Defining cultural appropriation

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The Question of Cultural Appropriation


Big Mama Thornton

The trouble with Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” is not that it is bad. It’s that it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Big Mama Thornton’s original 1952 version of the song is sleazy and defiant. In a bluesy growl, she tells off the low-down guy who keeps “snooping round her door.” It’s a declaration of independence by a woman who is sick and tired of having a “hound dog” of a man take her for granted. The lyrics are full of dirty double-entendres: “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more.” In Elvis’s version, sanitized for a pop audience, the line is changed to “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.” Drained of its original meaning, the song seemingly becomes about . . . an actual dog. Yet Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” sold 10 million copies and became his single best-selling song. It’s ranked #19 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Elvis Presley (1935–1977)

American singer, actor, and sex symbol, often referred to as the “King of Rock and Roll,” who sang in a range of genres, including rock and roll, country, blues, and gospel.

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (1926–1984)

American rhythm-and-blues singer whose style was influenced by the African American gospel music she heard as a child.

The term “cultural appropriation,” a pejorative used to criticize certain types of ostensibly illegitimate borrowing from other people’s cultures, gets a lot of people into a lot of arguments. That’s especially true now that it is used to describe an ever-widening set of acts. What constituted “cultural appropriation” might once have been relatively clear: if you wore a ceremonial Native American headdress without actually being a Native American performing a ceremony, you were disrespectfully appropriating a culture that was not your own. But nowadays, the notion can be far more expansive in its scope. “Cultural appropriation” has been taken to mean that only blacks are entitled to create art about black historical figures: white artist Dana Schutz was boycotted and protested after displaying a painting of Emmett Till’s body, on the theory that black suffering was not a fit subject matter for nonblack painters. It’s also infamously been invoked to suggest there’s something wrong with people making foods from cultures other than their own.

Emmett Till (1941–1955)

Chicago-born African American teenager who was lynched by local white men while visiting relatives in Mississippi. When his body was returned home, his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, permitting everyone to see the violence her son had endured. The widespread publication of images of Till in the coffin galvanized black communities across the country and helped convince many white Americans of the need to address African Americans’ lack of civil rights nationwide.

If the definition of “appropriation” had stayed narrow, it would be easy enough to defend. It’s obvious why it’s insulting and upsetting for a white person to casually sport a feathered headdress: they are items of deep symbolic meaning to the people who originated them, bestowed in recognition of great achievements. Treating them like party hats cheapens and dishonors them, and slights those people who have the same feelings about their tribal regalia that military members have about the sanctity of medals and uniforms. If “don’t culturally appropriate” just means “don’t treat things that are sacred to other people with ignorance and mockery,” critics of the concept could easily be dismissed. The demand to be permitted to appropriate would simply be the demand to be able to act like a jackass without social consequence, and if there is one thing jackasses inarguably deserve, it is social consequences.

But as the “appropriation” concept has been used to object to many formerly innocuous forms of cultural mixing, certain criticisms of the term become increasingly credible. The more things are stuffed under the “cultural appropriation” tent, the more legitimate the concern that it may put limits on creativity, cultural exchange, and innovation. If taken to its logical extreme, critics of the concept delight in pointing out, the consequences would be outlandish: only Asians could use chopsticks and only Italians could play the violin. (And apparently, as one man deeply ignorant in the history of science urged on Twitter, only whites could use “technology.”)

It should be obvious that there is no such thing as a “pure” culture. Any “technology” the oblivious tweeter might have had in mind relies on a numerical system invented by Arabs. We wear textiles from central Asia; we eat “Italian” pasta brought to Europe from China in the 13th century; and we developed our earliest legal framework from East Africans. (And that “Italian” violin is a Persian derivative.) So many of humankind’s most exciting achievements result from centuries of cross-pollination, and if the term cultural appropriation is to have any meaning, it can’t simply function to condemn the very exchange of ideas on which all progress depends.

“Appropriation” also suffers from an inherent theoretical difficulty: it depends on having a clear notion of cultural “ownership.” The term tends to be defined as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture”—often with the added proviso “without permission.”

