Cultural appropriation has been on my mind quite a bit as I work on putting together the programs for Border CrosSing. This is an issue that can be immensely complicated, mainly because cultural interchange and mutual learning are incredibly positive. Through this process is how we develop a collective human experience, how we’ve moved forward through the ages. However, we must recognize that not every cultural exchange is fair, just, or beneficial for the people involved.
Privilege and power dynamics are at the root of cultural appropriation. Cultural capital has real value and those with power are able to take cultural capital from the disadvantaged at pennies on the cultural dollar. Privilege also results in a failure to recognize concepts that are considered to be sacred or inviolable. Every culture in the world has these kinds of concepts (and in many cases, this sense of sacredness or inviolability can be objectively bad, which can serve as an excuse for those that seek to benefit from this kind of cultural capital, allowing them to copy without attribution or respect).
Violating something that is held sacred by others causes real damage.
The above point should be self-explanatory, but failing to recognize its implications is at the root of the most problematic cases of cultural appropriation that I’ve observed. It doesn’t matter if you think other people’s values are silly, it doesn’t matter if you think that you should get to do what you want with an element of a particular culture, it doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the casual use of what other people consider sacred. Failing to recognize that other people have concerns and things that they hold sacred and not taking these into account is sociopathic behavior.
I mentioned above that everyone has these things that are important to them. However, those with different kinds of privilege will rarely have the experience of having something that is important or sacred to them be casually played with. It’s this privilege that is inherent in the idea of acting as if what other people care about does not count. Those with some measure of power, or privilege, are usually those that can get away with disrespecting what others value without having to fear any retaliation.