There seems to be moral confusion about why cultural appropriation is bad. I’d like to use this entry to clear that up. We’ll start with the Wikipedia definition of cultural appropriation:

“Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity” - Wikipedia[1], CC BY-SA 3.0[2]

Let’s spend some time on that definition. First of all, it uses the weasel word “inappropriate”[3]. This is not a straw man picking on a particular definition either. I’ve seen several online articles accusing people of cultural appropriation that use words like “inappropriate”, “offensive”, “distasteful”, and “disrespectful”. These words tell us absolutely nothing about why cultural appropriation is morally wrong.

Take the word “offensive” as an example. Non-indigenous people wearing a headdress may offend indigenous Americans, but is something morally wrong just because it offends someone? Antihomosexualists[4] are offended by same-sex marriage. Does that make same-sex marriage wrong? Does any amount of offense taken by any number of people make same-sex marriage morally wrong? If not, then why is it morally relevant that indigenous people are offended?

Let’s talk about the word “unacknowledged” from the Wikipedia definition. If I take credit for someone else’s idea, that’s wrong because it’s deceit and I’m robbing them of potential rewards and recognition. But unacknowledged imitation in many contexts isn’t deceitful. We don’t expect people to acknowledge everything they do that comes from a culture they didn’t invent. None of us would ever make it through the day if that were the case.

I also disagree with the characterization of cultural appropriation as stealing. If I steal your car, you no longer have a car. If I imitate your culture, you still have a culture. More fundamentally, I disagree with the idea that it’s your culture to begin with. Cultures shouldn’t be owned.

It is the nature of culture to be shared and mixed together. The conception of indigenous culture or any other culture as this pure untouched primordial thing is just wrong. All cultures are a melting pot that came out of centuries of cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is the reason we have so much cultural diversity today. If we care about preserving culture, we must allow plenty of room for cultural imitation and copying.

So how can we clear up this moral confusion? There are three steps.

First, let’s stop calling it cultural appropriation. The word “appropriation” carries a negative connotation, but there’s nothing morally wrong with cultural imitation. Culture cannot be stolen. It doesn’t belong to anyone. One need not get consent to imitate a culture ethically. One need not always explicitly acknowledge the source of a culture. And it’s not wrong to exaggerate or make parodies of a culture.

Second, let’s identify the real problem with cultural appropriation. American high school girls wearing Chinese dresses for prom are not a problem. Neither are non-indigenous people having powwows, calling people chief, or talking about their spirit animal. The root moral problem and, as far as I can tell, the only problem with “cultural appropriation” is it can spread false negative stereotypes by inaccurately depicting groups of people instead of harmlessly imitating “their” culture.

Third, let’s lower the temperature on the discussion. We all have different ideas about how groups of people should be portrayed. Even those within a group may disagree. Instead of reacting to an indigenous American costume for Halloween with “OMG!!! CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!! THIS IS INAPPROPRIATE OFFENSIVE STEREOTYPING! HOW DISRESPECTFUL! WHO RAISED YOU?! MAKE A PUBLIC APOLOGY NOW!”, we should be more thoughtful and consider the precise mechanism by which indigenous American Halloween costumes actually cause harm, if any.

We have to recognize that intelligent people can disagree about which contexts imply pure cultural imitation which is morally neutral and which contexts imply portrayal of a group of people. Sometimes it’s a gray area. There’s room for intelligent people to disagree about which representations of groups are harmful and which aren’t. We don’t need to resort to shouting matches or demand public apologies from those who have different intuitions than us.

Let’s all be thoughtful instead of ideological and remember that not everybody who disagrees with us is automatically a bad person.

1: Cultural Appropriation
2: CC BY-SA 3.0
3: Inappropriate
4: Antihomosexualists