But how can a cultural group give “permission” to take or use a cultural product? It’s not as if each ethnic group has a council or bureaucratic agency that processes requests for cultural exchange like ASCAP licenses music. Anyone claiming to give “permission” is adopting authority they do not have; after all, what happens if other members of the culture disagree? Do we put it to a majority vote? Once we accept the core idea of “cultural appropriation,” that there is a coherent concept of cultural “ownership” that operates the way other forms of property rights do, all kinds of impossible questions are raised. These go beyond the usual “Can white men sing the blues?” (to which the answer remains, as always, “Yes, but usually not well.”) What do we do, for example, about New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians, who are black rather than Native American, but who wear elaborate feathered garb including—yes—headdresses and adopt tribal names? The Mardi Gras Indian tradition is meant to honor Native Americans, but it certainly never received “permission” from the U.S.’s indigenous population. If we accept the notions of ownership underlying “appropriation” analysis, we seem destined for either absurd logical extremes or arbitrary line-drawing.


American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, an organization that protects members’ copyrights by collecting licensing fees for performances that are then distributed as royalties to its members for their intellectual property.

And yet: discarding the concept entirely also seems like a mistake. Certain patterns of cultural exchange do seem to entail a kind of “theft,” and in considering whether cultural appropriation is a helpful idea, we should be careful not to throw a useful analytical baby out with its muddy conceptual bathwater, so to speak. A “property rights” framework doesn’t actually fit culture very well. Its boundaries are too amorphous, its creation too much a collective enterprise, for us to be able to divide up rights of proprietorship like parcels of land. But if we abandon the “appropriation” idea altogether, it becomes hard to describe what feels wrong about the misuse of tribal artifacts or the commercialization of artistic works made by marginalized groups.

property rights framework

here, a metaphor—that of the rights accruing to the owner of property of whatever kind—in contrast to other possible metaphors for thinking about questions that fall under the broad umbrella of questions of cultural appropriation.

So I’d like to propose what I believe to be a better approach than “cultural appropriation” for understanding problems with using other people’s culture. I think when we talk about appropriation, we’re really talking about two separate issues: first, an issue of cultural exploitation, and second, an issue of cultural disrespect.

One core issue that the “appropriation” idea tries to get at is economic exploitation. In an economic landscape where some groups get rewarded disproportionately to others, the people who make the culture are often not the ones who see the rewards from it; i.e., the problem is not that white men play the blues, it’s that white men who have played the blues have gotten rich from it, while the black people who invented the blues stayed poor. ( Led Zeppelin, for instance, notoriously didn’t even give credit to the Delta bluesmen who had written their songs, thereby depriving them of both royalties and public recognition.) Non-white cultural products have often been repackaged for white audiences, reaping tremendous profits, none of which accrue to those who actually originated the culture.

Led Zeppelin

British band active from 1968 to1980 (along with several reunion tours) and known for hard rock, blues rock, folk rock, and heavy metal.

Led Zeppelin

That brings us back to Elvis, Big Mama Thornton, and “Hound Dog.” The issue there isn’t that Elvis shouldn’t sing “Hound Dog.” It’s that when Elvis sang Hound Dog, it made him rich and he became “The King,” while when Thornton sang what is—let’s be honest—an objectively better version of the song, she didn’t become a world-famous megastar. Elvis’s early records, the ones that made his name, are filled with covers of songs by black artists (“That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Milkcow Blues,” etc.), but the life stories of early 20th-century black musicians are stories of poverty and exploitation by a predatory music industry that lifted their sounds and left them with nothing. The trouble isn’t that Elvis sang the songs but that he did so in a viciously racist economic landscape that didn’t reward black cultural innovation with black economic success. Using cultural “ownership” doesn’t help us here—after all, “Hound Dog” was written by white songwriters, albeit specifically for Thornton, who added her own improvisations. But it’s still obvious we’re dealing with a racially unequal music industry.

Interestingly, it was the story of Elvis Presley that writer Kenan Malik recently used in order to argue that cultural appropriation is a good and necessary thing. Malik acknowledges that Elvis’s success ended up overshadowing the contributions of black rock ’n’ roll innovator Chuck Berry: “In the 1950s, white radio stations refused to play [Berry’s] songs, categorizing them as ‘race music.’ Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Mr. Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.”

Kenan Malik (1960– )

Indian-born British writer, trained as a scientist, who often writes on questions of race, religion, and multiculturalism.

