What is Cultural Appropriation?

By: Kyle J. Howard Topic: Ethnic Conciliation/Reconciliation, Race Relations

Earlier this evening, I was asked the following question. I thought it was a very good question, and so I asked the individual who asked it if I could publish a portion of my answer. What is cultural appropriation? When I was growing up, the USA was known as the melting pot. We had the best parts of all the cultures of the very many people groups who founded the culture, and it was considered a good thing. Why does it seem bad now?

I’m thankful for the work you are seeking to do, and I think that is a good question. Two things I would say off bat. First, you should ask yourself WHO considered America to be a melting pot. Generally speaking, that is normally the idea that white Americans have had regarding America and not one shared by minorities. If you think about it, this makes sense. It is easy on the societal conscience for those who hold a position of power and privilege within a society, and who have colonized other ethnic groups and cultures, to think that they’ve created a “melting pot.” In reality, what they’ve created is a society in which other ethnic groups have adopted majority culture, and have been able to hold onto remnants of their own culture to whatever degree the majority considers acceptable as an “American.”

A fundamental question worthy of being asked is the following, If the idea of America as a “melting pot” is an idea pushed forth by a majority culture who has colonized the other cultures that make up America, do they really have the proper perspective and even right to consider the society  melting pot?  

Consider the Landscape of America. Native Americans have had their lands stolen and have been pushed onto reservations. The only place true Native American culture is expressed and received is on reservations. In the mainstream, their culture is taken and refashioned to fit a false narrative that re-enforces white supremacy. For example, look at Disney’s Pocahontas. Pocahontas, according to Native American tradition, was a teenager who was kidnapped, and passed around as a sex slave to a multitude of different European settlers, until she was ultimately “married” traveled across the sea to become a sex slave in Europe where she ultimately died around the age of 21. Yet, as a heroic figure who came and saved the Native people as well as loved Pocahontas. Regarding black culture, the only place black culture is truly embraced and celebrated is within the black community. In the mainstream, black people are criminalized, and there culture and identity are presented to the masses as being one of criminality and ignorance. Hispanics, the same case as even recently our President on the campaign trail said that most of them were murderers, rapists, and drug dealers. So my point is, it’s not that being a melting pot is a bad thing. It’s that America has never truly been a melting pot. America has always been a land where the majority culture has used and capitalized on other cultures and never truly embraced and celebrated them. It has reasoned this away by convincing itself that all is well, and that America was a “melting pot.”

This is where cultural appropriation comes into play. Cultural appropriation is simply the act of “using” an aspect of someone’s culture for personal gain without truly acknowledging or embracing its full expression. So, it’s using an aspect of Native American culture to make money in the box office without truly embracing, celebrating, or affirming Native American culture and history. Its using aspects of black culture without truly expressing appreciation for the culture holistically. I had a situation recently where a couple of non-black minority worship leaders asked me about the validity of their church, which was a predominately white church, playing black gospel music as a means of showing the church’s desire to appear culturally relevant (the church was in an all black area). They were bothered by the request from the leadership but wanted to hear my thoughts. I knew of the church and respected it deeply, but I told them it would be cultural appropriation. First, because the church didn’t have very many black members at all, Black Gospel Music wasn’t conducive to the context. Secondly, because the church hadn’t demonstrated care for the black community in other ways (such as being involved in the community or being a voice for justice issues affecting community), it would be disingenuous. Third, because Black Gospel isn’t just about the nice tunes, it is a cultural expression of suffering and marginalization. If one is to play that music without fully recognizing and giving honor to what it represents, they aren’t truly embracing the culture which that music is a part of. They are seeking to appropriate that culture for their own means. I encouraged them to avoid playing black gospel altogether. In the best case scenario, I could see them playing it but doing so only after giving a detailed explanation as to why they were and the meaning and motives behind the songs.

So, cultural appropriation is wrong because it is self-seeking. It is seeking to use a culture for personal benefit, rather than embrace a culture as holistically beautiful and as something one encounters rather than uses. It can also be insidious when done in a way that seeks to win people over spiritually by appealing to them through using cultural connections that are treasured by them but aren’t truly treasured or affirmed by the person using them. In other words, in the church, cultural appropriation can actually be a form of spiritual manipulation and abuse. The best way to avoid cultural appropriation is to seek to truly study other cultures and not simply pick out elements that one likes and using those as bait to reel in other ethnic/cultural groups. It is not wise to seek to use or represent a culture that you do not belong to. If you have members of your church that are part of a culture and you desire to embrace aspects of their culture into a service in an effort to become more multi-cultural; those members have to have a role of authority regarding how their culture gets expressed within the church…

Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a trauma informed soul care provider. Though his Soul Care ministry is comprehensive, he his primarily focused on counseling, teaching, and raising awareness about Spiritual abuse/trauma as well as racial trauma. Kyle holds an Associates in Biblical & Theological studies, a Bachelors in Christian Counseling, and is receiving his M.A in Historical Theology in a few weeks.