Let’s continue to get angry at people profiting from the cultures they dismiss, but let’s articulate this problem without reinforcing exploitative economies.
Accusing people of cultural appropriation might seem critical, but it upholds the values of the 1%. Those values are ownership, capital, and private property.
Appropriation — of culture, land, or water — is the act of dispossessing a person or community of a commodity or product for the profit of the appropriator. Consequently, using the word ‘appropriation’ implies that the thing that is being ‘appropriated’ was owned by someone or some group of people in the first place.
Ownership — possessing, dominating, and taking control of a thing — is the backbone of privatization. And privatization is the foundation of our current politcal-economy. We privatize water and so it is no wonder we attempt to privatize ways of life. But as it becomes more and more commonplace to privatize the resources needed to sustain our everyday lives, our concepts of public space or a ‘commons’ are likely to be extinct fairly soon.
Culture can’t be owned. And the natural resources that shape culture can’t be owned either.
If we want to uphold the logic that a private corporation like Suez can not and should not own the Ganges River, for example, we can’t say India or Indians own yoga, bindis, or henna. The latter clause reinforces the logic of privatization such that if culture can be owned, so can our water, forests, seeds, and other natural resources.
If we continue to identify the people who have, for centuries, dispossessed people of their land and water as the appropriators of culture, while at the same time identifying people who have, for centuries, been dispossessed of their land and water as appreciators of culture then we are perpetuating the racial and class signifiers that uphold the distinctions necessary for people to colonize and appropriate in the first place.
We need new words. Appropriation refers to ownership. And appreciation is just another word for assessing value.
We need new words for the deeply-rooted feelings of anger, resentment, and confusion that surface when we see the people that oppress minorities use minority culture as an accessory or fashion statement. Even when the Internet tells us we can start distinguishing between appreciation and appropriation we remain within the logic of capitalism. The concepts of value and possession that shape appreciation and appropriation are market-oriented. We need words that are community-oriented.
It is not easy to break the boundaries of free-market logic. For now, maybe we need to stop making accusations and simply take ownership of the pain caused by people punishing minorities for not assimilating. Maybe, in doing so, we could induce guilt and then the ‘white debt’ will follow.