Is nothing sacred?

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Is nothing sacred?

Model Karlie Kloss walks the runway during the 2012 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at the Lexington Avenue Armory in New York City. Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty

Every culture looks for creative inspiration to other cultures, but is there a point when this is just outright theft?

Nabeelah Jaffer is an associate editor at Aeon. Her work has been published in the New Statesman, The Guardian, FT Weekend and The Times Literary Supplement. She tweets @NabeelahJ.

2900 2,900 words
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I committed my first act of cultural appropriation when I was three years old. I was given a keffiyeh, the checkered scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. My grandmother had more important things to worry about than Middle Eastern politics, and keffiyehs were readily available in the markets in Dubai where she lived. It became my comfort blanket when my mother took me there on a long visit. I brought it with me when we returned home to suburban London and I dragged it around for a few years, occasionally using it to dress up as a shepherd for school nativity plays. Towards the end of the second intifada in 2004, a cousin came to stay and spotted it at the back of my wardrobe. She was desperate to borrow it because, she said, ‘terrorist scarves’ had become ‘all the rage’ at school.

By that time, keffiyehs had long been adopted by Western fashion to signal third-world glamour. Madonna had worn one for a bit, and back in 1988 Time magazine assured nervous readers that the keffiyeh was ‘just an accessory… the ethnic type of look is in right now’. My cousin’s request seemed innocuous. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask whether it is possible to borrow something from another culture and give it your own meaning, without trampling on whomever it came from. It is so easy to take someone else’s identity and turn it into just another ‘type of look’. The symbols of one’s own culture, religion or race can arouse a fervent, protective sense of identity. Yet for the outsider, the disputes that arise from such feelings can seem insignificant and opaque.

Years later, a rugby captain at my university defended his team’s decision to wear loincloths and ‘black up’ their skin for a safari-themed party by arguing that they were ‘just going along with the theme’, and that no one had complained of being offended. The university disciplined the team by making them attend a cultural diversity seminar – as if it had all been a bit of innocent ‘banter’, like a child making an inappropriate joke.

The university rugby players took their cues from the buffoonery and racist comedy of the minstrel tradition. Although minstrel shows were created by white performers, some African American entertainers made a career of wearing blackface in the 19th and early 20th century. George Walker and his vaudeville partner Bert Williams billed themselves as the ‘Two Real Coons’, and Walker justified playing racial stereotypes for laughs by pointing to the number of families their ‘race institution’ supported. But later attempts to introduce more rounded characters and romantic storylines into their performances incurred the disapproval of The Chicago Tribune, whose critic complained: ‘there is hardly a trace of negroism in the play’. It is galling enough to hear an outsider defining your religion or culture; even more when they’re measuring how far you fall short against their standards.

Bert Williams and George Walker on stage in "Sons of Ham." Photograph, c. 1900. Photo by Corbis Bert Williams and George Walker on stage in Sons of Ham. Photograph, c. 1900. Photo by Corbis

Symbols of any sort are a means to an end – they stir our memories in order to activate emotions. The cross reminds us of Christianity, and the story of the passion; Ronald McDonald of processed meat in a bun. Using a symbol for any new purpose can alter its meaning irrevocably. The swastika conveyed strength and good fortune to Hindu and Jain communities for centuries until it became, for much of the world, inextricably linked to Nazism. Today we appropriate symbols of other cultures in order to signal exoticism, or sensuality, or our rejection of mainstream society – but even the best intentions can seem to excuse a trade in stereotypes that harm others, and are the accreted sum of a hundred small offences besides our own.

Let’s say that we could stop all cultural appropriation tomorrow. No feathered headdress would ever again mar a fashion runway. Blackface would remain a thing of the past. Only those signalling their identification with the Palestinian struggle would wear the keffiyeh. Yet here’s a sticking point – since the scarf was once just a symbol of Arab masculinity, should we revert to that? Given that almost every cultural form has been purloined from somewhere else, it proves tricky to tell what belongs to whom, and to separate the offensive jerks from those pursuing respectful cultural innovation. The line between insider and outsider can be surprisingly indistinct.

I’m a case in point. I am ethnically Indian but with only distant ties to that region – my ancestors left it more than a century ago for East Africa. Apart from English, the only language my parents have in common is Swahili, but I can’t speak that beyond a few words, thanks to the once widespread belief that teaching children more than one language would damage their fluency in all. My polyglot mother gleefully compares me to a coconut: brown on the outside and white on the inside. This is often the case for second-generation immigrants, of course. Yet it still feels as if the real child of my parents – the one who didn’t forfeit her parents’ culture – might be lurking somewhere inside me like a vanishing twin.

I’m not a true heir to any culture. I realise that this is at least partly the result of my own lackadaisical approach – it is pleasant to picture myself picking up more Swahili or learning how to pin a sari in place, but less agreeable to knuckle down to it. As an adult, I’ve appropriated things from my parents’ culture and other places – picking the bits I like and discarding the rest. I am not alone: you might count yourself among the growing mishmash of cosmopolitans, for whom cultures are like ill-fitting second-hand coats, moulded by the shoulders and elbows of the deceased. Like Williams and Walker, I wonder which side of the line of offence we fall.

Let’s raise the stakes of appropriation – what if the cultural territory being trodden upon really is holy ground? It’s a question that came sharply into focus last summer when I heard that a group of whirling dervishes could be found in the inner suburbs of west London, linked to an organisation known as the Study Society. The only firm point in my identity is Islam – a touchy subject at the best of times. Sufism is often described as Islamic mysticism, and almost all orders ask new members to testify to a belief in a monotheistic God and in the Prophet, although this might be very liberally interpreted. Though I’m not a Sufi, I became intrigued when a friend told me it was her escape from the formalities of our childhood mosque, which transplanted its own rituals from East Africa.

I was surprised to learn that none of the Study Society’s dervishes have any strong religious affiliation, nor any theist leanings. Yet many of them show up dutifully once or twice a month to perform the Mevlevi Order’s traditional ceremony, which intersperses the ‘turning’ (as the pirouetting movement is known), with long readings from the Quran. As a Muslim, I couldn’t understand why anyone with no belief would do this month after month.

