Cultural appropriation: can minorities appropriate the culture of other minorities?

October 14, 2019 • 1:15 pm

This is the kind of question that arises when you adopt full-blown intersectionalism. It’s apparently been decided that it’s okay to culturally “appropriate up“, i.e., Chinese people can wear jeans, and Africans suits, but it’s not okay to “appropriate down“, so that white people can’t wear cornrows or play jazz—at least not without explicitly acknowledging the borrowing and, as this article by Bianca Lambert, a freelance beauty writer, maintains, studying all the nuances of that borrowing.

The article at hand is, of course, at PuffHo, and the answer to the question in the title is a clear “yes: it’s appropriation for minorities to adopt black culture.” But it’s apparently not wrong for blacks to adopt Hispanic or Hindu culture. Click on the screenshot to read:


Most of the article is the usual culture-protection and calling-out of appropriators, and not worth commenting on again; but the thesis of the article, why other minorities can’t adopt black styles, is in just two sentences below. First, though, here are some members of minority groups who have been excoriated for wearing cornrows. Indented bits are from PuffHo:

Lilly Singh, host of “A Little Late with Lilly Singh,” has been called out throughout her career for “modern-day blackface,” wearing baggy clothing, cornrows and dashiki on her YouTube channel. The Canadian-born comedian, who embraces her Indian heritage, has dismissed the criticism on Twitter.

Then there’s actor Shay Mitchell, who’s of Filipino and Scottish-Irish descent. She received backlash on Instagram after wearing cornrows multiple times.

Most recently, YouTuber Nikita Dragun, who is Vietnamese and Mexican, made headlines for wearing gray box braids to show her “love and appreciation for all the gorgeous black women in my life and also to those that follow me,” she wrote on Instagram.

Lambert’s verdict?

So is this appropriation? Absolutely.

“The thing that’s interesting about an Indian or Japanese or Mexican person wearing American Blackness is that they’ve had the privilege of continuity in their own cultural traditions,” Day said. “They are playing dress-up in something that we’ve fought to regenerate after having centuries of cultural disruption and suppression.”

Dress-up? I don’t think so. People who wear cornrows or dreadlocks wear them because they think they look good, not because they’re donning part of a black Halloween costume. And what, exactly, is the “privilege of continuity”? The reasons for cultural appropriation, as usually enunciated, are that you are stealing aspects of another (and more oppressed) culture, and not giving them credit for it or being explicit about the sufferings of those from that culture (see below). What continuity has to do with it is obscure.

And continuity seems irrelevant, for you’re also called out for “appropriating” aspects of culture that have been continuous, like the jazz or hip-hop of black America or the kimonos of the Japanese. No, this is just another way to make one culture seem even more oppressed than others by confecting some specious and irrelevant “discontinuity.”

As I’ve said before, theoretically there are forms of cultural appropriation that are harmful to the appropriated groups. The example I often use, and dismiss, is Paul Simon’s use of the music of the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in his “Graceland” album. Had he taken all the credit, given the group a minor credit, and not paid them well, that would have been invidious and unjustifiable cultural appropriation. But Simon didn’t do that: he acknowledged his debt to that group and in fact made them famous and well off. I’m hard pressed to think of any kind of cultural appropriation that is harmful at all, though I’m sure readers can come up with some examples. But in general, I think cultural appropriation is not only a sign of appreciation of another culture, be it “up” or “down”, but also enriches all cultures. It’s just in today’s “I’m offended” climate, it gives people a reason to parade themselves as victims and denigrate others.

And it’s not enough for a cornrow-wearer to simply say, “Yes, I’ve adopted a black hairstyle because I like it.” No, you have to do what they call the “emotional labor”. As Lambert argues, using the words of Keisha Brown, associate professor of history at Tennessee State University

“While acknowledging the origin of the style or influence is a good start, that is just the first step in moving from appropriation to appreciation,” Brown said. “Beyond mere acknowledgment of the influence or inspiration [and one’s privilege and platform], an individual should also strive to understand the origin, impact and function of said cultural practices.”

Sorry, but my response to that is, “You’re asking too much.” If you have to study the origin, impact, and function of cornrows or dreadlocks—which of course were worn in ancient Greece—before you wear them, and need to be quizzed or chastised if you didn’t, then we’ve come to a pretty pass. Imagine if you applied that to all of the many forms of music, food, clothing, and other things that have been adopted by one culture from another!

