Cultural Appropriation and the Telling of Wisdom Stories
Keven Fletcher, Oxford, 2016
Recent social media outcry has heightened the general public’s awareness of cultural appropriation. This paper explores the key ethical concerns raised by appropriation and outlines how they might inform decisions related to the adoption and adaption of wisdom stories across cultural groups. To draw underlying issues into focus, particular attention is paid to the relationship(s) between First Nations in North America and the dominant society.
This exploration finds that the debate on cultural appropriation centres on the degree to which definite responsibilities connected to
- acknowledging historical loss,
- distributing economic gain in a just manner, and
- respecting the autonomy of cultural groups;
are intertwined with the complex reality of
- delineating groups in situations that are neither static nor homogeneous,
- avoiding harms associated with cultural essentialism, and
- securing benefits linked to the unimpeded flow of ideas between peoples.
Conclusions are drawn, suggesting that the telling of wisdom stories from other cultures can be beneficial, providing that five considerations are upheld: respect for internal restrictions; caution in assuming expertise; avoidance of stereotypes; acknowledgement of sources; and, when working with material from highly marginalized groups, direct consultation. By adhering to these guidelines, the most pressing responsibilities associated with improper appropriation would be met, while avoiding the repercussions of approaches relying on broader, blanket restrictions.
Key Words: Culture, appropriation, ethics, essentialism, universality, identity, autonomy, storytelling, indigenous, First Nations.
- Renewed Debate on Cultural Appropriation
When can one culture’s wisdom story be told by another?
After decades of academic discussion on cultural appropriation, the field has recently garnered unprecedented mainstream interest after a series of high profile objections to practices that at one time would not have generated much comment.
Previously, the focus of public debate mostly centered on matters of cultural insensitivity, particularly in the portrayal of minorities. The wearing of blackface on stage (white actors portraying black stereotypes), the adoption of minority figures as team mascots (references to specific peoples or titles), and the donning of cultural artifacts at unrelated festivals (feather headdresses at concerts and ethnic costumes on Halloween) all fall under this banner.
More recently, the debate has expanded to include the criticism of practices that were once considered neutral or positive. The seemingly sincere adoption of another culture’s spiritual practice, festivals, or music has become a point of contention. A yoga class at the University of Ottawa was cancelled out of concern that it represented the improper appropriation of a practice from India.[i] An open Holi event at the University of British Columbia resulted in a backlash despite being organized by the Indian Students Association with care taken around issues of authenticity[ii]. Popular performers have been loudly criticized for adopting music genres generated by other ethnic groups, despite the art form’s long history of adoption and adaption.[iii]
Dramatic exchanges between individuals have further entrenched those who differ, perhaps best exemplified by the viral video that captured an exchange over cornrows between students at San Francisco State University.[iv] The explosion of social media comment that followed illustrated the depth of conviction on opposing sides, along with the bewilderment of many who wondered what substantive issues were actually at stake.
Through this essay I hope to establish that the ethical concerns underlying cultural appropriation are significant and should inform whether one cultural group uses the expressions of another. Ultimately, attention will be turned to the resulting implications for global storytelling, specifically the adoption and adaption of wisdom stories across cultures.
- The Ethical Issues Connected to Cultural Appropriation
In simplest form, cultural appropriation involves ‘the taking of something produced by members of one culture by members of another.’[v] Usually, concerns about cultural appropriation arise when one group is considered dominant and the other marginal. The use of the marginal culture’s expressions by members of the dominant culture is considered problematic, while the use of the dominant culture’s expressions by members of the marginal culture is thought to be a natural consequence of the social and political pressure to conform. In other words, cultural appropriation usually gains its negative connotation in situations where members of the dominant culture use expressions arising from a marginal culture without the full and equal consent of the latter.
Often, though not exclusively, these relationships are drawn across racial lines. To illustrate the deeper implications of cultural appropriation, the situation of First Nations in North America will be used as an example.
In general terms, First Nations find themselves marginalized with respect to the dominant culture. Generations of interactions between the two societies (or, more accurately, between the dominant culture and the numerous, independent, culturally differentiated First Nations’ communities – plural) has led to one side’s significant loss of life, land, and culture. The depth of this sense of loss has led leaders like Adrienne Keene to despair what they perceive to be an underlying assumption that everything related to First Nations’ society is in the ‘free bin.’ Given the experience of entire communities being forced from their traditional lands, children being removed from their homes to be placed in residential schools, and artifacts of significant cultural value being taken away for fear of the heritage not being ‘properly’ preserved, it’s not difficult to understand how members of First Nations worry that yet more is free for the taking.