After every session, there was a kitchen gathering where the atmosphere teetered between contagious enthusiasm and juvenility. On my second visit, some of the dervishes rapped out a beat on daf drums while a younger member body-popped beside them. They were warm, friendly, and oblivious to my growing discomfort with the New Age tone.

That evening, I asked a woman in her early twenties, who had turned with eyes closed and an ecstatic smile, what she got out of it. ‘It’s like I’m in love when I turn,’ she explained. ‘It’s like giving birth to yourself again.’ I wondered what giving birth to herself had felt like the first time.

The Sufi order of the Mevlevi, to which whirling dervishes belong, was founded by Rumi’s disciples in the 12th century. But the Study Society’s practice in west London is not something that any traditional dervish would recognise. Islamic Mevlevi life mostly disappeared from Turkey in 1925 when Atatürk’s secularising regime shut down the dervish lodges and outlawed the order. Set up in England in 1951 as the Society for the Study of Normal Psychology, the Study Society was inspired by P D Ouspensky – a Russian esotericist who popularised an approach to ‘self-realisation’ that combined Eastern traditions and was intended for Western people. They invited one of the last few traditional Mevlevi sheikhs to teach them the ceremony; he was delighted to find an eager audience and made them promise to preserve the ceremony as he had taught it to them.

They took the beautiful turning ceremony, discarded the religious roots, and created an alternative to yoga

They did preserve it – but emptied of its original meaning. The society’s current ‘sheikh’ is a soft-spoken man named Philip, who said that the Society was his escape from a regimented boarding school in Berkshire in the 1970s. He explained that he used the turning almost as a meditative technique. The Quranic readings evoked a more pleasant aesthetic backdrop for him than, say, a Bible reading – precisely because no one can understand them. ‘As a non-Muslim,’ Philip said, ‘they’re just really nice sounds I say. If it was a Christian prayer, I might have a problem with that because that would be my own upbringing and culture, which would have certain connotations... In a way, we’ve taken what we were given and turned it into something new.’

Philip’s comments recall the words of a French ambassador to Istanbul, Édouard Thouvenel, who advised his readers in 1902 to see the ‘spectacle’ of the turning. He continued: ‘The Turks will protest at that word – spectacle. For them, it is probably a pious exercise… For the Europeans they are also, without doubt, part of the spectacle.’ But where Thouvenel simply described the ceremony as an entertainment for Europeans, the Study Society has actively helped to make it so. They took the beautiful turning ceremony, discarded the religious roots, and created an alternative to yoga. I couldn’t dislike any of the individual dervishes, but when I left for the final time it was with a sense that these Western, 21st-century hippies had taken a precious something of mine and trampled it into the ground.

The Toronto-based art historian Deborah Root, who studies the appropriation of Native American culture, tells a story in one of her essays about a hitchhiker she picked up travelling to the US West Coast in the 1990s. His name was Karma and he had noticed the medicine wheel (a sacred symbol in North American indigenous culture) hanging from her mirror. ‘Far out,’ he said, before explaining that he did not consider himself white because ‘his spirit was Native; he was, he said, a “white-skinned Indian”.’ Root reflects that: ‘I ridiculed this man... but the fact remains: I am white, I used to wear headbands, and I have a medicine wheel in my car.’

After reading this, I began to wonder how much my frustration with the Study Society had to do with insecurity about my own identity. The best way to stake your own claim as an insider, after all, is to mark out someone else who clearly doesn’t belong.

It would be anachronistic to say that Rumi himself would have disagreed with my identity politics. But his contemporary appeal lies in the sense of inclusion that runs through his poetry of divine love: the same tone of invitation that draws so many to evangelical Christianity. The Study Society liked to quote a version of one of his most popular verses: ‘Whoever you are, return! ... This court of ours is not a court of despair.’ Taking the tribal approach, he suggests, risks missing out on some vital opportunity.

Identity politics are a response to perceived threat. The weaker the culture, the more it tends to fear appropriation – and Native American anger over cultural and religious appropriation is a case in point. In 1993, a ‘Declaration of War Against Exploiters of Lakota Spirituality’ ranked ‘wannabes’ such as Karma alongside ‘commercial profiteers and self-styled “New Age shamans”’. The urge to cut off cultural exchange with all outsiders, regardless of their intent, is an understandable response to a brutal history of cultural erosion. But it’s difficult to see how pulling up the drawbridge could strengthen Native American society in the long run. Some indigenous people agree – the University of Victoria philosophers James O Young and Conrad G Brunk note that some think the adoption of their beliefs by outsiders is a necessary step ‘if humans are to reharmonise life on earth’. But a price must be paid for the survival and spread of a culture’s core values: they will be open to a degree of reinterpretation.

Young and Brunk are among the first philosophers to have begun exploring the morality of different forms of appropriation, and in The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation (2009) they deem it ‘reasonable’ to be offended at the inauthentic representation of your religious beliefs. But Young also argues that giving reasonable offence might not be morally wrong. The expression of ‘an artist’s individual genius’, he argues, depends on his or her freedom to appropriate themes and subject matter from other cultures. As Picasso is said to have put it: ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal.’

Middle Eastern belly dancing was connected with pagan fertility rituals; early Christmas celebrations appropriated the festival of the pagan winter solstice

Young’s point applies to something far more common than those rare expressions of uncontested personal genius. Cultures that wish to avoid fossilising and becoming irrelevant must be open to new expressions of their own particular, collective ‘genius’. In doing so, they run the risk of becoming less connected to past traditions. They must trust that this will help to sustain and strengthen the ideas worth saving. The Cornell historian Benedict Anderson defined a nation as an ‘imagined political community’. His description might apply to any community and their shared culture: it is imagined, he says, because though members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, ‘yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’.

Every nation – every community – has its invented rituals and symbols, which spring up to help people grasp the terms of this intangible ‘communion’ in everyday life, fading away when they no longer do the job. And then new practices that suit new ways of life rise up to fill their place. Sir Walter Scott improvised many supposedly ‘ancient’ clan tartans in the 19th century – the cloth that had once been banned as a symbol of Scottish patriotism was being reimagined as a symbol of British unity. Middle Eastern belly dancing might originally have been connected with pagan fertility rituals or with travellers from India, just as early Christmas celebrations appropriated the festival of the pagan winter solstice. Private aural confession emerged as a Christian ritual in Ireland only in the sixth century, before spreading as a sacrament to the rest of Europe. All rituals and symbols are constructed, and inherited tradition is not always the best test of cultural authenticity. Religions and cultures – and indeed nations – have survived only by being open to new ways of representing themselves. Few have scrupled about drawing inspiration from others in the process. No matter how offensive – and even destructive – cultural appropriation can be, it is almost impossible to separate every murky incident from this wider process of exchange and adaptation.