I maintain that it harms nobody for a Hispanic woman to wear cornrows simply because she likes them. The “damage”, as it is so often in these things, is merely the offense in the Pecksniffian beholder.


70 thoughts on “Cultural appropriation: can minorities appropriate the culture of other minorities?

    1. As I recall, agriculture was invented in the Near East. If our ancestors hadn’t committed cultural appropriation, we would be hunting and gathering for a living.

  1. The “damage”, as it is so often in these things, is merely the offense in the Pecksniffian beholder.

    The phrase that comes to mind is “First World problems”. Anyone who has so little wrong with their life, that they have to make an issue “cultural appropriation” to complain about is an over-privileged spoilt brat. People who were actually “oppressed” would have genuine greivances to complain about.

  2. Since coffee originated in Ethiopia no one else can drink it without cultural appropriation. Clearly food is the most important part of a culture because without it everyone would die.

    Every coffee fueled Silicon Valley idea owes it origin to the Ethiopian people who domesticated and we should pay appropriate reparations making Ethiopia the richest country in the world.

    1. True! I’m also thinking about gunpowder, stirrups, and printing (all invented in China). Also, Arabic numbers (really invented in India), the alphabet (invented in Lebanon), and the wheel (invented in Mesopotamia). Nobody from other cultures should ever be able to use these things.

        1. Ironically, I think “appropriate” comes from a Latin root word. I’m sure the people of Rome today are mad about their language being stolen!

      1. When I play Civilization VI, the Aztecs invent stirrups and gunpowder first because I usually play as Montezuma.

        I don’t know if anyone will get this joke. Grania would have. She is missed.

    2. I feel that we in the UK have cultural appropriated Starbucks. I apologise unreservedly on behalf of my country and I fervently hope for the day when Starbucks fucks off back to America.

      I’m prepared to cut some slack for McDonalds and Friends though. Yes, I’m a hypocrite, so sue me.

        1. I don’t really know. I avoid going into Starbucks as much as possible because their latte tastes like it’s got no coffee in it.

          In Starbucks’ defence, before they arrived, the coffee shop situation in the UK was dire. However, now there are many coffee shops that serve much better coffee and don’t call a regular “tall” and a large “grande”.

        2. Pumpkins are from Mexico and most of the spices from India. I am not sure who, if anyone, gets to use the combo.

    3. …and so people in India eating chicken tikka masala are appropriating British culinary inventions?

      Admittedly chicken tikka is of Indian origin, and masala is an Indian sauce or ‘gravy’, but the two together? Invented in Britain and ‘exported’ back to India.

  3. My theory about “cultural appropriation” is that it’s a blend between of different other things: (1) blackface, which itselfs is deemed wrong because of association with racist stereotypes in minstrel shows (an association that is also uniquely American, and e.g. not shared by the Dutch). (2) A theft of ideas, inventions or art, as when a small person invents something, gets popular and then the big corporation comes along, reproduces the invention and markets it far and wide. And to add insult to injustice, the original inventor is accused of having stolen it from the corporation. And (3) perhaps the feeling of “sellout” teenagers have when something they like and identify with suddenly gets popular and the mainstream washes down their perceived uniqueness.

    Such concepts are not well thought through, or never adequately explained. People generally convert to wokeness over night, and without much transition — like joining a cult. I did read up on intersectionality and other topics, and did “educate myself” (I also had some relevant expertise useful for such topics). Most woke material is exceptionally poor, and the better material from the high priests of critical race theory etc does not say what the activists claim they say. So I’ll chalk it off as some pop nonsense.

    I’m willing, as always, to change my mind, and there’s the possibility that cases exist that show the problem. But some celebrity wearing a haircut she likes is certainly not it. So far it was always such trivial nonsense, leading me to believe no stronger cases exist.

    1. (1) blackface, which itselfs is deemed wrong because of association with racist stereotypes in minstrel shows (an association that is also uniquely American, and e.g. not shared by the Dutch).” “I did read up on intersectionality and other topics, and did “educate myself”” You haven’t educated yourself NEARLY enough. “This notorious Christmas[Zwarte Piet]character is dividing a country
      Neo-Nazis in the Netherlands have responded violently to calls to get rid of Santa’s blackface holiday assistant.

