Cultural appropriation: the hoarding dragon

I just wrote a piece asking for people to enjoy Irish culture on St. Patty’s day – to ‘culturally appropriate’ from me. But I want to discuss further how awful the term ‘cultural appropriation’ really is, and what a negative thing complaints of ‘cultural appropriation’ really are.

Let’s say that your culture really developed a given thing, alone, and it was never developed by another culture. Now, in many cases, such claims are false (such as the claim that dreadlocks are African – in fact, Europeans, namely Greeks, also used dreadlocks 2000 or more years ago). But let us suppose that such a claim is true for some given activity, or aesthetic appearance, or something else. Now, you see someone else enjoying that thing, and you complain because this is cultural appropriation. There are really only three things that could be going on here:

  1. You think this thing is a bad thing, meaning it is an aspect of your culture that sucks, so you don’t want it to spread, and want to stamp it out in your own culture.
  2. You think this thing is a good thing, but you are selfish and do not want to share it with the world, because you want to hoard it to your own culture out of some kind of selfish bigotry.
  3. You want to share this with the world, but are worried about attribution.

Now, reasonably, point 3 is the only argument that could make sense. I can see how someone might say ‘Hey, you should acknowledge that this comes from culture X.’ But that is not what most people mean when they complain about cultural appropriation. They are not saying ‘Hey, I’m really glad you like this, but you should know, it comes from my culture. So enjoy! But remember where it came from!’ No, they generally mean ‘You, not being from my culture, should not be enjoying this aspect of my culture!’ And as such, there are only two reasons they can have: they think it is a bad thing (point 1), or they are selfish bastards who want to prevent anyone else from enjoying what they think is a good thing (point 2). When a black woman tells a white man he should not wear dreadlocks (I chose this example as there is a famous video of a black college student telling a white college student this very thing), for example, she is basically claiming that either 1. This style is a bad thing, which nobody should have (and in the context of the video, it is clear this is NOT what she is saying), or 2. She wants to exclude white people from enjoying this nice thing, apparently because she’s a racist, who wants to hoard this ‘good thing’ from white people.

Those who complain of cultural appropriation are like the dragon guarding their hoard, selfishly refusing to share it with the world. In fact, they are even worse: the dragon won’t let others take from their hoard, but when it comes to aesthetic cultural achievements, these are things which can be copied and enjoyed by the rest of the world without detracting from the original culture, so they are in fact trying to prevent others from enjoying even a copy of their culture’s good things!

Fortuitously, Irish, and Irish-Americans, are not like that, and we love to share our culture with other people, which is how we all get the wonderful St. Patty’s day, as discussed in the previous blog.

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