I made my peace with the Study Society some months later when I visited a more explicitly religious Sufi order and was surprised to see just how much they had borrowed from Western culture. A female sheikh in hijab was leading the session – one of very few Muslim women in this country to lead a religious gathering that includes men. She explained that the order’s grand sheikh had adapted their practices after moving to the West in the 1990s – dialling down their devotional sessions from four hours to one, and working with his wife to raise female sheikhs inside the order. Islam’s core tenets have been expressed in dozens of varied traditions over the centuries – perhaps an occidental version is about to have its time, drawing inspiration from the rituals and practices of the West. Turnabout is fair play.

I won’t stop being angered by particularly crass examples of cultural imperialism anytime soon – and I don’t believe that anyone else should stop defending their own inherited cultural practices from being hollowed out and turned into costumes by adults who want to play dress-up. But it is worth remembering that the culture you hold dear will have been shaped by the practices of other cultures at some point. Look ahead: you have the power to shape the cultural future. Are you sure you won’t draw inspiration from others in turn?

Read more essays on cultures & languages, design & fashion, religion and rituals & celebrations


  • Renee

    I feel that the author of this article mistakenly believes that when she feels offended by something, it's automatically the 'offenders' which are at fault. Yet there is a big difference between people deliberately trying to shame or trample a culture, and people simply borrowing ideas, fashions, dance practises &c. that happen to inspire them. If we can't wear a Palestinian shawl, where does it end? I'm quite sure we can trace back most of our fashions to other cultures in the end (definitely in the US); so what? The author needs to realize that she can also choose not to be so easily offended - and that if she picks her battles more wisely, they will have more effect.

    • Gyrus

      You seem to have missed the conclusion, which I thought was balanced and definitely not taking the brittle stance that you seem to be attacking here.

      As for the dynamics and responsibilities of "offence", you can't be claiming that it's not possible to offend unintentionally? Of course, if someone offends unintentionally, there are better and worse ways of reproaching them for it. But on their part, there is a responsibility to see why they've caused offence. This isn't a call to perpetual, timid deference - it's just being civil.

    • Astrid Fernandez

      You clearly didn't read the whole piece before throwing in your tuppence.

      • Cody Young

        Or you didn't. Even in the last paragraph the author maligns adopting customs, habits or clothing of a disparate society referring to it as cultural imperialism and specifically mentioning how if the approach is not sufficiently reverent the trespasser will earn some silly, silent ire. Rubbish sentiment. Information wants to be free. Trade, including what comes with it -like the adaptation and adoption of cultural icons and inclinations- is what leads to familiarity, acceptance and eventually respect. Her offense is her own problem, and if they wish to burden someone else with it next time they should look up an analyst who at least will be compensated, thought certainly not bettered, for exposure to this sort of weak minded shit.

  • K

    You know a lot of people have written about this before, you could read. You don't have to publish the first thought that comes to your head.

    • Astrid Fernandez

      So what? Why shouldn't she write about it too?

  • mileychanbuna

    I found this confusing. The title suggests quite a definite stance: "Why cultures shouldn't steal from one another," and yet you go on to recognize that "almost every cultural form has been purloined from somewhere else." So which is it? And why now, when the modern world is increasingly multicultural/international, should cultures stop "purloining"? This is not only unrealistic (given the variety of cultures in many of the world's cities), but where do you draw the line between "cultural appropriation" and the inevitable by-product of multiculturalism? And how are these cities and communities supposed to integrate if everyone fears cultural appropriation? This discourse just perpetrates an "us and them" mentality.

    • Princess

      Steal respectfully? Know what you are stealing first?

  • Big Bill Shakespeare

    How dare you write this article in English! Who gave you the right to use OUR language?

    Or is it only cultural appropriation when pale people do it?

    • victorbradley

      You're right!!! It's not like pale people traveled the world, took over countries, and forced them to adopt European culture. People all over the world picked European language, clothes, and modes of government because they found them fashionable.

      • Big Cecil Rhodes

        That's right: this woman wrote her article with a red-coated, pith-helmeted British soldier standing over her at gunpoint. Oh, wait, no she didn't.

        • victorbradley

          I think you have her confused with her grandparents. Is she supposed to single-handedly resist centuries of European colonialism all over the world by learning and writing this article in her native language? Which btw, you wouldn't understand.

          • Big Eric Blair

            Wait, if it's her native language, why would it be so hard for her to write in it? Are you retarded or something?

            And how has "centuries of European colonialism all over the world" affected her writing ability?

          • victorbradley

            Congratulations! You've caught me in a bit of inartful language. Perhaps I should have said her "hereditary language" or "the language of her ancestors." Though, from the context of the conversation, I'd imagine my meaning was abundantly clear. And European colonialism hasn't affected her writing ability, (I never said it had) but it has had an obvious impact on the language which she has been brought up speaking. It's doubtful people in India and parts of East Africa would be speaking English if it weren't for European colonialism.

          • Shavon Treenoqui

            Look around you and marvel...and revel in the ingenuity of that social construct called white. Then say, 'thank you'.

          • Big Sue Anthony

            If she wants to free herself from European colonialism, why is she using trappings of Anglo-American hegemony like the Internet, computers, female literacy, and an appeal to human equality? None of those things are part of her traditional culture. Damn those imperialists!

          • Jeff Blanks

            If she wants to use them, fine.

          • AmiiRowsonbao

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          • victorbradley

            It's funny how you ignore the fact that for most of England's history women were chattel unto their husbands, it was only in the 1920s that the veil of gender repression began to rend, long after most of the colonial empire was established. As for the Internet/computers, these are the things you can produce when you have a surplus with which to fund large research budgets......thanks to the I'll gotten wealth of colonialism. Not to mention, where was this "appeal to human equality" during the slave trade? The Brutal repression of the Sepoy rebellion? If anything, The West owes any commitment to human equality to the advocacy of those it subjugated who managed to speak for themselves. You responded to the calls of people whom you subjugated and now claim that as part of the legacy you imparted to them? Racism, not bigotry, not prejudice, not xenophobia, but racism as a specific historical fact, originated in Europe.

