By Andrew Nurse
Recently, a friend sent me yet another of those commentaries-cum-news-stories discussing the merits and demerits (although, the piece had precious few of these) of cultural appropriation. In short, the piece decried critics of cultural appropriation, which it treated as something of a leftist fantasy. I, more-or-less, ignored it, not because the issue is unimportant but because I’d become frustrated with the entire discussion.
After all, this is not a new debate. I’m not certain when I first encountered the concept, let alone the term, “cultural appropriation” but I recall discussing it in grad school … and that is getting further into the past than I care to admit. I recall being taken to task by a friend as I was beginning my career for my willingness to allow that there might be something wrong with the “appropriation” of culture. My view was, my friend explained, misplaced “identity politics.” The year I started working here at Mount Allison, a colleague criticized my concerns about the uses to which Indigenous cultures had been put by Settler society as a failure on my part to understand the nature of art and inspiration which, for creative purposes, necessarily drew widely across cultures.
This could be true. I won’t set myself up as an expert on creativity, but over the years my sense of the debate around cultural appropriation is that it has not changed much. There are those who are concerned about the ways in which the cultures of marginalized and colonized peoples have been used and treated by “mainstream” media and Settler society. They see it as part of a set of power relationships that often serve to reinscribe colonialism and marginalization. I’d put myself in this group. On the other hand, there are those who believe that good things come from different forms of inspiration, that the very term “cultural appropriation” is a misnomer, and that contemporary concerns about it are just PC run amuck. Appropriation has, they say, created the art that we all admire today.
What impresses me about this discussion — at least the interventions I’ve read — is that it lacks an historical dimension. I see this as a problem because historians — or, better, historical thinking — has something to contribute to this debate. This is the first in a series of blogs I’m writing about historical perspectives on cultural appropriation. I want to be clear about my objectives and intentions. My goal is not to say the first and last word on appropriation. I don’t think that one blog post (or, a series of them) will resolve a long-standing debate. Nor, am I trying to say that historical perspectives can solve all problems. Instead, what I hope to show is how the tools of historical thinking, analysis, and interpretation can contribute to this discussion and, potentially, move it in a different direction. Finally, my goal is not to be comprehensive. Instead, in each of these blogs I’ll aim for concision, making a few points that strike me as important as opposed to trying to cover all avenues of discussion. If I’ve missed something important … write back and comment on it. Let me start this series, then, by noting three points where I think historical thinking can make a contribution to discussions surrounding cultural appropriation. Continue reading