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The cultural appropriation debate has changed. But is it for the better?

In 2018, many of the celebrities accused of cultural theft were people of color.

Nicki Minaj performs “Chun-Li” on SNL on May 19, 2018.
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

What do Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Awkwafina, and a Utah high school student have in common? In 2018, they all faced accusations of cultural appropriation, signaling how a term unfamiliar to most Americans even a decade ago has become pervasive today.

In fact, the debate over cultural appropriation, loosely defined as the taking of another culture’s practices without consent, is currently so widespread that it’s starting to see pushback.

This is especially the case given that, while the term for years was directed at white people who profited from the music, dress, spirituality, and cultural artifacts of marginalized groups, people of color are now nearly as likely as whites to face accusations of appropriation.

When Bruno Mars, who is Puerto Rican, Filipino, and Jewish, was accused in March of appropriating funk and soul music from African Americans, R&B legends such as Charlie Wilson came to his defense. The next month, a white teenager sparked an international debate about cultural appropriation after she shared a photo of herself in a Chinese dress called the qipao. The controversy prompted Refinery29 writer Connie Wang to pen an essay arguing that the dialogue about cultural appropriation had become “radioactive.”

“The most vitriolic on the left suggest that any cultural swapping is tantamount to acts of visual racism; that using symbols without permission is always bad, and those that do it should be condemned without mercy,” Wang wrote in May. “The most sanctimonious on the right believe that cultural appropriation is a meaningless phrase that willfully ignores intent; that people should have the right to celebrate what they find beautiful without criticism or abuse.”

Given this context, it wasn’t altogether surprising last week when a Twitter user complained that Beyoncé didn’t receive the same accusations of cultural appropriation when she wore Indian attire to an Indian wedding. “Can someone please explain to me what is the difference between a white person wearing this and being called out for cultural appropriation and Beyoncé, a black woman, doing the exact same and not being told anything?” the user griped.

The tweet did not express concern over whether Beyoncé really had appropriated Indian dress and the effect that might have on the Indian community. The real injustice, the writer suggested, was that Beyoncé had gotten away with a misdeed for which white people are routinely criticized. But this argument overlooked the fact that the singer was an invited guest to an Indian wedding where Indian dress was expected.

Permission plays a major role in whether an act constitutes cultural appropriation. Beyoncé had permission, but many of the public figures who’ve been called out for appropriation — from Madonna to Miley Cyrus — may not have.

And while a number of white people have been accused of cultural theft, several of the celebrities caught up in cultural appropriation debates this year, including Awkwafina and her supposed “blaccent” and Nicki Minaj and her hit song “Chun-Li,” are people of color.

The argument that minorities are allowed more leverage when it comes to cultural appropriation clearly isn’t true. But that someone made the claim at all implies that the cultural appropriation debate isn’t moving forward.

To put the cultural appropriation debate into perspective, I reached out to professor Susan Scafidi, the founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law. That book came out in 2005, several years before the term “cultural appropriation” branched out of academia and into the mainstream.

I spoke to Scafidi about whether the term’s meaning has shifted over the years and why some of the most egregious examples of cultural appropriation continue to happen. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and style, follows.

Madonna speaks onstage during the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall.
Madonna was accused of culturally appropriating North African dress when she wore clothing from the region during an appearance at the 2018 VMAs.
Noam Galai/WireImage

In Who Owns Culture, you defined cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” Would you say that this is roughly the same definition of it today, or has it shifted since the book debuted 13 years ago?

Cultural appropriation became a widespread topic of conversation in 2015 during the Yale Halloween costume controversy — 10 years after I published Who Owns Culture? — and has been amplified via social media ever since. For the first time, groups with differing perspectives have communicated with one another in real time, and the results have included both thoughtful conversation and oversimplification.

My definition of what was once an unfamiliar academic term hasn’t changed, but 280 characters unfortunately doesn’t allow for much of the nuance that can lead people to mutual respect and understanding. Then again, that problem in our society isn’t limited to discussion of cultural appropriation!

If I could remind those encountering the term of one thing, it would be that there’s a spectrum of cultural appropriation, from harmful misappropriation to creative and often collaborative inspiration.

Central to your definition of cultural appropriation is the word “permission.” Can you discuss this, especially in light of Beyoncé being accused of cultural appropriation for wearing Indian dress to an Indian wedding?

Wearing Indian-inspired attire to a wedding at the behest of an Indian bride is a paradigmatic example of an action that is neither economically nor psychologically harmful to the source community. Instead of cultural misappropriation, it is an instance of cultural appreciation in keeping with the norms of the community, or what our grandparents might have called social etiquette.

The term “cultural appropriation” is a descriptive one, but not all forms of appropriation are misappropriation.

Does the cultural appropriation debate get trickier when all involved are from marginalized groups, such as Beyoncé, a black woman, wearing Indian dress, or an Asian American dressing up as Pocahontas? How does cultural appropriation change, if it does at all, when white people aren’t involved?

Source communities [those from which culture is appropriated] who wish to set boundaries on the use of certain cultural products, often those considered sacred or even secret, may or may not be concerned as to exactly which outsider is violating those norms.

As cultural appropriation has garnered more attention, some artisans from minority groups, such as Native Americans, have said that it’s harder for them to sell their wares to the public because consumers don’t want to be accused of cultural appropriation. What is your take on this?

Source communities themselves are the best arbiters of what is or is not misappropriation. Many products are freely commodified and sold for use by outsiders, benefiting both parties to the exchange. We would never [be able to] taste others’ traditional dishes, buy unfamiliar ingredients, or create fusion cuisines without this kind of permissive exchange.

Katy Perry and Rihanna attend the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City.
Katy Perry and Rihanna at the 2018 Met Gala, which some Catholics argued appropriated their religion.
Kevin Tachman/Getty Images for Vogue

Increasingly, I’ve heard more concerns about religious appropriation, particularly related to paganism. Some Catholics also raised concerns that their religion was appropriated at this year’s Met Gala, where the theme was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” Could religious appropriation be the focus of the next wave of the cultural appropriation debate?

Religion has always been part of the cultural appropriation debate, since religion is an important part of culture. For adherents of a particular faith, religious practices and objects are often those most vulnerable to misappropriation. Everyone is part of a source community, and people rise to defend what is most important to them.

In recent years, I’ve heard the term cultural appropriation applied to the hoop earrings and nameplate necklaces associated with working-class black and brown women. But nameplate accessories certainly aren’t ancient relics. Can contemporary cultural objects be appropriated in the same way as ancient ones?

Culture is fluid and evolving. Source communities arise and form new cultural products on an ongoing basis, and appropriation can apply to both ancient traditions like basket weaving and modern creative genres like jazz or hip-hop.

Although the cultural appropriation debate has been raging for years, some of the most egregious cases continue, such as the Halloween costumes that sexualize Native American women. If the public is more aware of cultural appropriation, why does it persist in such troubling ways?

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend. Even best efforts to share cultural norms and communicate boundaries won’t change everyone’s behavior, just as passing laws doesn’t stop all criminal activity and teaching good manners doesn’t ensure universal civility.

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