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  • Writer's pictureLaura Perry

The Argument over Cultural Appropriation

Recently, I've seen a lot of argument online about what is and isn't cultural appropriation. The discussions I've seen make it sound like it's a really complicated subject, but honestly, it's not. Let's start with the basic definition, from

"the adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status."

You can see from the basic definition that cultural appropriation is about the dynamics of mainstream and marginalized or oppressed groups. Groups that have been damaged by colonialism, imperialism, racism. What that means is, anyone who is mainstream (that's people like me - white and middle class - even though I'm also part of two marginalized communities, modern western Pagan and QUILTBAG) taking culturally recognizable bits from any marginalized community I'm not a member of. You don't have to do it for profit - just taking these things from marginalized groups does damage all by itself.

So if I, a white American woman, decided to braid my hair the way African-American women do, or dress up as a geisha for Halloween, or declare that I'm a Peruvian shaman or a Welsh or Irish witch (even after taking a class from a real one), that would be cultural appropriation.

If I had Native American ancestry but grew up in white culture as a white person, it would be cultural appropriation for me to call myself Native. If I had Irish or Welsh ancestry but grew up in the US as an American, it would be cultural appropriation for me to call myself Irish or Welsh (in case you didn't know, those are two native populations - with their own native language and culture - that have been colonized and seriously damaged by the British).

In contrast, if an African-American person, or an Asian person, or a Peruvian person decided to have a "white trash party" and dress up as "hicks" and eat "white trash food," that might be in bad taste. It might be rude and mean. But it wouldn't be cultural appropriation, because even poor white people are privileged over people of color in the US.

Before you start to argue that hey, they're poor, so they're not privileged - being white doesn't keep you from being poor, obviously, but being white and poor isn't as difficult or dangerous as being a POC and poor, so whiteness is itself a privilege in our culture, regardless of how poor or rich you are.

This is similar to the distinction between "punching up" (someone from a marginalized group making fun of a group that has power over them) and "punching down" (someone from the powerful group making fun of someone in a marginalized group). Punching up is satire and is acceptable (yes, even if it makes you uncomfortable because you're part of the group being satirized). Punching down is an attack from a place of power to a place of less or no power and is never acceptable.

Cultural appropriation is punching down. It's taking advantage of a marginalized group for enjoyment and/or profit.

Let's also note here that cultural appropriation involves living cultures. Practicing Minoan or Roman or Hellenic Paganism is not cultural appropriation - those are not living cultures, though those people's descendants do still inhabit the areas those ancient cultures are from. There are a lot of cultures that people don't realize are still living: indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America, including the Maya; Siberian indigenous cultures (like the Tungus people from whom we get the word shaman); Asian, Australian, African, and Pacific Islander cultures and religions that have survived colonial onslaught. These are not available for "cultural cosplay" or other appropriative activities.

So please pay attention to the cultural dynamics when you're deciding whether or not to call something cultural appropriation. And then, if you can identify an act as cultural appropriation, don't do it.


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