          • foo123

            Dunno about Africa, but people in India certainly (well, at least the Indo-European/Indo-Aryan language speaking half, not the Dravidian half), would certainly be and would be speaking some Indo-European language, by definition.

            As for the author being an "Indian", the author doesn't specify if her ancestors were Indo-European/Aryan or Dravidian...which just happen to be entirely different ethnicities in India. And on top of that, the reality on the ground is that most Indians (>80%) don't think of Muslims as Indian in any way to begin with, just like no European truly thinks of Muslims as "European" (whether they admin to or not in polite society is another matter of course).

      • http://FreedomFiles.Info/ FactsNotFallacies

        While we're at it, it's worth noting that many of those countries (or technically "regions) that were "forced" to adopt European culture had no written language of their own.

        Let alone two story buildings. Or systems of representative government.

        • vincenzajlogsdon

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        • victorbradley

          Many of them did, and were still colonized. And in any event, who died and made it Europe's business to tell people what they need and then force it upon them? If those things were of actual use to people, they would've been adopted voluntarily, colonialism was about power and money, and cultural imposition just made that easier.

    • Nononono

      You're forgetting how many words English has "appropriated" from other languages. If there is such a thing as a cultural melting pot, the English language is it.

    • Reader1984

      "Or is it only cultural appropriation when pale people do it?"


    • frosty dufour

      Looks like it's time for your pill, granny.

    • foo123

      Do you know which country the "Indo" in the phrase "Indo-European people and languages" specifically refers to ?

    • B.Kay

      Have you read the article until the end? The author clearly has an ambiguous stance towards cultural appropriation, she definitely doesn't claim that only "pale people" do it. It's an inescapable part of every culture.

  • Anarcissie

    The idea that adoption of bits of a particular culture by people outside that culture constitutes a form of theft requires us to believe, first, that the people from whom the bits are adopted form some kind of organic, coherent corporate body which can possess things, that cultural bits are a kind of thing which can be possessed, and that the originators of the bits are somehow deprived of them if other people use them. For example, if Elvis Presley got his start by singing Big Mama Thornton's 'That's All Right Mama', then he 'stole' something from Black people in general -- the particular song, the style of the song, the Blues context -- which they corporately owned, and were thereafter deprived of. But this is absurd; it rather resembles the idea of the Volk which arose in German Romanticism, whose bad end we know all too well. In fact the recognition and adoption of Black styles of music helped reduce racial and class barriers in America and led to material rewards for many of its hitherto forgotten and impoverished practitioners. Elvis Presley built a bridge over which multitudes crossed to their great benefit.

    I wish some of the rest of us could come up with similar mighty antidotes to tribalism.

    • victorbradley

      You're ignoring the fact that the only reason Elvis had to "build a bridge" was that the White people who owned the radio stations and record companies deliberately suppressed Black musicians while promoting White people who "covered" their music. Hell, the only reason Elvis had a job was because Sam Phillips who signed him said: "I could make a million dollars if I could find me a white boy who could sing like a nigger." Once the music took off, some of those White artists as an act of charity began to collaborate with the Black artists they'd copied and this aroused interest in the roots of Rock n' Roll. Kinda like how Ike Turner opened for the Rolling Stones even though he was considered to be one of the ORIGINATORS of the MUSIC they were PLAYING. You can't say White artists built a bridge without acknowledging the troubled, racist, culturally imperialist waters beneath. Being trotted out like a relic on the coat tails of the people who appropriated your music can hardly be considered a "great benefit."

      • Anarcissie

        It was certainly a benefit considering the situation which preceded it. You seem to be asking for humans to suddenly desist from tribalism out of the goodness of their hearts. It doesn't happen very often. Individuals, yes; the general population, only on very special occasions. It is precisely because of the abyss below that the bridges the few manage to build are so valuable.

        Incidentally, many, many people who knew Sam Phillips deny that he ever uttered the famous million dollar quote. Many Southern White children were very carefully trained by their elders not to use certain kinds of language, and Phillips was probably one of them, if he was going to get along well with Black musicians, which he did. It wasn't just a matter of courtesy; in the Southern class system of yesteryear, certain kinds of language and behavior would mark a person as low-class or even 'trash' and doom his social and business prospects.

        Adoption of cultural artifacts goes on everywhere in the world and has as long as there has been culture. I really don't know why it's supposed to be a bad thing, or if it is, what we're supposed to do about it.

        • victorbradley

          If Southern Whites were so careful about language, how do you explain all the video of Southern White elites spewing racist vitriol to their heart's content? Also, regardless of whether or not Philips said it, the fact remains that Elvis built his career by covering Black artists in a way which the people who first heard him on the radio thought sounded Black. Furthermore, I'm not saying people aren't tribal. I'm saying that it's absurd to act like White musicians are supposed to be applauded for throwing scraps to the people who's oppression they'd been profiting off of for years. Don't talk about building a bridge for me when you've been riding me across the river for years.

          • Anarcissie

            The alternative to Elvis and his kind would, probably, have been the complete loss of the Blues. Eventually the old musicians would have died off unrecognized, the old records thrown out. Black people certainly weren't supporting the Blues in the 1950s and 1960s; by and large they thought it was old-timey and too closely associated with slavery days and the plantation. At least that's what they told me. So what would have been so wonderful about losing it all?

            Luckily, that's not the way things happened.

          • victorbradley

            You're making it sound like Black people are children who wantonly pick up and thrown away our own culture on a whim. I know plenty of old Black people who still have Blues records. I'm in my 20's and I listen to the Blues. There are young Black people who play the Blues. Admittedly, the Blues hasn't been popular in decades, but neither has classical music, yet there's no reason to think it's in danger of being "lost". Hell, every Sunday when I go to church in addition to contemporary Black gospel we sing spirituals which have been around for centuries. The idea, that we needed Elvis or a bunch of upstart kids from England to preserve our culture is absurd. Also, the main reason that those Blues musicians were unrecognized is because of the repression of Black musicians, the same mechanism which allowed White kids to pick up Rock n' Roll, after Blacks invented it; then run with it. Also, one of the main reasons that we've been forced to jump around was because we had to constantly have something new to offer to avoid being swamped by White appropriators.
            Unfortunately, that's the way things happened.

