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What’s all the fuss about cultural appropriation? Is Disney committing this offense by retelling the story of the Little Mermaid with a black protagonist?
In answer, let me start here: I respect other human beings and their culture. Primarily, I am usually a consumer of the products of my own dominant culture, but I love and value how much art, literature, film, and music benefit from the influence of other cultures. And I think I best respect artists, chefs, writers, and other creators of culture when I appreciate those influences.
That said, there is definitely a line that creative folks should be wary of crossing. There is a boundary between respectfully being open to creative influence, and disrespectfully using or stealing what others have produced, especially those in a culture different from their own.
I think my disgust for cultural appropriation reached a new high when Donald Trump tweeted a photo of himself eating from a taco bowl in Trump Tower with the words “Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics.”
I am deeply offended by how this man, who might claim to be a part of my culture, so absurdly harms the cultures of other people by treating those cultures and the people in them with so little respect. His symbolic misuse of a taco bowl aligns and supports his entire misguided treatment and understanding of those who are different than himself. And now we see how such a belittling of people in the form of cultural theft aligns with and supports actual physical harm to the very people who are a part of that culture (I’m sure Trump is still enjoying cuisine from any culture, all while he deprives migrants of basic health care and holds them in inhumane conditions in his migrant detention camps).
And despite the obviously insulting and disrespectful appropriation found in Trump’s tweet, and other glaring examples of poor human behavior through cultural appropriation, I’ve had people I know scoff at the idea that people are even offended or bothered in any way by cultural appropriation. They think it’s something liberals invented to further limit their freedom of expression. More political correctness that just takes the life out of the party.
Not coincidentally, these are likely the same people who aren’t very concerned about the treatment of migrants on our southern border. Also, not surprisingly, their thoughtless disrespect of others is the true inventor of offensive cultural appropriation. People who are more empathetic and caring toward less dominant cultures are simply pointing out the behavior of the cultural appropriators, whether they are conservatives or liberals (last time I checked, liberals really shouldn’t have a monopoly on being considerate or empathetic toward others, although Trump would certainly beg to differ on this point).
These folks, who deny cultural appropriation as a negative thing, simply haven’t taken time to understand the behavior and the harm it can do. They are usually the people who are privileged to not have a more dominant culture doing the same thing to them and their family’s identity. They are also privileged with citizenship and a sense of belonging that can often elude others who are less fortunate.
As I hinted at earlier, a recent comment about the skin color of the new Little Mermaid motivated this whole response this morning. Someone accused the creators of the new Little Mermaid of “cultural appropriation” because the new version of the Disney princess will be black.
This was my response to this misguided person, and I hope it’s helpful in a discussion of why cultural appropriation can be very wrong, very disrespectful, and ultimately very harmful (sadly, those who most need this explanation probably already went back to their taco bowls and MAGA hats). And no, I don’t know everything about cultural appropriation, but writing about it helps me unfog my own brain.
Yes, fictional stories can be guilty of a specific kind of cultural appropriation. However, appropriation is only truly wrong and harmful when a dominant culture diminishes and superficially assimilates a less dominant culture in order to support its own self-interest. It’s the act of a more powerful group essentially stealing from and taking credit for the products of a less powerful group in order to sustain its dominance.
For example, "Song of the South," published by Irish American, Joel Chandler Harris, uses the fictional and docile Uncle Remus character to appropriate the folklore of African Americans. It’s negative appropriation of African American culture is perhaps most clear in how it offers a reassuring narrative to white readers about plantation life and a Pollyanna fantasy of the lives of African Americans on those plantations. Alice Walker would later say that Harris stole “a good part of [her] heritage"
One analogy for cultural appropriation: it’s a form of cultural plagiarism that disrespects the original culture because the thief is primarily concerned about how they benefit from what they have taken. Additionally, the primary benefit to the thief is that his stolen cultural property sustains a sense of cultural superiority, dominance, and blindness to the realities of the victimized, less dominant culture. The less dominant culture becomes a stylistic and superficial prop worn like a trophy by the offending cultural appropriator.
Story tellers, chefs, fashion designers, teenagers who buy the products of a dominant culture—pretty much anyone in the business of shaping the dominant culture—can be guilty of causing the negative effects of cultural appropriation. I think the underlying test is whether the product of culture truly belongs to the person using it, and if not, does the person meet a high standard of showing respect for the other culture in how they are using it? Even if they think they can say yes to the last question, they would be wise to understand that they are probably going to invite some criticism from the other, less dominant culture.
With the recent Little Mermaid example, it’s completely the opposite of the negative cultural appropriation that is rightfully controversial. It’s a less dominant people group helping to broaden and shape the dominant culture’s narrative and vision of what belongs in human experience. It doesn’t oppress, but frees the dominant culture to better open its eyes to the less dominant cultures it often intentionally or unintentionally tries to subjugate. If it is a kind of cultural appropriation, then it is one performed by the historically and currently less powerful group for the purpose of advocating a broader sense of whose experience matters in the context of human identity. It serves the common good of all people. If there is a sense that this limits creative expression or that this is politically correct, then it is the mere correctness of having a dominant culture more often pay respect to those who don’t always feel a part of that dominant culture.
Whereas negative cultural appropriation feeds a self-serving blindness within a larger or more powerful group, and this behavior can actually threaten the unique and authentic existence of smaller and more vulnerable cultures. And as we see with Trump, it can translate into a gradual and horrifying acceptance of reducing other people to mere props that are then manipulated or abused by the dominant culture’s self interest.