Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Imperialism

You may have seen the uproar caused by an American student wearing a Chinese-style dress to her prom, bringing her widely publicized criticism that she was guilty of cultural appropriation. What is cultural appropriation?

This commentary says cultural appropriation is “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Following that definition, it would seem that American (and perhaps more broadly, Western) culture is the most appropriated culture in the world today. Everywhere in the world, people have adopted Western styles of dress, music, language, and cuisine.

The definition above included the word “unauthorized” and when a McDonalds opens somewhere outside the US, that’s not unauthorized. Maybe that qualifies as cultural imperialism. But people choose Western-style dress, they choose to speak English, they choose to watch American movies, and they choose to eat American-style food. When a Subway restaurant opens in South Korea, is that cultural appropriation or cultural imperialism? When English phrases infiltrate other languages, is that cultural appropriation or cultural imperialism?

Those who use these terms tend to associate both with dominance and power. When a dominant group adopts cultural aspects of a dominated group, that is cultural appropriation. When a dominated group adopts cultural aspects of a dominant group, that is cultural imperialism. For example, when aspects of Mexican culture come into the United States, that is cultural appropriation, but when aspects of US culture migrate into Mexico, that is cultural imperialism.

Following this line of reasoning, as aspects of different cultures diffuse around the world, countries like the United States are guilty of both cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism, whereas countries like Peru (I just chose Peru as an example) are victims of both cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism.

I’m not saying that the United States and Western Europe are dominant nations—those who accuse those countries of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism are. The whole idea appears demeaning to those countries that are claimed to be victimized. (Note that in the prom dress case, it was not the Chinese who claimed cultural appropriation, but other Americans.)

This is, as I see it, a small issue, but also a symptom of a larger one: the victim mentality that keeps some people and some nations from advancing. The claimed victims of cultural appropriation are saying others are taking what’s theirs without their permission, and the claimed victims of cultural imperialism are saying that they are having the culture of others forced upon them without their permission.

This victim mentality is evident in many economic issues, such as trade policy, the international operations of Western corporations, immigration policy, laws governing intellectual property, and more. There may be real issues there, so I’m not dismissing them. I am saying that victim mentality must be widespread, and is likely pernicious when an issue like the design of a prom dress gets the reaction it has.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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