Issue 15. June 2018

design & appropriation

“Whatever it was, why did a white girl have to wear it before it was regarded as cool?” -Tanuja Desai Hidier, Born Confused

The proud man who vowed he would never steal was likely one of the first to die of starvation. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic.

No, no, my friend. In a shared fish, there are no bones. You are kind, and you mean well, but you can never understand these things as I do.

Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it.

Advantage of wealth and power makes this available to [you], but it's ersatz as the day is long. You've never been oppressed. The robb'd that smiles steals something for the thief.

Intro text appropriated from Barbara Demick (Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea), Jim Jarmusch (MovieMaker Magazine 53, 2004), Democritus (ca. 4th century BC), S. Alice Callahan (Wynema: A Child of the Forest), Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle), and William Shakespeare (Othello, Act 1, Scene 3).

Pilfer customs right and left, wear, eat, talk, walk, as for instance consuming with gusto baked potato served with sour cream and chives, old-fashioned American dish added to their haul. But nobody fooled, I can tell you; me least of all.

Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle, 1965


Cultural appropriation seems, on the face of it, like it should be something that all of us should fight against, but the flip-side of that is knowing exactly just what it is and when we should call it out.

David Barnett, Cultural appropriation, Independent, 2018

The debate over what we call cultural appropriation has roots in the justifiable resentment of white pop musicians imitating black genres for monetary gain. Presley was the classic example. However, this legitimate objection was about bucks: Presley and artists like him were reaping financial rewards that the originators of their music never saw.

But over time, the concept of cultural appropriation has morphed into a parody of the original idea. We are now to get angry simply when whites happily imitate something that minorities do. We now use the word steal in an abstract sense, separated from any kind of material value.

John McWhorter, You Can’t ‘Steal’ a Culture, The Daily Beast, 2014

A more accurate definition of ‘cultural appropriation’ goes like this: cultural appropriation is where people from a group that oppressed or oppresses another group mimics or represents cultural artifacts or manners of the oppressed group in a way that expresses or reinforces psychological elements of the racist ideology inherent in the colonialist project responsible for the oppression. Such appropriating mimicry can take many forms, but what unifies them will be an implicit or explicit view of other people that makes them out to be less than what they are.

Neil Van Leeuwen, What is Cultural Appropriation?, Philosophy Talk, 2015

system goals

Cultural appropriation is about power, and to many she’s the embodiment of a system that empowers white people to take whatever they want, go wherever they want and be able to fall back on: ‘Well, I didn’t mean any harm.’

Eliza Anyangwe, There is no such thing as 'harmless' cultural appropriation, 2018

Slavery and white supremacy are parts of American history, and white people are no less obligated than black people to engage with them as best they can. To call such engagement cultural appropriation implies a racial essentialism that is the enemy of empathy. And do we really want to risk discouraging a white musician from writing the next 'Hurricane,' a white radio producer from reporting the next 'Serial,' or a white screenwriter from creating the next The Wire? The wrong incentive structure risks nixing work that could draw attention to an injustice or dramatize systemic racism or get an incarcerated man a new trial for fear of ‘cultural appropriation.’

Conor Friedersdorf, What Does 'Cultural Appropriation' Actually Mean?, The Atlantic, 2017

Given the widespread growth over the decades, reggae has inevitably been emulated, tweaked, borrowed from, synthesized into subgenres and inspired new genres altogether. Is this cultural appropriation, or just simply the evolution of the music?

Dave Shiffman, Rootfire, 2018

systemic failure

I find it nearly insulting that while I deal with people’s harsh judgment for the colour of my skin, that while I have faced actual physical violence for it — there are people who care so goddamn much about who gets to wear henna on their hands and who doesn’t. How about making this world a safer place for me? How about not deciding on my behalf what could offend me?

Serena Farah, Cultural appropriation is a toxic concept, 2016

To limit the discussion to racial appropriation, especially as it so often suggests outdated notions of natural, biological, or essential differences between the races, misses important opportunities to talk about the deeper, more structural and economic, facets of our racialized society.

David Gilbert, Who Owns Black Culture?, UNC Press Blog, 2015

Note to colonizers: You don’t get to have a billion-dollar intellectual property law institution that fights daily to secure ownership of your artistic expression via trademarks, copyrights and patents and then tell people of color that our culture is not our property; that it is to be shared. I think not!

Dr. Suzanne Forbes-Vierling, Stop Calling It 'Cultural Appropriation' and Call It What It Is: Colonialism, Afropunk, 2018


Acknowledgment is the key, and the appropriate response depends on the underlying offense.

Jonathan Blanks, The Atlantic, 2017

The Australian Council for the Arts developed a set of protocols for working with Indigenous artists that lays out how to approach Aboriginal culture as a respectful guest, who to contact for guidance and permission, and how to proceed with your art if that permission is not granted.

K. Tempest Bradford, Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible, NPR, 2017

‘Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad,’ said Minaj. ‘If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, dance with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.’

Jenni Avins, The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation, The Atlantic, 2015