Here we see why it’s more helpful to look at things in terms of economic exploitation rather than ownership: it takes the focus off whether Elvis was entitled to sing, and instead looks at why Elvis had the economic success he did. Malik is right that strict notions of cultural ownership would stifle innovation, but he doesn’t follow through the implications of the Presley/Berry problem: we’re talking about a system of cultural production in which people of color produce certain sounds, which are then taken and imitated for profit. In some cases, this was even more blatant: in the ’50s, white pop singer Pat Boone was hired to produce wholesome, advertiser-friendly versions of black R&B songs like Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” As Richard said:

Pat Boone (1934– )

American singer, composer, and TV personality popular in the 1950s and early 1960s; his success was second only to that of Elvis Presley during the time.

Little Richard (1932– )

the stage name of Richard Wayne Penniman, an American singer, songwriter, and actor, whose music and performance style profoundly influenced rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and soul music.

“They didn’t want me to be in the white guys’ way. . . . I felt I was pushed into a rhythm and blues corner to keep out of rockers’ way, because that’s where the money is. When ‘Tutti Frutti’ came out, . . . they needed a rock star to block me out of white homes because I was a hero to white kids. The white kids would have Pat Boone upon the dresser and me in the drawer ’cause they liked my version better, but the families didn’t want me because of the image that I was projecting.”

To frame the Elvis question as Malik does, then, is akin to asking “Well, shouldn’t Pat Boone be allowed to cover Little Richard songs?” It misses the whole point: it’s not that black songs should never be sung by white people, it is that there has been a long history of people pushing black creators to the margins while making millions of dollars off their work. If the music business hadn’t been riddled with racism, and if the measure of financial success was “whether a person (of any race) had created something original and good” rather than “whether a white person could copy and repackage an unknown black song for a white audience more concerned with color than content,” there would be no injustice. Music is inherently appropriative. It thrives on creative allusions, sampling, and embellishing the groundwork laid by earlier artists. I embrace that: after all, I’m a woman who grew up with—and still prefers— Aretha Franklin’s version of “Eleanor Rigby,” and I didn’t realize the song was a Beatles original until adulthood. However, “borrowing” becomes a problem when a piece of art is given preferential treatment because of preexisting racial hierarchies of value—causing the work of people of color to be devalued, and artists to be undercompensated for their innovation.

Aretha Franklin (1942– )

American singer and songwriter, often referred to as “The Queen of Soul.”

The “exploitation” instead of “appropriation” perspective also helps clear up some of the issues surrounding food. When two white women shut down their Portland burrito truck after being accused of culturally appropriating Mexican food, the incident was used as an indictment of the absurdity of the appropriation concept. Once you have a racial test for whether someone can vend burritos, you might need to rethink your theory. Yet from an economic perspective, there is a problem with elite white yuppies opening an artisanal burrito truck: because there are massive racial wealth disparities in the United States, white people are disproportionately endowed with the capital that will allow them to open successful Mexican food restaurants; we can end up with a world full of Mexican restaurants where food is made by Mexican workers but the profits accrue to white owners. Just as with music, the problem is not that a TV chef like Rick Bayless makes Mexican food, it’s that Rick Bayless makes millions of dollars making Mexican food while Mexican people bus tables in his restaurants. Public prejudice and an unequal economy make Bayless disproportionately more able to capitalize on Mexican cuisine than a working-class Mexican immigrant would be.

“When two white women shut down their Portland burrito truck”

Here is a quotation from one of the two women who opened the truck to the interviewer from the Willamette Week <>, which broke the story that became the basis for the debate:

“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did,” Connelly says. “They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”

Thus, the original debate was not simply about who might “own” foodways but how those with knowledge of foodways get it as well.

Rick Bayless (1953– )

American chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and media personality whose specialty is contemporary Mexican cuisine. As an undergraduate, he studied Spanish and Latin American culture and did doctoral work in linguistic anthropology. He lived in Mexico for six years in the 1980s while working on his first cookbook

Across every cultural field, there are examples of white people receiving opportunities to benefit economically from a cultural product originating with people of color. Compare, for example, the fate of Kayla Newman, the young black woman who coined the term “on fleek,” with Danielle Bregoli, the young white woman who famously used urban slang on the Dr. Phil show (“ cash me outside howbow dah”). Bregoli now commands appearance fees of $30,000 per event, while Newman is struggling to crowdfund a cosmetic line.

cash me outside howbow dah

phrase the 13-year-old Bregoli used to challenge the show’s audience to a fight, “Catch me outside, how about that?”