Although variation exists between communities, the overall statistics are staggering. The Globe and Mail noted that while Canada as a whole rated as the 6th most developed country in the world, the same criteria places our First Nations’ population at 63rd. First Nations’ children are three times more likely to be raised in poverty, students on reserves are six times more likely to drop-out of high school, and the average lifespan of males is eight to nine years shorter than the general population.
Concern about further damage through cultural appropriation exists primarily on two fronts: the just distribution of economic opportunity and the ability to define and enhance group identity.[vi]
- Economic Opportunity
The first of these fronts centres on the determination of what entails a just distribution of economic benefit from the use of the expressions of First Nations’ cultures. For example, most proponents feel that at minimum only members of First Nations should be able to claim that a product is of First Nations’ origin. There is also concern about corporations using without consultation First Nations’ inspired designs on products ranging from coffee mugs to high fashion. In this case, already marginalized individuals don’t benefit from the much needed economic proceeds which might otherwise accrue. Compounding the perceived insult is the improper application of designs, where deeply meaningful symbols related to particular families or mythologies are felt to be trivialized.
It’s important to note that very few, if any, members of First Nations suggest that none of the expressions of their cultures should be shared. Rather, they desire direct involvement and consultation, as when First Nations’ fashion designers have successfully partnered with larger, external corporations. These relationships represent a form of cultural and economic exchange between groups.
This stands in stark contrast with others, as when knock-off versions of First Nations’ products are sold without any connection to the people who first fashioned the distinctive patterning. By disregarding both the origins and ongoing context of a marginalized group’s cultural expressions, this becomes a particularly egregious act of cultural appropriation.
- Group Identity
Whereas the just distribution of economic benefit offers a fairly concrete concern regarding cultural appropriation, the question of identity formation strikes a less tangible, yet deeper apprehension.
When the dominant culture offers representations of First Nations life, it often reduces the tremendously diverse array of communities into a single, simplistic stereotype. To varying degree, these images sink into the imagination of the dominant culture as reflecting reality. Further difficulties arise from the tendency of these images to reflect the past rather than the current day, suggesting that First Nations’ communities are not an ongoing, valued presence.
Even when it comes to scholarly or expert opinion on First Nations’ history and culture, concerns rise when content is offered by those outside the community.[vii] Just as it might be considered an odd choice to invite a keynote speaker from Thailand to explain Brexit, it’s equally odd to ask European-descended individuals to opine on First Nations’ matters. According to this line of argument, choosing a non-First Nations’ person to speak on First Nations’ topics suggests that there may not be experts within the First Nations’ community itself. In this variation of cultural appropriation, Keene suggests that the very act of inviting an outsider as an expert is thought to undermine those with expertise within the community.
Of even greater concern is the impact of these forms of appropriation on members of First Nations themselves. Already under significant pressure from without, First Nations’ groups sometimes struggle to wrest control of their identity. Through cultural appropriation, the dominant culture exists as not only the usurper of financial benefits but also the prominent voice for depictions of First Nations’ people in film, writings, and images. In this context and along with historical losses of life, land, and culture, some First Nations face hurdles in defining and establishing a sense of identity in the present that connects to their past while setting a course for the future. In effect, it’s arguable that appropriation impedes the autonomy of First Nations communities – the ability to decide for themselves.
- Limitations of Identity Politics
Clearly, acts of cultural appropriation prompt significant ethical concern, particularly in situations of substantial power imbalances. At the same time, potentially competing factors must be taken into consideration.
Frank Furedi reminds us that identity politics is a construct, just as universalism was before it. Rather than asserting that any human has the potential to substantially understand the experience of another, identity approaches claim that only members of a given group can sufficiently understand and relate their experience. Therefore, when it comes to voice in an academic paper or novel, only women are positioned to write about women, only those in the LGBTQ community should write about their lives, and only members of a given ethnic group can adequately express its reality. When a member of the dominant society gives voice to the experience of a minority group or individual, that voice has been appropriated. Having gained renewed traction in the academic community since the 1980’s, this line of thinking has recently burst onto the public realm, fueled by fiery exchanges on social media.
Although valuable, this framing of human experience offers its own limitations. It may well be true that a First Nations individual has unique knowledge on what it means to be First Nations and that a woman has unique knowledge on what her gender entails, but it does not follow that the understandings of outsiders are automatically harmful in a way that requires blanket suppression or censure. As well, the practical ramifications become onerous as to where lines are drawn between ever more defined groups. Can an older, straight man write about a younger, lesbian woman as long as they’re both First Nations?
This draws us into the arena of cultural essentialism, the understanding of whether someone belongs or does not belong to a group. This division between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ comes with its own set of ethical quandaries, as set out by Erich Matthes. After all, cultural groups are seldom static and homogeneous. Even core values and experiences can be differentially shared. By ardently pursuing the question of who belongs and who does not, groups can estrange those at their margins, alienating avid supporters and potential allies. The purer the vision of what constitutes membership, the more likely the process will create an internally generated stereotype, ironically reminiscent of the dominant culture’s impact and harmful in itself.