      • Stevie Dedadus

        Yeah, Elvis' versions of 'hound dog' and other songs -- including the country song styling he 'appropriated' ('blue moon of kentucky' for example) are done in HIS style -- and Elvis sounds great. And, btw, blacks stole from whites -- jazz didn't come from Africa. It evolved from the foundations of European white classical music. Also, blacks and country musicians styles blended to form new hybrids. And btw, those white 'hillbillies' were (are) hated by the elites every bit as much as blacks were hated.

        But of course, whites are the only race that can't be proud of their culture because they are the only race that can be racist. Did I get that right?

        • victorbradley

          One, the man who gave him his first contract thought his style sounded pretty Black. (As referenced above) And apparently, so did the people in Memphis who called into the radio station thinking Elvis was Black when he made his radio debut with "That's All Right." Which btw, was ITSELF a cover of a song by a Black Blues musician. Your statement about Jazz only makes sense if the people who invented jazz were classically trained. Since it originated among people who could barely read, we can rule that out. Jazz like all American music is an adaptation of African music to European instrument with the influence of European folk music. Who said anything about hillbillies? And if that's the case, why weren't the White hillbillies enslaved? Why were (aren't) they constantly the victim of extralegal violence the way Black were (are). I don't care how much of a hillbilly you are, if you dress a certain way and talk a certain way, no one will know where you from. My Black skin broadcasts my identity to any idiot who wants to discriminate against me. So try again.

          • fatt Guy

            Not all American music is an adaptation of African music - see bluegrass, waltzes, Victor herbert...

          • victorbradley

            You can cut out bluegrass and Waltzes are European.

        • Anarcissie

          Copying and imitating are not stealing.

          • victorbradley

            Also, in what universe is Jazz a copy or imitation of European classical music

          • Anarcissie

            I was objecting to 'stole' in the message I followed up.

            About the development of Jazz, Wikipedia says, 'Jazz is a genre of American music that originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Southern United States as a combination of European harmony and forms with African musical elements such as blue notes, improvisation, polyrhythms, syncopation and the swung note. Jazz has also incorporated elements of American popular music.' If you object to that characterization, you should consider correcting Wikipedia. It sounds about right to me. I suppose someone could complain that the New Orleans marching bands who supposedly invented Jazz were 'copying' European models, but I would call it invention and development myself. Unless 'American popular music' refers to what is now called 'Folk', another element in the New Orleans soup were people of European descent who were still using the old modal scales and harmonies. (Hillbillies, in other words.)

          • victorbradley

            Insofar as White elements are present in Jazz, they are more likely to be folk elements than classical, simply because I doubt there were many Black musicians in 19th century Louisiana who were versed in classical. Furthermore, the bridge between classical and jazz is evident to anyone with ears. (Unless you've only heard the White-Washed elevator music that passes for mainstream Jazz these days) So while their was influence, I'd say it's clear most of the credit goes to Black culture. Otherwise, why didn't Jazz emerge among Whites? They surely had more familiarity with White culture than did Blacks. If we're arguing that Jazz was primarily a product of "copying or imitating" European music, it would make more sense for Whites to have taken African elements and made Jazz as opposed to the other way around. That's why I disagree with the "copying and imitating" part. I like your term innovation and development. Copying and imitating is a pejorative mischaracterization.

          • Jeff Blanks

            I hear Scott Joplin could play a mean Schubert. We know Art Tatum knew his Bach backward and forward.

          • beachcomber
          • Anarcissie

            White people would not have openly developed Jazz (much) because they had to carry the burden of their social status. White people who wanted to perform African-inflected music had to pretend to be making fun of Black people (blackface) and could not get too serious about it.

            New Orleans was different from most of the U.S. in that in the 19th century it was still French and Catholic (and was a Latin American-facing port). There were a lot of well-off people who were not entirely of European descent, and a lot of White people who were far more urbane and cultured than elsewhere in the U.S. It was an ideal point for crossovers of various kinds. I am pretty sure there were people in New Orleans who were well versed in classical European music of the era, but had quite a different ancestral tradition. Hence those famous marching bands.

            Copying and imitation used to be the way people, as individuals or groups, learned to do art. First one copied the established traditions and the masters, then maybe one went off on one's own. The heroic individual artist who defies everyone is a historically recent development related to the rise of industrialism and capitalism: if even poor people could have attractive art in the form of reproductions, then those who wanted to demonstrate their greater wealth, social status, and taste had to have something no one else had, to wit, an original. And the way one knew it was an original was that it didn't look quite like anything else. As time went on, and more people had originals, it became necessary for the ambitious to have more original originals.

            The artists were still copying and imitating, though. The influence of Asian art on Impressionism, and of African art on early Modernism, is pretty obvious. It's not an accident that these adoptions occurred not long after certain imperial incursions.

          • Jeff Blanks

            In a way, that makes Arnold Schoenberg all the more admirable; he showed that he could produce major works in a high-Romantic, very complex, traditionally tonal style before he went off into "atonal" music. So he had both bases covered--highly trained craftsman *and* heroic individual. Maybe that's how we should be going about it.

          • Anarcissie

            That was the standard model in the later 19th and the 20th century. I don't know if it makes much sense any more.

          • fatt Guy

            Early jazz borrowed heavily from European marches, using marching band instruments, and Scott Joplin studied under a German teacher.

          • barfiller

            Cycling in fourths (II, V, I chord movement) is used in much of the Great American Songbook (Gershwin, et al), which is greatly favoured by jazz musicians. This kind of movement is directly linked to Baroque music, which involved a substantial element of improvisation. Also, the altered dominant seventh chord - a feature of more modern orchestral music - is a defining characteristic of jazz after WWII.

    • fatt Guy

      Not "That's All Right Mama", but "Hound Dog" - written by Lieber and Stoller, two Jewish guys,
      How 'bout them multicultural apples?

      • Anarcissie

        Lieber and Stoller are pretty interesting. In fact there were a number of White musicians and others who, one might say, immigrated.

