On Appropriation

What is cultural appropriation, and is there anything wrong with it?

Did Elvis appropriate “black” styles of music and synthesize them into rock & roll? Is the Central European obsession with Native Americans (one example) a kind of appropriation? When Native Americans incorporated glass beads from Venice and Bohemia into their art, was that appropriation? Is it appropriation when Malibu Rum, made in Barbados by a French company, uses images (some would say stereotypes) of Jamaica in its American advertising? Perhaps appropriation is the adoption of cultural elements from a less powerful culture by a more powerful culture. That definition may have some problems, but what I’m more interested in is whether anything wrong is actually taking place when accusations of appropriations are thrown about.

Sociological Images, a very interesting blog I do not always agree with, has a post called “Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing: The Case of Lindy Hop” with a lot of interesting information about a dance I have barely heard of (did you know it was named after Charles Lindbergh’s “hop” over the Atlantic?). According to the post, the Lindy Hop was invented by African-Americans. As the dance became popular, black Lindy Hoppers were incorporated into movies and other performances intended for a generally white audience. This means that, according to the post, “they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.” In the ’80s the dance experienced a revival, and today these clips from movies are the main record of the “authentic” (whole nother post on that at some point) black lindy hoppers of the ’20s through the ’40s.

“As a white lindy hopper myself, for over ten years now, who desperately loves this dance, I find this to be a deep conundrum,” says the poster at Sociological Images, lisa. What is the deep conundrum? “It’s troubling,” she says, “that the dance was appropriated then (for white audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly white dancers).” Why is this troubling? First of all, is it troubling that the dance was appropriated half a century ago? It does seem troubling that black dancers were made to act according to a stereotype, if that did happen—which is not self-evident, since many dances popular with young people in the past century or so have caused people to seem “musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.” (whereas few have made dancers seem brainy, boring, clumsy, etc.), so it is not necessarily due to racism that the old-time black Lindy Hoppers come off that way. But as I said, if they were made to act according to a stereotype, I can see several reasons why that would be a bad thing.

The real “appropriation” here, though, is presumably that white audiences were watching and enjoying a dance performed and invented by black people. And this is the crux of the matter; the Lindy Hop, like any dance, style of music, or other cultural practice, can never “belong” to a culture in the same way that, say, a car can belong to a person. If white people of the ’30s enjoyed watching the Lindy Hop, and white people since the ’80s have enjoyed dancing it for themselves, and the black culture that originated the dance has no objection, I see no problem. If the black culture that originated the dance does have a problem with it, it doesn’t seem to me that they have any right to object.

Imagine some children playing at a preschool. One invents a new kind of dance and performs it enthusiastically. Another watches, learns the moves, and begins dancing it as well. The first child complains to the playground monitor that he doesn’t want anyone copying his dance. What kind of responsible playground monitor would tell the second child to stop dancing? Instead he or she would most likely tell the first child to just ignore the second, that his or her dance isn’t cheapened any by being copied, and that if anything it’s a compliment.

Why should appropriation be any different with adults? There may be other problems, perhaps involving people being forced to do things they don’t want to do, that sometimes accompany appropriation, but I can’t find anything wrong with the act of cultural borrowing itself, regardless of the power relations between borrower and borrowee.

Questions for commenters: Can you see any problems with my definition of appropriation? Is there a way in which cultural appropriation differs from the playground appropriation I mentioned that would make cultural appropriation more problematic?

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One Response to “On Appropriation”

  1. I think some of your ideas can be taken even further. Your definition of appropriation isn’t incorrect, it’s not really complete either. I tend to believe that cultural appropriation occurs after something like a dance, or music or medium is already associated with the identity of a community. This is why we call Lindy Hop an African American dance. The schoolyard analogy is in this way incomplete. After the medium is associated with the community, appropriation can take place.

    Once the medium is established in cultural identity, those outside the culture who contribute or even push the medium further do so within the particular context of the origins.

    Just as we honor the old timers within the medium, like Franky Manning and Norma Miller, Al Minns etc. we also tend to honor the DNA of the medium. There’s a lot of discussion about keeping it real, or street or whatever within the Lindy Hop community. As much as we attempt to do this, we realize we can’t recreate the social climate from which this dance was developed. Besides the fact that we exist in a different time, most of us don’t come from the same background or socio-economic situation. So we keep it street in our generally white, middle class way.

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