Beyond this lies the recognition that the dominant society is no more static or homogenous than the marginal. Therefore, as argued by James Young, delineations can be artificial. Two youths, ostensibly ‘insider’ and ‘outsider,’ might readily identify with each other’s realities based on a combination of factors other than race (family structure, economic status, belief system, sport allegiance). Meanwhile, two certified ‘insiders’ might view each other as being from different worlds for all the same reasons, despite what they share in terms of racial heritage. Delineations can also shift over time, especially when groups interact (even intermarry) or laws extend rights where previously they were non-existent (as in the case of same sex marriage).
Another consideration in the cultural appropriation debate is the degree to which the construct leads to division between groups. Again, the more stringent the definition of boundaries, the more the world is conceptualized in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Although this might be helpful in fortifying group identity, it doesn’t follow that it aids understanding and bonds between groups, let alone promote the cross-fertilization of ideas that might enrich all parties.
In summary, when it comes to cultural appropriation in general, it is important to simultaneously consider two realities:
1a the historical loss already suffered by marginalized groups at the hands of dominant groups;
1b the obligation to justly distribute current economic benefits that accrue from expressions uniquely reflective of marginal cultures; and,
1c the marginal group’s right to autonomy as conveyed through the unimpeded ability to define and build their identity (within certain limitations, as with any group);
2a the inherent limitations of identity politics, given the reality that cultures are neither static nor homogeneous;
2b the potentially negative consequences of cultural essentialism, especially in terms of narrowing internal diversity and deepening divisions between groups; and,
2c the restriction of potential benefits arising from unhampered cross-fertilization between groups.
With this balance of thoughts in mind, our focus turns to the question posed at the outset of this paper: when can one culture’s wisdom story be told by another?
- Cultural Appropriation and Storytelling
Let’s begin by dispensing with the obvious. To some degree, cultural appropriation is ubiquitous, a daily reality for most of the world. Human history has been one long process of intermixing, impacting all areas of life. Equally, storytelling is ubiquitous, and the general content of wisdom tales is often shared across cultural lines, whether through appropriation, exchange, or coincidence.
If this is the case, what are the ethical implications of someone from outside a group adopting and adapting a particular tale?
As outlined above, one of the primary considerations lies in the historical and current balance of power between the groups (1a). A marginalized group might rightly be concerned that the adoption of a story from their culture manifests the continued existence of a “free bin” with the story being yet another cultural expression taken without permission.
Further, it may be true that despite the lack of specific authorship, the story still represents a form of intellectual property generated by the group, even if not recognized in law. If the appropriation of the property generates economic benefits (1b), especially when those benefits impede the minority group from realizing their own returns, there is cause for concern.
Finally, stories are powerful tools, linking members to the past while forging future identity (1c). In particular, wisdom stories convey what should be celebrated, what should be avoided, and how to discern between the two. They outline a way of life and an understanding of purpose with which the group identifies. In the case of a highly marginalized culture, actions that interfere with this role are clearly questionable.
Simultaneously, it’s one thing to declare a cultural boundary and quite another to defend a delineation given that cultures are neither static nor homogeneous (2a). Within some First Nations’ communities, particular family and sacred stories are protected, requiring permission for wider distribution.[viii] Other groups do not share this practice. Still others have changed their understandings over time,[ix] becoming more protective with the rise of identity concerns. In this process, not only can opinions within a single group differ, but more than one group might share a similar story. Consequently, determining who speaks with authority on behalf of a given story can be difficult due to the diffuse nature of ownership by cultural groups, coupled with divergent expectations within and between groups.
Some might propose that this point cuts too fine. If one is not First Nations, one does not need to delve further into provenance to determine the precise source – it clearly belongs to others. At the same time, though, there isn’t a common understanding within the wider span of First Nations’ cultures about the sharing of stories, so there’s no reason to conclude at an absolute level that a story of weak provenance should not be shared.
A peculiar but informative example of these difficulties arises with the famed story of “Two Wolves.” Widely attributed to the Cherokees, it has spawned internal debate about its actual origins.[x] Some in the community claim that it could not be Cherokee because its dualistic approach doesn’t reflect their spiritual practice, along with other factors. Of course, those in the same community who feel attached to the story and its message are upset by the implication that their beliefs aren’t culturally authentic. This, of course, puts us into the territory of cultural essentialism (2b) and its divisive impact within communities.