      1. Give me a break. You’re clearly a newbie here, as I’ve said blackface is odious several times on this site. But blackface is not what I consider cultural appropriation: it’s not borrowing something because you like it, but making fun of another group through mockery. In other words, blackface isn’t cultural appropriation but bigotry, and it’s almost never characterized as “cultural appropriation”.

        As for your incivility, which is against the rules of this site, and your condescending claim that I haven’t educated myself nearly enough, well, you could have made your misguided argument much more civilly. As it is, don’t let the door hit your patronizing butt on the way out.

      2. Zwarte Piet is still common in the Netherlands. I’ve seen it myself several times. But I’m open to data showing something else. Everyone’s go-to source Wikipedia notes that,

        “[t]hough a large majority of the overall populace in both the Netherlands and Belgium is in favor of retaining the traditional Zwarte Piet character […] Nevertheless, according to a 2013 survey, upwards of 90% of the Dutch public do not perceive Zwarte Piet to be a racist character or associate him with slavery and are opposed to altering the character’s appearance”

        So what I wrote appears to be supported by other evidence, too.

  4. … can minorities appropriate the culture of other minorities?

    Oh, hell yes. And they should, as often and as much as possible. Nothing works like cross-cultural mélange.

    The only issue worth any concern concerning “cultural appropriation” has been where the appropriator does the appropriating for economic exploitation while cutting the appropriatee out of the action (as was the case w/r/t some shyster music promoters and what was then known as “race music” in the early days of the recording industry).

    But those days, thankfully, are long gone, so appropriate away, I say.

        1. Neither did a lot of people when the film resurfaced, the whole ‘Race Film’ industry was swept under the carpet in the 50s.

          I remember seeing at least one review from the 2000s where the reviewer expressed disbelief that a film like that could exist.

          ‘Son of Ingagi’ deserves a place in history, not simply for being one of the first African-American horror movies, but as far as I can tell the first time anyone had a female ‘Mad Scientist’ character as well.

    1. “. . .in the early days of the recording industry.”

      Yes, I recently did research for a screenplay I’m writing about Jelly Roll Morton and was appalled by the exploitation you mention.

      Like many musicians of color, Morton was denied membership in ASCAP, the organization that collects royalties for composers. (Worse, ASCAP did collect royalties on his music but never turned them over to him!) Publishers who distributed Morton’s later sheet music, notably the Chicago-based Melrose brothers, also cheated him out of his financial due. Morton wrote dozens of protest letters to state and federal prosecutors, but got nowhere. He died penniless and alone in 1941.

      Were it not for the four amazing discs Morton recorded in 1939 for Alan Lomax, then an archivist at the Library of Congress, we would have no way of knowing what a musical genius the man was.

      1. I recall the musical Jelly’s Last Jam, with Gregory Hines as Morton, playing on Broadway in the early ’90s (although I never got a chance to see it). Does your screenplay cover some of the same ground, Gary?

        American musicology (and, hence, American life) is certainly so much the richer thanks to the great archiving done by Alan Lomax and his father, John (and the record producer John Hammond). Without the Lomaxes, we’d have no recordings of Lead Belly, for one thing.

        1. “Does your screenplay cover some of the same ground?”

          Unfortunately, “Jelly’s Last Jam” presented an unflattering and, IMO, inaccurate picture of Morton. The spine of my screenplay, called “Comeback,” is a trip Morton made from New York to L.A. in 1940 in the middle of winter towing a ‘35 Lincoln behind a ‘37 Cadillac with $40 in his pocket and a .38 revolver in the glove compartment (for an aborted plan to stop in Chicago and persuade the Melrose brothers to pay what they owed him). Morton’s road adventures (which include finding a mother and child frozen dead in Idaho and visiting an old flame in Oregon) are interspersed with flashbacks geared to the cities he’s traveling to. Hence, the flashbacks tell his life story in reverse, from the lowest point on the East Coast (shortly after completing the recordings for Lomax, Morton was stabbed while playing piano in a cheap dive), through his recording successes in Chicago, to his glory days as a bandleader on the West Coast, where, in the present-day story, he dies realizing that, musically, he’s accomplished what he set out to do as a kid in New Orleans. Probably more than you wanted to know, but thanks for asking.

