The cultural appropriation debate has lost the plot

Amelia Oakley 18 May 2016

Anthropology was originally conceived as the study of different cultures and societies. While early anthropologists thought of ‘culture’ as a discrete entity that could be studied scientifically, once we began looking at cultures in the real-world, it quickly became clear that there is no such thing as ‘a culture’. Despite first appearances, culture is not a constant that can be assumed to take on an unchanging form within a ‘people’.

Culture, is in fact, a world view unique to each of us; one that is heavily shaped by society and those around us, but also one that is separately shaped by the culmination of our unique, individual experiences. Two British people will definitely experience a great deal of overlap in their understandings of their ‘British culture’; nonetheless each of their conceptions of ‘British culture’ will also be different, a natural result of the fact that their life experiences, while similar, must also have been unique. There are therefore as many personal individual conceptions of any culture as there are members of that particular ‘culture’.

Since culture is not a monolithic entity, it then follows that no one truly has the authority to legitimately ‘represent’ any particular culture. Despite what those claiming cultural appropriation imply, such a legitimate, authoritative representation cannot and does not exist. Does a British person of Japanese heritage have the right to put on a Japanese themed May Ball? What about a Japanese international student? Or perhaps a Japanese event planner hired in Japan specifically for this purpose? Each of these individuals will have a different conception of Japanese culture, and none of them will ever offer a point of view truly representative of ‘Japanese culture’, or any other culture for that matter.

Once we recognise this reality, it becomes clear that it is only ever possible to offer one's personal views and/or experiences of any particular culture. It is here that the debate over cultural appropriation has completely lost the plot. Instead of fixating upon who is offering their perception, interpretation and understanding of a culture, we should focus instead on the point of view being offered.

The debate should be about the substance and relative merits of the viewpoint being offered, rather than centred upon delegitimising the viewpoint merely based on the identity of the person offering it. Why not use these debates as an opportunity to discuss and critique our different viewpoints concerning particular cultures, and in the process work towards developing and presenting interpretations that are respectful, educational, and meaningful?

The campaign against cultural appropriation has undoubtedly been the result of good intentions. However, in its eagerness to advocate on behalf of its supposed victims, it is in fact isolating the very people it is supposedly fighting for. This dichotomous thinking between 'us' and 'them', 'white' and 'native', only serves to emphasise the artificial distinctions that we have drawn up between us and that prevent us from seeing each other as unique human beings, each one of us with our own unique culture and our own unique point of view of the people and the world around us.

Let us use this as a chance to celebrate difference, rather than emphasise it. Let us recognise our diversity, while also emphasising our unity. Let us stop fighting over the straw man that is cultural appropriation, and actually start focussing on the issues that are truly important.