An eye on the culture

Published February 19, 2023

A composite image of silhouettes of a diverse group of people interposed on top of each other

I recently listened to the audiobook of Phil Wang’s sort-of-memoir Sidesplitter, where the comedian talks about many areas of his life particularly where cultures intersect - food, family, comedy, and more global topics like the British Empire past, present and future, and how race and racism affects people every single day.

They’re heavy topics in places but the book is really well done, with wit and humour but also a great deal of insight and thought-provoking ideas. The section on cultural appropriation has really stuck with me, so I thought I would share some quotes here for future reference.

Cultural appropriation, in its most popular interpretation, is the idea that a person of one race, nationality or identity should not adopt, engage in, or emulate the cultural markers of another race, nationality or identity to which they do not belong. Be it clothing, food, music or dance, the originators of those traditions hold the exclusive right to them and only they can bestow the permission required to take part in them. By this definition, cultural appropriation is, in a phrase, the theft of culture.

To use the term cultural appropriation in such a way is to misunderstand the nature of culture itself. It presumes a rather unpleasant world in which we are all expected to be possessive of our cultures and police how others interact with them. But no culture belongs to any one person or any one group of people. Cultures are, themselves, derived from other cultures. Cultures don’t come into being out of nowhere but emerge from the conversion, adoption and modification of other cultures that preceded them. Culture is appropriation, so the idea that appropriation hurts culture doesn’t make sense.

This is not to say that care and respect for other cultures is not important, of course… Some cases of cultural appropriation are certainly deserving of criticism.

Here’s my rule for how to treat other people’s cultures. Forget about cultural appropriation, just Don’t Be Rude. That’s my rule. Don’t Be Rude. Before appropriating a bit of culture, have a think, is what you’re doing disrespectful, exploitative or inconsiderate? If it is, don’t do it. Consider each case separately. Appropriate responsibly. Don’t be rude.

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