Cultural appropriation in the arts is a diverse and ubiquitous phenomenon. It might plausibly be thought to include occurrences as varied as 1) the representation of cultural practices or experiences by cultural “outsiders” (sometimes called “voice appropriation”); 2) the use of artistic styles distinctive of cultural groups by non-members; and, 3) the procurement or continued possession of cultural objects by non-members or culturally distant institutions.
Cultural appropriation can often seem morally problematic. When the abstract schemas above are filled in with details from actual events, we often find misrepresentation, misuse, and theft of the stories, styles, and material heritage of people who have been historically dominated and remain socially marginalized. For example, consider representations of Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns, use of Navajo motifs in fashion and marketing, and the continued retention and display of Australian Aboriginal artwork by the British Museum. The actions of pop music artists such as Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea have also helped to usher the language of cultural appropriation into the popular lexicon. Yet cultural appropriation has received scant attention from philosophers.
Moreover, there is a mismatch between the sentiments of some of the major philosophical writings on cultural appropriation and the concerns expressed by scholars and critics in other disciplines. James O. Young, the philosopher who has written most extensively on cultural appropriation, acknowledges that representations or uses of cultural stories and styles by outsiders is potentially offensive, but is doubtful about its harmfulness. Indeed, he writes: “I am deeply skeptical about the claim that artists will do much harm to the cultures from which they borrow,” and he is similarly skeptical about the extent and frequency of those harms that he does acknowledge can befall cultural members. His monograph is, by design, largely a moral and aesthetic defense of cultural appropriation. In contrast, writers outside the discipline of philosophy have expressed much more concern about the harmfulness of cultural appropriation, particularly with respect to its power to oppress and silence, though explanation of the mechanisms by which appropriation causes these harms is not always fully developed.
Consequently, my first task in this paper is an intervention in the philosophical literature on cultural appropriation. I aim to take seriously the claim that cultural appropriation can be harmful, and objectionably so. Indeed, I believe that philosophers have developed powerful conceptual resources that can be employed to bolster our understanding of the mechanisms by which cultural appropriation can cause harm by oppressing and silencing. I demonstrate this by bringing the literature on cultural appropriation into dialogue with recent philosophical work on harmful speech and epistemic injustice. Despite the fact that artistic expression is widely regarded as a form of speech, almost no one (to my knowledge) has considered how the harms of cultural appropriation might be illuminated by reference to philosophers’ work on dominating speech. One of the key insights of that literature concerns the relationship between harmful speech and systems of oppression and marginalization, and I employ this observation in order to argue that cultural appropriation is just one way, among others, in which social marginalization can interact with speech in order to cause harm. Thus, on my account, cultural appropriation has some descriptively unique features, but does not issue in a unique kind of harm.
My second task in this paper is to consider a problem that nevertheless faces moral objections to cultural appropriation. These objections are predicated on making a distinction between cultural “insiders” and “outsiders,” or “members” and “non-members.” However, as a range of scholars has pointed out, such distinctions have the potential to fall prey to a harmful cultural essentialism. Roughly, because essentialist theses about culture are false, practices of distinguishing cultural insiders from outsiders on the basis of such theses are prone to be harmfully exclusionary. Moreover, with my account of appropriative harms in place, we can see that the harms of cultural essentialism are eerily similar to the harms of cultural appropriation. Thus, persons who make claims objecting to cultural appropriation predicated on essentialist distinctions between insiders and outsiders risk causing harms of a similar kind to the appropriations to which they are objecting. A few scholars have noted this problem in the context of cultural appropriation, but I argue that none have identified an adequate solution. In response, I argue that the account of appropriative harms that I present here, informed by work on the systematic nature of dominating speech, has the resources to explain many of the general harms of cultural appropriation while eschewing the identification of cultural outsiders in individual cases. Thus, the account not only bolsters our understanding of how cultural appropriation can cause harm, but, moreover, may provide the resources to lodge objections to cultural appropriation without exacerbating the harms of essentialism.
This move, however, is not without dangers of its own. Though it allows us to avoid charges of cultural essentialism, jettisoning the practice of distinguishing insiders from outsiders in individual cases may sometimes vitiate objections to acts of cultural appropriation, leaving us without the resources to adequately explain the nature of the wrong in question. Thus, in such cases, the risks of essentialism must be weighed against the importance of lodging the most complete and fitting objection to the harmful act.