Multiculturalism, or Cultural Appropriation?

Multiculturalism, or Cultural Appropriation?
AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

The progressive concept of “cultural appropriation” has become an increasingly mainstream idea. Do a Google search on, say, “yoga is cultural appropriation,” and you'll see for yourself. What does cultural appropriation mean, though? According to law professor Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, cultural appropriation consists of “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else's culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture's dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It's most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways.”

Even if one takes this dubious definition seriously, though—what would constitute “unauthorized use?”—policing cultural appropriation quickly falls apart when applied to actual human behavior. A group of students at Pitzer College, for example, declared that hoop earrings should be off-limits to white women. But how can any culture lay claim to determining the size and shape of acceptable jewelry for individuals to wear?

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