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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

cultural appropriation

(1990’s | academese? | “exploitation,” “cultural imperialism”)

Another Lex Maniac special, wherein The Author chooses an expression of little linguistic import so he can indulge in a couple of paragraphs of shallow-profound political comment. The only point of interest of this phrase is its British origins; it was all over the Canadian press by 1990, but it showed up only occasionally in the U.S. Otherwise . . . no one knows what “culture” is, exactly, but we know it when we see it, and its adjective form is “cultural.” Got that? “Appropriation” is a bit more complicated, because of the divergence of “appropriate” (v.) and “appropriate” (adj.), which has lost quite a bit of power, gradually pulling away from its origins into a quite different (albeit related) area. Both words are rooted in the word for property, and until at least the sixteenth century they had closely related definitions, expressing the concept of taking something for oneself, meaning no one else could have it, especially the person you were taking it from. In the verb world, that meaning has held up pretty well, but the adjective has devolved to mean fitting, suitable, or applicable. “Cultural appropriation” evokes the verb, of course. But the idea is more that the appropriator is taking the other’s culture for his own use rather than taking it away tout court — the victim may get to keep it, or at least what’s left of it.

What changed was not the thing itself, which has been going on for eons and is essential to the development of our species. (As Lovely Liz from Queens pointed out, cultural appropriation is the same thing as culture.) But a growing sense that co-opting elements from a different culture is morally wrong has taken hold in the academy and perhaps here and there outside it. On the surface, it looks similar to the white supremacist’s position, which decries mixing our customs and theirs, whether black people acting like white people (which was comical or threatening, depending on the context) or vice-versa (which leads to the utter destruction of the white race — which we know when we see). But their motivations are antipodal. The white supremacist fears defilement of an imagined racial purity, while the academic is indignant because some first-world jerk is making a buck, or just acting disrespectfully — and taking advantage of someone in a weaker position.

There was, in my youth, a milder word that sounds like “appropriation,” which was “appreciation.” It didn’t usually go with “cultural” but might have, in the hands of a sufficiently tin-eared educator. Art appreciation had more to do with pleasant acceptance of others’ esthetic conventions, or at least a duffer’s knowledge of art history and genre. Appreciation of others’ cultures went with what we now call diversity and multiculturalism (not to mention political correctness), and cultural appropriation is their perverse product. Take an American teenager with a narrow ken, and expose her to art, or literature, or customs and habits that are new to her. She is struck; they speak to her somehow, and she believes she has learned something valuable and become richer for it. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Broaden the kids’ horizons, give them something new to think about, and they might become wiser and more humane. But then say she takes a piece of what she learned and incorporates it into a poem, a dance piece, or a sculpture. Now it’s cultural appropriation — she’s taken something from another culture and corrupted or stolen it by adopting it into her own. It’s fine to admire it, but not to use it. Alas, that’s not how art works. Art propagates itself through small strands as well as broad strokes.

We raid cultures of other times as well as of other places, which results in what I would call “chronological appropriation.” It’s the same phenomenon, but no one gets offended when Americans participate in Renaissance Faires or Civil War re-enactments. (It might be different if we drew on historical practices or events from southern Africa or Japan.) The troubadour, long extinct, no longer has rights we are bound to respect; neither does nineteenth-century cannon fodder. This illustrates again the fundamental tort of cultural appropriation, which is depriving someone else — in a weaker position — of either their way of life, or their chance to make money off of it for themselves. If no one is using the culture, we can do as we please with it.

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