Finally, benefits can arise through the sharing of stories that enhance understanding and appreciation between peoples (2c). Though the details of wisdom stories may be culturally specific, the basic plots and values at play usually are not. Hearing such stories can remind distinct groups about shared aspirations, strengthening a sense of common purpose and enriching all involved. Storytelling can be a powerful vehicle for connecting diverse peoples.
Taking into consideration the issues raised by cultural appropriation, the telling of wisdom stories from other cultures can be beneficial, providing that the approach adheres to five ethical considerations:
- that where commonly understood restrictions exist regarding the sharing of a story claimed by a single, identifiable cultural community, they be respected;
- that in the sharing of another culture’s story, it be made clear that one is neither speaking for that culture nor as an expert in that culture;
- that where a story contributes to stereotypes that deny the complexity and diversity of a people, it not be shared by outsiders, except to underscore the negative impact of such stories;
- that where a story is altered or found to be similar to stories from other cultures, original versions and origins be noted and celebrated as contributions to the global community; and,
- that where a story arises from an identifiable, highly marginalized culture, direct consultation be undertaken to ensure that the use of the story neither represents an unjust distribution of economic benefit nor impedes the defining and building of group identity.
Of course, further refining needs to be undertaken, specifying more clearly what phrases such as “highly marginalized” and “direct consultation” entail. Nevertheless, the combination of guidelines should forestall the most serious impacts of appropriation while avoiding the pitfalls associated with essentialism and the application of broader, blanket restrictions.
When, at minimum, these five considerations are addressed, an argument can be made that it’s appropriate and beneficial for wisdom stories to be adopted and adapted across cultural groups.
 Andrew Foote, ‘Yoga class cancelled at University of Ottawa over ‘cultural issues’,’ CBC News, 23 November 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/university-ottawa-yoga-cultural-sensitivity-1.3330441, accessed 3 June 2016.
2 Geetika Bhasin and Gauri Sharma, ‘Letter: Apparently I’m appropriating my own culture: UBC Holi 2016,’ 21 April 2016, http://ubyssey.ca/opinion/apparently-im-appropriating-my-own-culture-holi-2016, accessed 3 June 2016.
3 Frank Furedi, ‘In Praise of Cultural Appropriation,’ 15 February 2016, http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/in-praise-of-cultural-appropriation/18033#.V0UZAGgrI2w, accessed 3 June 2016.
4 Dakari Thomas, ‘Cultural Appropriation or Over-Sensitivity?’ The Guardsman, 11 May 2016, http://theguardsman.com/cultural-sensitivity/, accessed on 3 June 2016.
5 James Young, ‘Profound Offense and Cultural Appropriation,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 63, no. 2, 2005 , p. 136.
6 Condensed from Keene, ‘Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Appreciation?’
7 The irony here is not lost on the author (not a member of a First Nations community). My hope is that I accurately reflect my First Nations’ sources in this brief paper, rather than speak for them in a deeper sense.
8 Assembly of First Nations, ‘Assembly of First Nations: First Nations Ethics Guide on Research and Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge,’ http://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/fn_ethics_guide_on_research_and_atk.pdf, accessed 3 June 2016: 5.
10 Âpihtawikosisân, ‘Check the tag on that “Indian” story,’ 21 February 2012, http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/02/check-the-tag-on-that-indian-story/, accessed 3 June 2016.
Âpihtawikosisân. “The Do’s, Don’ts, Maybes, and I-don’t-knows of Cultural Appropriation.” Âpihtawikosisân. January 30, 2012. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/01/the-dos-donts-maybes-i-dont-knows-of-cultural-appropriation/.
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hasin, Geetika and Gauri Sharma. Letter: Apparently I’m Appropriating My Own Culture: UBC Holi 2016. The Ubyssey. April 21, 2016. Accessed June 2, 2016. http://ubyssey.ca/opinion/apparently-im-appropriating-my-own-culture-holi-2016.
“Cowichan Tribes Take on Ralph Lauren for Selling Knockoff Sweaters.” British Columbia. February 07, 2015. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://bc.ctvnews.ca/cowichan-tribes-take-on-ralph-lauren-for-selling-knockoff-sweaters-1.2225614.
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Jackson, Liz. Disability Appropriation at the 2016 MET Gala – Disability Stories. Medium. May 02, 2016. Accessed June 2, 2016. https://medium.com/disability-stories/disability-appropriation-at-the-2016-met-gala-2100f7144e01#.3bzfh0ne2.
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“Video: Rich Country, Poor Nations: 11 Facts about the Gap between First Nations and the Rest of Canada.” The Globe and Mail. February 19, 2015. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/news-video/video-rich-country-poor-nations-11-startling-statistics-about-the-disparity-between-indigenous-people-and-the-rest-of-canada/article22852873/.