TOPIC GUIDE: Cultural appropriation

"Cultural appropriation should be welcomed not feared"

PUBLISHED: 19 Feb 2018

AUTHOR: Sam Burt

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In September 2016, the novelist Lionel Shriver sparked a heated debate when she attacked the concept of “cultural appropriation.” [Re: Guardian]. Shriver cited a definition of cultural appropriation as the act of “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Instances of appropriation have hit the headlines in recent years, with university campuses especially active in banning or protesting perceived infractions, including yoga clubs [Ref: Independent], theatre productions [Ref: Telegraph], and themed cultural events [Ref: Economist]. But the same debate is occurring in fields ranging from fashion design to music videos and literary fiction to ‘cultural’ cuisine. These arguments centre on who has the right to use cultural symbols, and what forms the basis of this right. To Shriver and her supporters, accusations of cultural appropriation are a growing threat to freedom of speech and expression, ultimately inhibiting mutually enriching exchanges between people from different backgrounds. They contend that ‘using social pressure and even shaming to enforce codes about what is OK and not OK, it becomes fundamentally oppressive.’ [Ref: Observer]. However, commentators criticised Shriver’s speech for failing to recognise what they see as a crucial difference between cultural exchange and appropriation: ‘the difference is power. In particular, the power of the privileged to borrow and normalise a cultural element of another group, while the appropriated group is often demonised and excluded because of that very element.’ [Ref: AlterNet]. Cultural appropriation, on this view, represents and reinforces the exploitation of marginalised cultures. Far from limiting freedom, would taking the idea of appropriation seriously give a voice to underrepresented cultural groups? Does the injunction to seek permission for cultural borrowing limit our cultural horizons? Or can it teach us to negotiate our differences on a basis of equality and respect?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Cultural borrowing or appropriation?

For many commentators, the question remains: where to draw the line between legitimate cultural borrowing and illegitimate appropriation? Specific instances of appropriation seem to be open to multiple interpretations. Pop star Beyoncé, for instance, was criticised for wearing a traditional Indian headpiece out of context in her video [Ref: Medium], yet some black activists claimed her video acknowledged black contributions to Indian cultures [Ref: Time]. How, then, are we to use the concept in public judgment if one person’s ‘appropriation’ is another’s ‘recognition’? To some, the discourse of appropriation prioritises ‘identity politics’ and subjective experience over ‘universal values’, endangering key Enlightenment concepts of truth and knowledge that underpin modern pluralist, tolerant societies. [Ref: spiked] For writers such as Nick Cohen, talk of ‘cultural appropriation’ vastly oversimplifies a messy history of continuous cultural interaction and change, instead presenting cultures as separate, homogenous entities. In this way, anti-racism campaigners targeting cultural appropriation have unwittingly reproduced racist ideas: ‘Not everyone in an ethnicity shares the same identity, and it is a rank prejudice to treat them as if they do.’ [Ref: Standpoint] On the other side, campaigners accept that it is not always easy to disentangle the different influencers of cultural artifacts whilst maintaining that this complexity is not sufficient grounds to ditch the concept of appropriation altogether. Rather, the language of appropriation is a necessary starting point for protecting marginalised cultural identities in our increasingly interconnected, globalised and multicultural societies. Moreover, they argue, the championing of cultural diversity and individualism obscures the way that a collective cultural identity can be empowering for minorities. Rebutting Shriver, Yen-Rong notes ‘it’s easy to say that “Asian isn’t an identity” when you haven’t experienced what it’s like to have to confront racism in your everyday life.’ [Ref: Inexorablist] Jawun Urujaren argues that the idea of cultural appropriation as mutually beneficial elides power differentials that shape the outcome in one side’s favour. In short, marginalised cultures are required to assimilate into dominant cultures while the reverse is not true. Cultural appropriation is a supreme exercise in privilege, ‘using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a personal need for self-expression.’ [Ref: Everyday Feminism] Is the fight against cultural appropriation bringing political conflict into everyday life? Or is this an overdue recognition of everyday domination and exploitation?