  • victorbradley

    As a Black man, the thing that always irritated me about Whites' appropriation of Black culture was the fact that they always have to find some way to take over. Take Rock N' Roll. White artists' covers of Black songs would commonly be much more heavily promoted than the Black originals such that White groups made much more money and got much more fame than the people they were covering (copying). Look at the British Invasion, those guys readily admitted that they got into music by imitating Black Blues artists. Yet they made millions while most of the people they copied could barely make ends meet. Or take Eminem, and Rolling Stones Magazine's assertion that he's the "King" of Hip Hop. I wouldn't mind White people entering Black culture so much if they didn't have to act like they were better at it than we are. Or even something as stupid as Miley Cyrus "twerking." Most Whites probably aren't aware that "twerking" has been in the Black community since the early 2000's. (If you consider its roots in African dance it's even older, but the term is new.) I think the key to not being a cultural imperialist is to understand yourself as a visitor to an in-group's practices instead of using your societal privilege to take bogart them away. Rolling Stone was able to say that Eminem was the "King" of Hip Hop and get away with it because they have more social authority than any Black publication, even, unfortunately, when making a pronouncement about Black culture. The same thing happened with Jazz. Bennie Goodman starts playing it, suddenly he's the "King" of jazz. Or Elvis, the "King of Rock n' Roll" was signed by Sun Records because, according to Sam Phillips: he "was a White boy who could sing colored." This is also why Ike Turner is one of the top candidates for being the inventor of Rock n' Roll yet when the Rolling Stones came to America to play some Rock n' Roll somehow HE was opening for THEM. White people could come across the Atlantic ocean and have more status in a genre than the people who invented it. On the flip side, perhaps the greatest driver of Black cultural innovation has been the fact that for 400 years we've had to out-run White cultural imperialism in order to maintain a culture.

    • Andrew McIntosh

      I recall reading Richard Neville's "Play Power"; one chapter describing a concert featuring Chuck Berry and The Who. Apparently there was an argument backstage over who was going to headline, and The Who won. According the Neville, Berry owned the stage and won the crowd in his inimitable way, duck walk and all, while The Who had to contend with an audience angry at The Who's audacity almost ready to storm the stage (and this was in Britian, the punters where mostly white teddy boys) ; the vocalist actually had to tell the audience "we dig Chuck" to try to calm them down. As Neville pointed out, The Who would probably be car mechanics if it wasn't for Chuck Berry, yet they insisted he support them.

    • Stevie Dedalus

      Now you know when you start your comment with "as a black man" you're going to scare the hell out of many scared Whites who will cower at your assertions. Or, was that the point? And btw, speaking of culture, etc. -- next time you go outside (or even in your home) take a look around you and just marvel at the wonders of White ingenuity.

    • Anarcissie

      Taking over is not unique to White people.

      • victorbradley

        I never said it was, that's just the example that's most salient from my experience. That said, having been the global hegemon for the past half-millennium, White people do certainly have an especially storied reputation for it. But, for the sake of argument, show me other examples of people "discovering" the culture of a minority group then using their social and economic power to essentially push them out of it.

        • Anarcissie

          Roman Empire: Christianity? Persians, Turks: Islam? I believe the Chinese got up to some of that sort of thing as well, but I am less familiar with the cultural history of eastern Asia.

          Also, I don't know about White people being the 'global hegemon' exactly. Whiteness was invented to serve the imperial ambitions of certain ruling classes of certain states. It was a convenient, color-coded way to organize imperialism for those who got something out of it. Russian serfs were technically White (European) but they didn't enjoy much hegemony.

          • victorbradley

            Several things. Please give me a specific example so that I can critique it as opposed to having to read into what you're saying looking for something that fits the criteria. Thanks. Also, the fact that there are poor White people in Appalachia doesn't mean America isn't a superpower. And while Russia wasn't a colonial power, (despite its feeble attempts) it has certainly occupied a more prominent place in the world in the last 50 years than most non-White companies. But, if you insist on being more specific, I'll say Western Europe. The fact of the matter is, White Europeans have imposed themselves on the globe for the past 5 centuries. That's why India has a parliament, why Australia is overwhelmingly White, and why there are 40 million West Africans living in America. European hegemony historically and contemporaneously is a fact of life for billions of people.

          • Anarcissie

            I thought the case of the Roman Empire more or less expropriating the religion of a Jewish sect and then slaughtering the people it came from was the sort of example you were looking for. One might argue that the Romans were just White people doing their thing, but this isn't so -- Whiteness was not invented until modernity, that is, during the initial phases of European colonial expansion. Similarly, the Persians and later the Ottomans expropriated Islam from the Arabs and then subjugated them. (I consider religions to be cultural artifacts, at least when in anthropological mode.)

            My objection to the 'White hegemony' concept is that White people do not form an organic unity that can do and be things (like a global hegemon). Whiteness was a tool of imperial domination, but there are plenty of other tools, some of them less fictive and therefore maybe more powerful. And the future economic and political center of the world is probably going to be in Asia.

          • victorbradley

            Religions are complicated considering that their adherents' entire purpose is proselytization. With Christians, as soon as Jesus died his followers traveled through the empire seeking converts. It's not like some Romans heard about Jesus, then found a Roman to parrot his words and declared HIM the King of the Jews. Then starved Christianity for followers until their Romanized version was firmly entrenched, THEN decided to popularize the fact that their faith had its origins in Christianity as some kind of act of charity. Same for Islam. As for White Hegemony, if Whiteness itself came into being as a tool of colonial domination, doesn't that ipso facto make those who are classified as White the hegemons of the colonial and post-colonial complex which exists to this day?

          • Anarcissie

            Actually, the Romans did decontextualize and deracinate the image of Jesus, transforming him from a Jewish sectarian into a sort of Hellenistic magic doll. And then, as I said, they slaughtered the people he came from. I think that sort of thing has occurred a lot in the history of empires.

            For me, hegemony implies conscious, intentional leadership and domination. My impression of American White people is that, in general, they are unaware of the privileges accorded to them by the accidents of their ancestry and are mostly focused on their own local problems with each other. There has been a strong strain of nativism and isolationism among many of them which doesn't go along well at all with the imperialism and racial exploitation their rulers and leaders have aspired to. Of course there are many others who are enthusiastic about empire, but I think they're probably a minority these days.

