Let’s Talk About Who Bears Responsibility For Cultural Appropriation

Monday’s piece “Beyonce is Not Appropriating in Hymn For The Weekend” sparked some expected backlash and I would really love to address some of the concerns that were raised in the comments section out of respect for my readers.

I want to stress the fact that Beyonce’s participation in the video was utterly and absolutely exploitative. The video reduced India’s beautiful and complex culture to a stereotype. I do not want that to be overshadowed by the conversation about appropriation. Whether or not the video was disrespectful is not up for debate– it was. And I especially appreciate the opinions of various Indian-American readers who have reached out to me that say precisely that.

Despite the insensitivity of the video, the question of whether it was or was not appropriation is still a valid one. And I think I need to further this discussion because it is a very important one.

Anyone can participate in another culture and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. When artists write songs or make videos, they want their art to be appreciated and enjoyed. Go to any country in the world, the first thing people want to share with visitors is their food and music.

Culture is the glue and fabric of communities that not only holds it together, but offers each individual a unique sense of pride. It is that pridefulness that drives us to want to share our culture. After all, I cannot even count the number of times that I have invited friends and even acquaintances to enjoy the culture of my country of birth, Trinidad and Tobago. The reaction people have when they eat a really spicy dish or hear a Trini song that speaks to them, or how their eyes light up when they go to fetes or parade for the first time through the streets in a Carnival costume give me a sense of pride. I’m sure many share these feelings about their own culture. The human desire to share their culture is universal.

So, I could only imagine what it feels like to share your culture, as a minority, with another person or group to only be erased from it, your legacy and property stolen. That is precisely what cultural appropriation means. And the internet supports this definition.

EverydayFeminism elucidates cultural appropriation, saying that “a deeper understanding of cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”  The distinction is clear. Cultural appropriation is about power, involving “members  of a dominant group exploiting the culture of less privileged groups — often with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience and traditions.”

This article on Thought Catalogue  states one thing that I really agree with: the nuanced understanding of what cultural appropriation even is has been lost to groupthink that deems any participation in another culture by those within the dominant (white) culture are immediately in the wrong. Participation has never been a problem. Minority cultures often willingly let the dominant culture participate. The problem here is what the end result of that participation has historically meant for minority people.

Elvis Presley was welcomed to participate in rock and roll by the black artists who originated the style. Native Americans welcomed white people who arrived to their shorelines to partake in their culture. I’m sure no black women would’ve turned away white people who wanted to learn how to twerk. East Indian traders of the 1880s were more than enthusiastic to arrive to America’s shorelines with their silks, linens, spices and other goods to share.

However there are two things most of these examples have in common: Whites discriminated against, oppressed, murdered or enslaved every single one of these groups in America and in the end, white participation in many of these spaces lead to complete dominance of the space and the subjugation/marginalization of those minority groups.

Native Americans were removed from their land, their culture mocked and disrespected by the very same group that oppressed them. Indians were literally driven out of many towns in America by angry white mobs (see The Bellingham riots). Blacks were enslaved by whites, seen as culturally inferior, their culture labelled savage or uncivilized — as jazz music was — until white people claim it as their own and subsequently dominate the space.

The examples are numerous and sadly, there aren’t any examples that work in the reverse: Where the people of the dominant(white)culture have been discriminated against, murdered or enslaved because of their culture or race and then the same group who hypothetically did those things then laid claim to white cultural contribution.

This kind of history really doesn’t exist between other minority groups, at this particular moment in time. At least not the cultures in question– Black and Indian.

In this instance with Beyonce, even though the singer is indeed American, we must not forget that she cannot escape the label of “African”– she will always be black. That label has history and significance. A history of oppression and discrimination not only by whites but other minorities– including Indians (read Ghandis thoughts on black folk? ). Also, a modern history that is absent of oppressing and marginalizing other minority groups. There is no way Beyonce’s insensitive act can be equated with the type of cultural appropriation done by whites.

For this reason, without acknowledging the element of power dynamics or history in conversations about cultural appropriation, we can often miss the mark on how to combat the problem. Or how to even begin addressing it.

In this case with Beyonce vs cultural appropriation done by a dominant group, we cannot make two very different wrongs equal.