ability to challenge. …

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