The progressive concept of “cultural appropriation” has become an increasingly mainstream idea. Do a Google search on, say, “yoga is cultural appropriation,” and you’ll see for yourself. What does cultural appropriation mean, though? According to law professor Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, cultural appropriation consists of “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.”
Even if one takes this dubious definition seriously, though—what would constitute “unauthorized use?”—policing cultural appropriation quickly falls apart when applied to actual human behavior. A group of students at Pitzer College, for example, declared that hoop earrings should be off-limits to white women. But how can any culture lay claim to determining the size and shape of acceptable jewelry for individuals to wear?
Critics should never assume, though, that bad ideas will die a natural death. In 1991, Antioch College gained national fame—and ridicule—by mandating that each step of a sexual encounter receive express permission from the participants. Lawyerly protocol replaced spontaneity, and process replaced passion. Saturday Night Live mocked the school, showing hormonal undergraduates uttering stilted authorizations. But what was once fodder for comedy is now law, at least in California and New York. Progressive goals have a way of becoming mainstream edicts.
In Salem, Massachusetts, the Peabody Essex Museum offers a case study in the mainstreaming of cultural appropriation. Cross-cultural appreciation has sustained the museum for centuries. America’s oldest continuously operating museum, PEM has long displayed exotic artifacts associated with the maritime trade—but patrons must now read a guilt-ridden disclaimer when visiting the museum’s exhibits. “Cultural appreciation and exchange are vital parts of any society, but appropriation is complicated and tied up with complex power dynamics and histories of oppression,” the message reads. “Cultural appropriation occurs when ‘appreciation’ becomes theft, when ‘exchange’ is one-sided, or when marginalized cultures are reduced to stereotypes.”
As with other definitions of cultural appropriation, the PEM statement does not offer any guidelines on how to know when “appreciation becomes theft” or when “exchange is one-sided.” The best it can offer is a statement from Jezebel founder Anna Holmes: “You can’t always prove appropriation. But you usually know it when you see it.”
No well-intentioned person favors “marginalized cultures” being “reduced to stereotypes,” but cultural-appropriation watchdogs see these offenses everywhere, even in instances where harm was clearly not intended. Consider the case of high school senior Keziah Daum, who wore a cheongsam to her prom, setting off a Twitterstorm of condemnation. Daum chose the dress because she thought that it was beautiful and would set her apart on a special night. But activists admonished Daum, who is white, for wearing a traditional Chinese garment. Her defenders, including some Chinese-Americans and native Chinese, argued that her selection complimented Chinese culture. Critics attacked them in turn as inauthentic, or—in the case of Chinese nationals—lacking the social authority to speak about American minorities. To Daum’s woke critics, every ethnic group must stay in its own lane.
Another puzzling aspect of the cultural-appropriation focus is that it seems clearly to clash with another progressive imperative: the need to nurture multicultural appreciation. Multiculturalism has been a prominent cause among progressives for more than a generation, but today, admiration for other cultures apparently comes with a warning sign: look, but don’t adopt, lest you face accusations of “theft” or insensitivity.
Most reasonable people have no trouble understanding that to adopt an artifact or practice doesn’t diminish the culture from which it originates. “You can’t steal a culture,” as Columbia University linguist John McWhorter has observed. Cultural exchange is enriching, not impoverishing, and imitation remains, as in the old formulation, the sincerest form of flattery. It’s time for progressives to decide between embracing multiculturalism or policing “cultural appropriation.” They can’t have it both ways.