            Today, I think we're observing the emergence of supra-national global capitalism, a sort of world empire which any billionaire can join, but nationalism and racism certainly haven't gone away, and those clawing their way to the top will use them when they can.

          • victorbradley

            I'll give you that one. Though let it be said that I never said Whites were the only ones that appropriated, and that this situation is good deal different from the American situation. Furthermore, I disagree with the idea that hegemony has to conscious by the society as a whole. If you enjoy the fruits of a system that gives you a privileged place in the world, then you have hegemony. It's hard to argue that most European peoples don't at least implicitly favor the prevailing order because of the type of lifestyle which it affords them.

          • Anarcissie

            Well, I don't want to argue about the definition of a word. For me, hegemony is a relation between states or similar parties. I know people use it to refer to culture, but this is tricky because typically adoption and assimilation work in both directions and have both favorable and unfavorable aspects for all parties, whereas in geopolitics the term seldom includes the smaller seriously influencing the greater.

            I don't know about residents of Europe, but most Euro-Americans have no clue as to what's going on in the world. A few months ago, someone went around asking if people knew where Ukraine was, and only 22% could get it even approximately right. If they are hegemons they are mighty inattentive ones.

    • Jeff Blanks

      What are we supposed to do?

    • http://FreedomFiles.Info/ FactsNotFallacies

      You might want to avoid discussing hip hop music if you think cultural appropriation is a bad thing.

  • AL

    For a more in-depth look at this topic read 'Trickster Makes the World' by Lewis Hyde.

  • flying pigs

    WHO owns the trousers then, the high heel, the ponytail, the bra? also the italians are reclaiming the espresso, oh hold on - they took it from the Turks, who got it from East Africa.. and by the way while we are at it - Can the west coast miners, cowboys give back the blues jeans to the French!!!! and by the way Levis Strauss was Germany! Think it's time to redefine our ideas that culture is geographical, racial, nationalistic. Culture is not a constant, it evolves.

  • SuchindranathAiyer

    Cultural homogeneity? I am, physically, no hybrid, having admired hybrids from afar as being superior, physically, to the pure bred. But then, culturally, any homogeneity would reduce the scope and potential for creativity, which, as Arthur Koestler so aptly defines in his "Art of Creation" results from the collision of different reference frames. All of Nature stands up and proclaims that Brahma loves variety. The stultification of socially engineered, "secular" (sic) Nations like India, which perform so far below all logically assessable potential, testifies to the downward trajectory of the Green's median!

  • ModeConnect Fashion

    Cultural appropriation consistently crops up in the world of fashion as shown by the above image of Victoria Secret's Karlie Kloss in a Native American headdress. It isn't right per se to make a fashion statement using an item from a particular culture but when does it become wrong to take inspiration from people, places and cultures and turn that inspiration into beautiful garments? The traditional dress of many regions is exquisitely made, appealing to all manner of fashion professionals. Using cultural tradition in this way isn't stealing; it's crediting people and their way of life by clearly demonstrating where the inspiration came from. Incidents such as this are portrayed to be a mockery of certain cultures - and some clearly are - but the majority of 'cultural appropriation' in fashion doesn't intend to make a joke. It means to show the beauty of culture to a wide audience. Surely, that's a positive thing. promoting innovative designs from all cultural backgrounds.

  • judith

    judith: for a discussion of the invention of Highland tradition, see Hugh Revor Roper’s Chapter in Hobsbawm and Ranger: The Invention of Tradition. The Scots and Celts have always worn tartans but they had no particular significance as clan identifiers. A portrait in Edinburgh of Bonnie Prince Charlie shows him wearing an eclectic mixture of tartans. The true clan identifier was the herb or flower pinned on the bonnet, A lot of what passes now for ancient Highland tradition was, as the author claims, invented at the beginning of the 19th century by Walter Scott (a Lowlander) to celebrate the visit of George IV (a German) to Edinburgh. His descendants (still mostly of German descent) still love to swan about in tartan kilts at Balmoral.

  • disqus_6HfnTuxPSq

    "Let’s raise the stakes of appropriation – what if the cultural territory being trodden upon really is holy ground?"

    Let's not. The designation of ground as holy has caused, and is causing, millions of violently premature deaths on this planet.

    But the second half of the article gets it right. What if the "appropriation" is really "homage"? In any case, setting aside the obvious exceptions where there is a clear INTENT to take a precious something and trample on it, a spiritually evolved person will not go looking for grievances --and certainly not among people who mean no disrespect.

  • Reader1984

    I think what's missing, or maybe glossed over, in this article is the issue of power dynamics. IE, imperialism. White cultures, whatever those may be in the current context, are not 'appropriated' in the same sense that cultures which were basically genocided like Native cultures are. So to dress up like a stereotypical 'Heidi' from Sweden or a Viking for Halloween is not quite the same as dressing up as a Native American 'chief' or what our stupid Hollywood-impressed minds think a Native American 'chief' should look like. This applies to all brown cultures. I wonder if this idea of playing 'dress up of the Other has to do with whites to negotiate their simultaneous fascination, antipathy and patronizing condescension of the Asians, Africans and other indigenous peoples they exploited.

    • PaulDavisTheFirst

      Let's assume for a second that you're right and that dressing up as Heidi is not the same as dressing up as Geronimo.

      But if it isn't the same, why isn't it the same? Is it the same if a native american dresses up as Heidi instead a caucasian? If not, why not?

      And is a caucasian dressing up for a dinner party in a Nehru jacket similar to dressing up as Geronimo, or is it different? And if so, why?

      I suspect that all the differences you believe exist are based on power relationships between states and communities. It is clearly idiotic to deny that these relationships have been (and still are) deeply asymmetrical (not to mention horrific, abusive and even genocidal), and there clearly have been people who deliberately appropriate a dominated culture's artifacts and habits as a way to express that power relationship.

      However, it isn't clear to me that cultural appropriation is automatically an expression of the power relationship between two cultures.

    • Karlie Beans

      On the other hand you could get bent.