  5. Oy! We must be a VERY prosperous (and vapid) culture if this is what we worry about. Separately, as awful as Trump is, each of the Democrats has to genuflect to this nonsense. Each one has to appease the voting block of hyper-offensible upper class white people ready to be offended on behalf of non-upper-class non-white people. Do you support abortions for men? Do lesbians who are not attracted to women’s penises transphobic? Should all academic research first run a political acceptability test, including “research justice” to deemphasize “white knowledge built on white legitimation of truth”? Call me crazy, I will vote for anyone who doesn’t further this nonsense, including Trump or my neighbor’s pet squirrel.

  6. It’s also worth noting that as soon as one embraces this “up” vs. “down” distinction, one necessarily embraces the “hierarchy of oppression” of wokeness. I’ve had friends who embrace “woke” culture claim that the “hierarchy of oppression” is a caricature of more complex and subtle views; but when push comes to shove, you need to adjudicate which “appropriation” is acceptable and which is not, and therefore you need to adjudicate where every person falls in the hierarchy.

    1. I think this discussion should include the issue of African American’s current fad of wearing the actual hair taken from impoverished people in India, China, and even the Ukraine. The whole developing world, really.
      That practice seems to fulfill the worst aspects of the claimed argument.

      1. Interesting question. The impoverished people presumably got paid for their hair – probably a pathetically small amount by our standards, but presumably enough by their standards to make it worth their while.

        So the question is, as with any product sourced from low-income economies, would stopping the trade help them or just deprive them of a source of income?

        (Admittedly hair is probably not the best example on which to argue this, since it’s hardly a regular income source to its producers. Manufactured items are probably a better ground on which to argue the pros and cons.)


  7. Even the “continuity” argument doesn’t seem to hold water. A Japanese or Indian or Mexican person born in America hasn’t had a continuity of their ancestral culture and for recent immigrants especially has likely had even less continuity than black Americans whose ancestors have been here for centuries.

  8. “It’s apparently been decided that it’s okay to culturally “appropriate up“, i.e., Chinese people can wear jeans, and Africans suits, but it’s not okay to “appropriate down“”

    Well, of course : this is to make sure that only dominant culture spreads, not the filthy culture of those “minorities”.

  9. . . . wearing American Blackness . . . .

    Does that even mean anything? If there is such a thing, monolithically, as American Blackness, can it be “worn” by adopting one aspect of it? Isn’t saying that corn rows are an essential part of the regalia of American Blackness creating a new stereotype?

    . . . the privilege of continuity in their own cultural traditions. . . .

    Rhetorically, this is brilliant, seemingly providing a justification for placement of black Americans (presumably not African immigrants) at the top of the pyramid of oppression. Of course, one can argue whether it is true that other groups, like American Indians, haven’t suffered a break in the cultural traditions, or whether discontinuity is meaningful if the traditions still exist in world.

    It’s no surprise that Asians are being called out for this. To most of the Wokiees they are so far down the pyramid of oppression as to be practically white.

    1. There was a case a few years back involving a Chinese washing powder company that ran a clearly racist advert in a black man is thrown into a clothes washing machine and comes out Chinese.

      Here is the Wall Street Journal video on it.

      1. If I can screen out the WSJ’s patronising overbearing voice-over – I think both ads are funny. Obviously exaggerated. Does either one imply that there’s something wrong with being black, or white, or Chinese? Not that I can see.

        (Speaking as a scrawny white guy, does the Coloreria ad that shows one such being turned into a black hunk bother me? Not in the slightest).

        Obviously I’m badly in need of sensitivity training. [/s]


  10. I don’t plan on wearing cornrows or dreadlocks any time soon (not because I’m woke but because I’m bald), but allow me to protect myself from charges of cultural appropriation by acknowledging in advance that white male privilege is real. I might add that I’m grateful the tail end of it occurred during my lifetime. I would hate to have missed it.

  11. For g*d’s sake, surely “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”! Isn’t music richer for the influences that were taken from Africa and evolved into the Blues in the American South? Wasn’t that then “appropriated” by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and that appropriation itself reappropriated after the “British invasion”? Fire? The wheel? Cultural appropriation?