Not only is there a difference in remuneration, but non-white cultural products are often considered more valuable or esteemed when performed by whites. The “ race records” made by black R&B musicians were considered “jungle music,” while the white covers were innocuous “pop.” We can even see it in hairstyles, too. Those associated with black Americans, like cornrows, are seen to reflect lower-class status, ugliness, and even criminality, until they are adopted by particular celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Katy Perry, at which point they are rebranded and called “new.” Contrast the New York Post’s breathless treatment of the “new” style they termed “Boxer Braids”—e.g., cornrows or French plaits—with Fashion Police’s Giuliana Rancic’s critique of young half-black actress Zendaya’s locs as “probably” smelling “like patchouli or weed.” That difference in perception can have real-world consequences: a black 12-year-old was recently threatened with expulsion for refusing to cut her natural afro-textured hair, and just this past May, two black students at a charter school in Malden, Massachusetts, faced detention and suspension for wearing their hair in braids. And until this year, the military prohibited locks, two-strand twists, and other natural (read black) hairstyles, essentially requiring that black women either shave our heads or chemically straighten our hair to serve our country. (It’s also easier to dehumanize people when their cultural contributions are erased. When a people is depicted as “savage,” their lives can be disregarded. When one conceives of the Middle East as tribal and backward—rather than as the wellspring of mathematics and the violin, it seems more natural to bomb its countries; Baghdad is simply a “war zone” where violent death is normal rather than a great centuries-old cultural center.)

race records

78 rpm records featuring black artists performing genres of music and comedy popular in the African American community, including jazz, gospel, and blues, and marketed to that community from the 1920s until the 1940s.


shortened or clipped form of dreadlocks, which has negative connotations in some contexts.

Exploitation analysis may be more helpful than appropriation in understanding why certain kinds of cultural lifting feel unjust. But it doesn’t get at the entirety of the issue: we still have cases in which nobody is necessarily profiting, but where it feels as if a particular culture is being misused—e.g., the headdress scenario. It may be best, then, to combine an objection to cultural exploitation with an objection to cultural disrespect, meaning acts which flatten or diminish the original meaning or value of the cultural product. If Native American objects hold particular spiritual and cultural meaning, using them purely for their aesthetic value implies a lack of interest in or empathy for the values of those who create the objects. That would apply equally well to those who intentionally used Christian religious objects without caring how Christians felt, but in the case of Native Americans, it is literally an insult added to an injury, given the country’s viciously genocidal history.

“Cultural disrespect” also helps us appreciate good kinds of borrowing. When a person truly tries to study and pay tribute to a different culture, their use of it becomes less objectionable. The most cringeworthy white blues is played by those who least understand it, but when people have truly immersed themselves in another culture and done their research, the results can be moving. So Mardi Gras Indians are fine: they are honoring a culture rather than simply cheaply replicating it. And Rick Bayless can have a serious cultural exploitation problem without necessarily having a cultural disrespect problem, if his understanding of Mexican cuisines is deep and genuine.

Like Kenan Malik, I am uncomfortable with the possibility that a certain brand of cultural appropriation critique might inhibit artistic creativity. The idea that only black artists have the right to address Emmett Till’s murder through art seems wrong. The question should never be: “Who is allowed to express their feelings about the racially motivated murder of a child?” After all, when Till’s mother chose to keep his casket open to show his brutally beaten body to the press, she was doing so in order that white America could understand its own brutality. Blacks already knew what she was showing them, but she wanted to awaken whites’ humanity and provoke a white response. Critics of Dana Schutz’s Till painting said that “the subject matter is not Schutz’s,” but this seems wrong: the subject of Till’s death is important to humanity writ large, and it should move us all to the point where we express our feelings, whether through art or otherwise. (There is, of course, a separate question about whether the work was in good taste or succeeded artistically.)