  • Michelle

    Native -Americans appropriated a lot of the white mans' fashions. Tricorn hats for example. Bolivian Indians loved the bowler hat. East coast Native -American women wore colonial women's chemises as blouses. Ditto for polynesian women who used them as dresses.. Sioux used American flag motif in quill and beadwork. If it looks cool, and looks good on you, steal it! Some Blacks hate dreads on white people, but many Blacks have been trying to make their hair look like white peoples' hair for a couple hundred years now.

  • Barbara Piper

    Check out Michael Brown's "Who Owns Native Culture?" (Harvard University Press, 2004), for a good review of these issues.

  • fatt Guy

    If Keith Richards wears a headband to keep his hair out of his eyes, is he culturally insensitive?

  • ChurchSox

    Yes, there's a point at which cultural appropriation crosses the line into outright theft. It's defined in the copyright laws. Short of copyright infringement, there's not much "theft" involved.

    If anyone wants borrow a feature of my culture -- cowboy boots, for example --- I do not require they appreciate the boots' function as a caste marker. If you just want to wear them because they look good with a denim skirt, be my guest.

  • beachcomber

    "My polyglot mother gleefully compares me to a coconut: brown on the outside and white on the inside. This is often the case for second-generation immigrants, of course."
    It's also the case here in South Africa where black people who associate more with western culture (fashion, speech/accent, education) than with ethnic tribal black culture are often reviled in national media as being "coconuts". A disparaging term with no attendant glee.

    As a decades long member of the Sufi Movement in the West - formed by Hazrat Inayat Khan, I appreciate your puzzlement regarding traditional/modern and in making a deeper study of the philosophy of Sufism, (which comprises a number of sects with varying traditions) one of the interpretations is that the specific message of the Sheikh is that it is relevant for the society of that time. So the message of Rumi and the physical practices were specific to Persia at that time and his whirling an expression of his need to explore his emotional explosion of oneness with nature, the natural energy of love which is, for the Sufi, the inherent source of reality.

    So in the same way that art students go to drawing classes before becoming masters, eventually developing their own styles, so too do those on the mystical path experiment with different forms of worship/introspection/philosophy on their own paths.

  • commie pinkofag

    "They took the beautiful turning ceremony, discarded the religious roots, and created an alternative to yoga…"

    By which you presumably mean westernized yoga, about which an Indian friend remarked "Imagine me attending one Catholic mass, going home, and creating a chain of 'genuflect yourself thin' studios."

    It's absurd to discuss appropriation of cultural symbols without exploring the profound impact of capitalism's "everything is a product" worldview.

  • barfiller

    "Sir Walter Scott popularized the clan tartan …When is it OK to steal from other cultures?"

    Are you saying Scott 'stole' the idea of tartan and other clan elements because he wasn't a Highlander? He was a Scotsman for goodness sake. How small do you want to make the cultural subdivisions?

  • Princess

    Perhaps she would prefer a more authentic society, untouched by Western corruption, with native practices such as honor killings? She has the best of both worlds; a sanitized narrative, and political correctness to quash any other.

  • rob

    The living are constantly appropriating the culture of the dead. Traditional wear in 300 years will consist of jeans, sneakers and t-shirts. This is the culture of our time, future peoples shouldn't steal it from us. They should stick to wearing highly reflective metallic space suits and 3d printed body suits.

  • willszal

    Thank you Nabeelah for recognizing some of the nuance in this issue.

    I find myself siding with Martin Prechtel in the debate surrounding cultural appropriation; if you're in a different context than where the tradition was conceived, you simply won't experience the same results. In other words, it's not a question of ethics, it's a question of practicality. Cultural appropriation isn't disrespectful; it's just ineffective. And this is where the adaptation comes in that you talk about; repurposing traditions with renewed meaning.

    My experiences differs from your own with Sufism and the Whirling Dervishes. I grew up in a Fourth Way Community in Massachusetts, so I'm familiar with Ouspensky and Sufism. I feel saddened to hear that your experience with them was "emptied of its original meaning." I can say from experience that I've run into a wide range of spiritual tradition which, even if they're now in a different environment, practiced by a different people, are still as full of meaning as ever.

  • Rod McCaslin

    Cultural diffusion is systemic.

  • Hope4Dbest

    Rome conquered Greece militarily. In a century, all educated Romans spoke Greek. Stealing? No, learning.

    It doesn't really matters who conquers, it's the higher culture that wins at the end.

    That's why we don's speak Aztec and engage in human sacrifices.

  • JC Mac

    The great thing about being human is that we can discover and create is that we can discover and create, and then share our discoveries and creations, without limitation by imagined or real genetic profiling. Cultural attributes are transmissible; we deny this transmissibility at our peril. In a global society, notions of "cultural purity" must be consigned along with Naziism and other such elitist nonsense to history's rubbish bin.

  • disqus_Up8SoNRXf0

    Debra, do you really think that stating you are from northern India makes you some kind of authority? Help me to understand what you are attempting to share here. Are you suggesting that there has been no linguistic or cultural influence between the so-called continents (i.e. Europe, Asia)?

  • Governor_Rick_Scott

    At least white folks still get credit for inventing the Bomb, right?

  • Jelena Savkovic

    How did this end up on AEON? Heheh, comments start with beautifully insightful irony, and soon turn into open racism, hmmm... The main point is that the author doesn't have some main theoretical and historical notion of 'tradition", which is never anything fixed and transported in other times and places in the same package, but ever changing way that everyday life revolves around, which is alive and always adapted to new time-space environments. I've lived in Indonesia, I lived in India and I've lived in Bosnia, and there was almost no similarities in everyday Muslim religious practice. Not to speak about trivial fact that many forms of cultural practices, local as well as global, are turning obsolete in a high tech and bionic society, where notion of religion isn't even a relevant topic. If the author really wanted to discuss the topic, she should've studies a bit further into the notion of authenticity and identity - my most generous advice. There are topics that are too philosophical to discuss in an amateur surrounding, but "amateurizing" them is even ok, as long as we do not attack, offend or flaunt our own nationalities, cultures, professions or any other aspect of identity. Most of the reasons for cultural conservatism, which in turn produces social frustration, political instability and technical and artistic underdevelopment, come from personal, national and cultural megalomania, created by the lack of outside view (or lack of education/information). Practically, everything said in the above article is factually wrong and ethically incorrect, as a consequence.