A persistent question among political liberals is that of cultural appropriation—“the colonial gaze.” Is an American of Irish decent committing cultural appropriation when she celebrates Día de los Muertos? Is a person of Mexican descent culturally appropriating when he celebrates St. Patrick’s Day?
This questioning chases its own tail. No, there is no zero-point in considering an idea cultural appropriation. Think of all the appropriating that went on along the Silk Road. Think of all the places the Egyptian ankh has been. Conservatives are correct from that perspective that human ideas have long remained un-copyrighted.
Yet, is it really hunky-dory for a North American who has to ask which day to celebrate Cinco de Mayo really doing it in the spirit required? Which begs the question: is there a particular sort of spirit required?
To repeat, this sort of questioning chases its own tail. Yet, the question of cultural appropriation is real. For example, the great African American liberation theologian James Cone in his brilliant book The Spirituals and the Blues wrote, “Black music is a living reality. And to understand it, it is necessary to grasp the contradictions inherent in black experience.” Dr. Cone was explicit about Euro-Americans singing Afro-American spirituals and the blues: Don’t. Just don’t—Euro-Americans can’t understand the suffering that made those songs.
A serious consideration of cultural appropriation contains larger questions of ontology, epistemology, and phenomenology. Yes, those are all jargon from philosophy and theology, but real in our concrete-phenomenal world nonetheless.
Human cultures aggregate an ontology. That is, cultures designate ways of seeing the world and acting within in. This creates a lived cultural reality. A reality in which, for example, Spirituals are deeply meaningful.
That said, are we each therefore locked in an ontological prison whose walls can’t be breached? Whose walls it is somehow ethically wrong to breach?
As I said above, the history of human ideas indicates this isn’t true. There are Afgan rappers, including Sonita Alizadeh. I don’t think too many cultural-appropriation purists would argue that she is appropriating an American musical tradition inappropriately.
Perhaps ideas and practices such as spirituals are most usefully considered through the lens of Timothy Morton’s recent concept of hyperobjects.
All the plastic in all the oceans is an example of a hyperobject: “all the plastic” can’t be touched, yet it is encountered in several ways. Global climate change is a hyperobject. So is Cinco de Mayo and “Wade in the Water.”
Viewed as hyperobjects, we see that big things have large sets of meanings. For example, I recently learned that Grand Rapids, Minnesota will celebrate Juneteenth this year. Grand Rapids is a city in northern Minnesota of fewer than 11,000 people, of whom, the latest census information shows, .06 percent are African American.
The celebration is being sponsored by the Grand Rapids Human Rights Commission. Is the city culturally appropriating Juneteenth? Arguably, no. Because the Grand Rapids Human Rights Commission is approaching the hyperobject “Juneteenth” as an occasion honoring African Americans and African American culture, and teaching other Americans about an ontological framework that they don’t inhabit but they have responsibility for as citizens of the nation.
The hyperobject we call Juneteenth can’t be touched, can’t be seen in its full reality. It can, however, be celebrated appropriately or inappropriately. Is that the measure of cultural appropriation?
Something to think about.