Identity politics

To its critics, cultural appropriation reflects histories of injustice and their legacy of entrenched inequality. Appropriation, on this view, cannot be praised or condemned in isolation. In unequal societies, dominant cultural groups use their superior status to use, and profit from, marginalised cultures. Some commentators see it as a logical extension of the imperial plundering of subject peoples, with culture itself now being turned into an ‘extractable’ commodity [Ref: OpenDemocracy]. For Yasmin Abdel-Magied, ‘in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist rule…It’s the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.’ [Ref: Guardian]. Others counter that the definition of ‘appropriation’ is being stretched beyond credibility. More importantly, the term can be a distraction from more substantive offences, such as intellectual property theft. For journalist Christine Emba, this conceptual vagueness ‘obscures offences that might actually deserve more censure, exaggerates some that don’t deserve much at all, and weakens the power of the concept.’ [Ref: Washington Post] Reported instances include students protesting ‘inappropriately prepared’ ethnic foods [Ref: New Republic] to ‘blackface’ [Ref: Huffington Post] and the appropriation of cultural artifacts by colonial powers [Ref: Guardian] Is it right to suggest these are somehow morally equivalent? Even if cultural appropriation is acknowledged as a problem, surely it is a distraction from more important ‘real world’ issues - poverty, war, the environment? However, cultural appropriation isn’t just seen as a reflection of historic injustices. It is also blamed for harming members of marginalised cultures, by continually reminding them of their subaltern status. Consequently, campaigning against cultural appropriation could be regarded an effective way to draw public attention to underlying social problems. Is the prioritising of some cultures over others an unavoidable consequence of cultural appropriation?

Telling other people’s stories: Who owns culture?

In her Brisbane speech, Lionel Shriver suggested that anxieties about cultural appropriation were having a chilling effect on artistic expression, discouraging writers from exploring characters with lives different to their own. ‘Taken to their logical conclusion’, this idea ‘challenges our right to write fiction at all.’ [Re: Guardian] Others have expressed concern about problematising the act of empathising with people from different cultures. The result may be an impoverished and even less representative cultural landscape, in which, for example, respected white authors have been advised not to write about black characters [Ref: Telegraph] Against this policing of the imagination, writes Izzy Lyons, ‘we should be revelling in the exchange of stories between one another - not policing who can tell them.’ [Ref: spiked] Those on the other side of the debate insist that appeals to freedoms of speech and expression ring hollow when these freedoms are unequally distributed amongst different cultural groups. For example, in Western societies, the business suit is widely accepted as ‘appropriate’ work attire for all, yet minority hairstyles such as dreadlocks or cornrows would be considered ‘unprofessional’ in many of the same workplaces. Therefore, argues Kat Blaque, cultural appropriation affords members of a dominant culture the right to experiment and play with cultural symbols, which is denied to the cultures to which those symbols belong [Ref: YouTube]. The same arguments apply to the publishing industry, which remains demographically unrepresentative. Moreover, white writers can more easily find success writing about marginal subjects than those subjects themselves writing about their cultures. In any case, cultural appropriation is framed as ‘A question of civility, of recognising that maybe you want to ask before you take something that belongs to others. Especially if you intend to profit from it.’ [Ref: Financial Times] Doesn’t appropriation, however well-intentioned, remove an opportunity from marginal subjects to represent their culture themselves? In a crowded marketplace, is there only so much room for different voices to be heard?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


In defence of cultural appropriation

Kenan Malik New York Times 14 June 2017

The left’s misguided obsession with cultural appropriation

George F Will Washington Post 12 May 2017

The mad, bad crusade against ‘cultural appropriation’

Mary Wakefield Spectator 1 April 2017

In defence of cultural appropriation

Yo Zushi New Statesman 12 October 2015


Cultural appropriation suppresses minority voices

Navneet Alang The Star 17 May 2017

What is cultural appropriation and why is it wrong?

Nadra Kareem Nittle ThoughtCo. 7 February 2017

What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm

Maisha Z Johnson Everyday Feminism 14 June 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Can cultural appropriation ever be appropriate?

Nilanjana Roy Financial Times 11 July 2017

Thank God for cultural appropriation

Richard Cohen Washington Post 5 June 2017

The case against Dana Schultz

Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye New Republic 22 March 2017

What are white writers for?

Jess Row New Republic 30 September 2016

Lionel Shriver puts on a sombrero

Jia Tolentino New Yorker 14 September 2016

Cultural appropriation: when ‘borrowing’ becomes exploitation

Olufunmilayo Arewa The Conversation 20 June 2016

Why progressives are wrong to argue against cultural appropriation

Steve Patterson Observer (USA) 20 November 2015

All cultures are mine

David Marcus Federalist 26 October 2015

Fashion’s cultural appropriation debate: pointless

Minh-ha T Pham Atlantic 15 May 2014


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

In court and on campus, US debates cultural appropriation

Times Higher Education 20 March 2017

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