More on Cultural Appropriation

by Enzo

More on Cultural Appropriation


Cultural appropriation is a violent event. It forces people to perform their cultural practices for money, alienating them from one of the few things that provides them with relief. Those whose lives are being commodified fight this appropriation daily. But not all resistances are progressive. Some resistances reinforce the white supremacist discourse of biological racism. These resistances need to be fought as much as cultural appropriation.


Capitalism is the current drive for cultural appropriations. The need for capitalism to find new markets and new sites of profits leads to companies commodifying everything it can. This includes cultural artifacts and practices. All cultures are commodified because there is nothing sacred in profit-making.  However, because of white supremacy’s existence within capitalism, those cultures that are not privileged through forced incorporation into whiteness are more visibly commodified because of their exotic qualities.


One of the contradictions that arises from this commodification of the exotic within a white supremacist structure is that the non-white cultures are both denigrated and exalted. These cultures have to be denigrated in order to maintain a division within the ranks of the workers but also have to be exalted in order to make them good enough to sell. This commodification creates within it the seeds for unification.


However, also within commodification is fetishism. Commodity fetishism is the tendency to see products as things-in-themselves, things without history, things that are divorced from the labor that went into them. So when cultural practices and artifacts come to market, they are not seen as pieces of someone’s culture but just as products, products that can be worn, manipulated and ultimately castoff like any other commodity.


Additionally, people from commodified cultures are often required to perform those cultures in order to make a wage. We have to look no further than Hawaii’s tourist industry to recognize this forced performance. Cultural practices like the luau and hula dancing and artifacts like the lei are all commodified to be consumed by tourists. This forced performance for a wage alienates people from their cultures, divorcing them from one of the few things that may have resisted capitalism. Hawaiian cultural practices are not the only things commodified nor the Hawaiian people the only ones alienated from their labor but both instances are instructive.


Cultural appropriation should be distinguished though from cultural mixing. Cultures are not static; they are dynamic. Cultures change and mix, share and combine. To attempt to understand cultural practices as originating in one or another place is to attempt to look at culture as an unchanging entity. This is important when looking at how some resistances to cultural appropriation express themselves.


Some of those who wish to resist against cultural appropriation mistake commodification with participation. Therefore they try and restrict participation to those who are originally from the culture. But their definition of those from a specific culture are as superficial as the definitions from racists. They subsume different cultures into Western ideas of race and reinforce discourses on biological racism.


Culture, in these resistances to appropriation, is reduced to race. Therefore Black culture belongs only to those who can be perceived or traced back to Black ancestry. Asian cultures are condensed from the many to one pan-Asian culture. The requirement that someone be of a particular race to participate within a certain culture borrows from the one-drop rule and blood quantum requirements that have so often been necessary to be considered authentically of color. This racial requirement for authenticity also allows those outside of a certain culture to speak authoritatively on something they don’t actually participate in.


How can we fight against cultural appropriation though? There is no fighting commodification without fighting its engine: capitalism. And there is no fighting capitalism by dividing ourselves by biological racism. Those who participate in cultures not of their own should be implored, not just to stop the fetishism of a culture but to also join in the fight against racism and commodification; implored to join the fight against racism and alienation. 


More Reading


Haunani Kay Trask – Tourism and the Prostitution of Hawaiian Culture

Vijay Prashad – Bruce Lee and the Anti-Imperialism of Kung-fu