All Shook Up: The Politics of Cultural Appropriation

Morton, Brian
Publisher:  Dissent
Year Published:  2020
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX24221

In the era of global capitalism, imagining the lives of others is a crucial form of solidarity.



Much of the literature on cultural appropriation is spectacularly unhelpful on this score. LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, a professor of Africana studies at Williams College, says that the term “refers to taking someone else’s culture—intellectual property, artifacts, style, art form, etc.—without permission.” Similarly, Susan Scafidi, a professor of law at Fordham and the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines it as “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.”

These definitions seem enlightening, until you think about them. For one thing, the idea of “taking” something from another culture is so broad as to be incoherent: there’s nothing in these definitions that would prevent us from condemning someone for learning another language. For another, they rely on an idea—“permission”—that doesn’t, in this context, have any meaning.

Permission to use another group’s cultural expressions isn’t something that it’s possible to receive, because ethnicities, gender identities, and other such groups don’t have representatives authorized to grant it. When novelists, for example, write outside their own experience, publishing houses now routinely enlist “sensitivity readers” to make sure they say nothing that will offend—but once the books are published, novelists are on their own. There’s nothing they can do to rebut the accusation that the products of their imagination were “unauthorized,” nothing they can do to ward off the charge that they’ve caused harm by straying outside their lanes.


In writing about cultural appropriation in art, then, the point isn’t that artists should be permitted to imagine the experiences of others as long as they can establish that they share a lane. There are no two people on the planet who don’t share a few lanes. The point is that artists imagine the experiences of others by virtue of a common humanity.

A common humanity: the phrase seems quaint, anachronistic, even as I type it. But I think the restoration of the dignity and prestige of the idea is one of the tasks of the contemporary left.

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