Yet there was another sense, the “exploitation” sense, in which the critics of Schutz have a point. Depicting Till is not a problem, but using Till to garner profit and acclaim would be. There are also serious questions about differing access to museum space and artistic recognition: it’s both fair and important to point out the ways in which certain people are given a platform to tell black stories while others aren’t.

It was this dimension that novelist Lionel Shriver missed in her infamous “sombrero speech” at the Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver, indignant at criticisms faced by white authors who write from the perspective of non-white characters, said that fiction was about “trying on other people’s hats” and writers should be allowed to depict lives different from their own. (She did not exactly help win over her critics by choosing to illustrate the point by wearing a colorful sombrero.) Shriver cited the example of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, which is written from the perspective of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl even though Cleave himself is white, male, and British. Shriver suggested that the “hypersensitive” left was cramping the authorial imagination, by prohibiting writers from exploring the perspectives of many different kinds of characters.

What Shriver ignored was the exploitation question. Chris Cleave, if his portrayal is rich and well-researched, may produce a novel that isn’t disrespectful toward Nigerians. Yet it’s still bizarre and unfair that the people who write bestselling books about the lives of Nigerian girls aren’t . . . Nigerian girls. An author is welcome to use whatever source material produces the best art. But when we talk about cultural exploitation we’re not just talking about “writing” as a pastime. We’re talking about the publishing industry, where people make money from writing, and in that context it’s fair to raise the question of whether packaging and selling the richness of African life, without Africa receiving any benefit, is exploitative. The goal is not to stop white people from writing about black lives, but to stop a racist economy from remunerating the white people who write about the lives rather than the black people who live them.

Once we clearly understand what the actual problems are, it’s easy to see how free cultural exchange can occur without creating injustice. The problems are largely those of economics and respect, and if we evaluate cultural borrowing by these measures, we can get rid of the racism without getting rid of the borrowing itself. A few simple questions can help us think about specific cases: (1) Is there a historic record of exploitation between the appropriator and the originating group? (2) Is the originating group and its culture being celebrated, appreciated, and respected, or are they being degraded, mocked, and accessorized? (There’s a difference between Eminem’s genuine relationship to the environment of 8 Mile Road and his immersion in Detroit hip hop and, say, a person wearing a tacky, cruelly stereotypical, and cartoonish Mexican Halloween costume.) (3) Is the appropriator actually claiming to be the owner or innovator, or allowing the media to create a false origin narrative? (E.g., Elvis as the “King” or Miley Cyrus’s “invention” of twerking.) (4) Is differential economic enrichment occurring? Is the cultural product more valuable in the hands of the appropriator, and does that have wider financial or political consequences for certain groups?

false origin narrative

a story that misrepresents the historical origin of a practice or object to the benefit of the one(s) creating the narrative and the detriment of the individual or group that created the practice or object.

Both the concept of cultural appropriation and the backlash to it are, to use a popular term, “problematic.” Rigid ideas of cultural ownership would lead us to absurdity, but profiteering and cultural disrespect are important to recognize. If we embrace a strict prohibition on borrowing, as Kenan Malik says, we wouldn’t get Elvis Presley. But if we don’t recognize how racial inequities structure the success of different cultural products, we might lapse into an even worse fate: listening to Elvis’s version of “Hound Dog” rather than Big Mama Thornton’s.

But, Malik says, “imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating so-called black music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle—the civil rights movement—to bring about change.” Now, let’s for a moment set aside the irrelevant rhetorical question, which is oddly reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s similarly disingenuous “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” (The answer to both is the same: no, but the fact that something doesn’t in and of itself “end racism” doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.) Malik believes that cultural appropriation is good because it gave us Elvis, even if that meant the eclipse of Chuck Berry, and even if that eclipse occurred for obviously racist reasons, i.e., because a white public wanted to have black songs performed by white artists.

Discussion Question: 

Locate and listen to one of the songs referenced in “The Question of Cultural Appropriation,” by Briahna Joy Gray (pp. 620-632) (YouTube is a great source for this!). Using the terms defined in her essay (cultural exploitation, exploitation, and cultural disrespect), make an argument to your peers regarding how or why the song can be measured up against these terms as Gray defines them. 

In follow-up posts, work to unpack these definitions a bit more.  Discuss how effective you find Gray’s definitions in clarifying your understanding of the concepts and distinguishing among them.  How do they contribute to the success of her argument?

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