Nobody owns a culture

Kenan Malik has a wonderful essay at Art Review on “cultural appropriation” and why it’s a pernicious concept.

The very term ‘cultural appropriation’ is inappropriate. Cultures work not through appropriation but through messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one (or several), and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Cultural interaction is necessarily messy because the world is messy. Some of that messiness is good: the complexity and diversity of the world. Some of it is damaging: the racial, sexual and economic inequalities that disfigure our world.

Such damaging messiness will not be cleaned up by limiting cultural interaction, or by confining it within a particular etiquette. In reframing political and economic issues as cultural ones, or as issues of identity, campaigns against cultural appropriation obscure the roots of racism, and make it harder to challenge it. In constraining what Adam Shatz called ‘acts of radical sympathy, and imaginative identification… across racial lines’, they make such challenges more difficult still.

The campaigns against cultural appropriation are bad for creative art. And they are bad for progressive politics. They seek to police interaction and constrain imagination. For the sake of both of art and politics we need less policing and constraints, more interaction and imagination.

That’s what I think. I get how borrowings can be done badly, but I think it’s a terrible impoverishing mistake to go from that to the insistence that all borrowing and interaction is a trespass.

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