  12. Please let me know what I can wear and eat without causing offense.

    According to 23 and Me, I have a wide mixture of European heritage – from Spain to Russia to Denmark plus a tiny bit of Algonquian.

    Is all of Europe OK? That sounds close to saying that whiteness is a race and we all that the idea of races is not allowed. My Spanish heritage is five centuries old (Sephardic jew.) Is that close enough? Or did I lose the right somewhere along the way.

    What about my great, great, super great Algonquian ancestor? What can I appropriate from him or her? Can I use ideas from the Sioux?

    There are no signs of heritage from Catholic countries. Is that significant? Do I have to limit myself to Jewish and Protestant ideas?

  13. I colonized a Vietnamese restaurant at lunch just now. It was good! I looked for someone to apologize to but no one seemed interested. They did take my money though.

    1. Be careful with that money. The oldest discovered money is from Turkey. The oldest paper money is Chinese. The first credit card was in the US.

      1. Turkey, and other countries in the region, also claim the origin of pizza via the flatbread “pide/pitta”.

        1. Greek people tell me that baklava was invented by Greeks and Assyrian people tell me that it was invented by Assyrians. Everybody wants to claim credit for the world’s greatest pastry!

  14. “… cornrows or dreadlocks—which of course were worn in ancient Greece…”

    Wikipedia also states that “The traditional hairstyle of Roman Vestal Virgins incorporated cornrows.” Were they guilty of cultural appropriation unless they were black?

    I would hazard a guess that many of the blacks kvetching about cultural appropriation are mixtures of other races, as most of us are unable to prove our “race” beyond a limited historical period. If we think there hasn’t almost always been “mixing”, we have not read about genetics, or history.

    As is Curtis, I am of mixed heritage: English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Dutch, French and German that I know of from studying my genealogy. Who knows what other mixtures precede the ones I know? I might be able to draw from a great many cultural heritages in addition to those I know if I took advantage of 23 and Me.

    I collect recipes from anyone who will share and eat foods from a great many cultures appreciatively. I will wear hair (as long as I have same) in whatever style I like. I will wear dashikis, muumuus, trousers, skirts, and simply skin, if I wish. And, I will be grateful for the mixed heritage I encompass as well as the sharing of cultures afforded me.

    1. Yes, when it comes to cultural appropriation the Romans ripped off the Greeks big time – as for the Greeks, at least they acknowledged that there was “nothing new under the sun”.

  15. “Please let me know what I can wear and eat without causing offense.”

    Anything you want. Nobody is actually offended. The whole argument is just a framework designed to allow people an excuse to scold and criticize others.

    The arguments they use are always based on an inaccurate understanding of history, and always seem to be carefully structured to allow their group to engage in any behavior they want, while imposing restrictions on others.

    1. Agreed to the, er, “Max”! If we want civilization to stop right now, then let’s just stop sharing ideas… that will work out well!

  16. I’d love to see a black PuffHo writer go to India and tell a working class person there that the more oppressed person is the American internet writer.

    This shit has just become too crazy for me. I don’t even have anything to say about it anymore. It’s just too stupid and people like this writer are just trying too damn hard to find new ways of being offended.

  17. ” . . . Bianca Lambert, a freelance beauty writer”

    Who says there are no more public intellectuals anymore? I’m glad HuffPo has some brilliant minds working on the problem of cultural appropriation.

  18. It’s all BS, so far as I can tell. Get over yourselves, you** precious thought police.

    I assume it’s culturally tolerated for me to listen to Bob Marley singing ‘No Woman No Cry’ on my headphones, so long as I don’t get so carried away as to hum or sing along with it?

    (Actually, those who have heard me ‘singing along’ would claim that it’s never okay for me to sing along with anything, at least not within earshot of any living creature, but that’s a different issue).

    ** For the avoidance of doubt, ‘you’ refers to PuffHo et al, not the denizens of this site 😉

  19. Since black American women have been literally appropriating Indian women’s hair for years-it’s what pricey weaves are made of-it seems only fair that Indian women could adopt black American hairstyles.

  20. For anyone who objects to “cultural appropriation” I have only one word for you:

    Welsh language dub reggae

    What a world we live in that has such wonders in it.

  21. Coming soon: Black Africans (that is, people actually in or from Africa) being called out for appropriating the culture of black Americans.

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