A full discussion of cultural appropriation must attempt to remove the sole negative context, else the topic becomes a laundry list of woes and ills. Is this possible? I believe there are positive aspects to appropriation, particularly to the originating group. The irony of the matter is that the negative goes with the positive. The two cannot be easily separated. It is not possible to reap the positive benefits of appropriation without risking the impact of the negative.
The upside of appropriation is the recognition of the cultural group in ways that are very positive. Political, financial and spiritual benefits come to those groups that can move from the shadows of society. The sharing of culture is the best currency to pay for outward recognition. Many minority groups play this card with events that celebrate their cultural richness. There are “history” days and months defined for minority groups. The purpose of these periods is to lobby the greater body for beneficial recognition. While the celebrations are there for the culture to remember itself, the outward events promote the recognition of the culture as one worthy of recognition and resources.
The purposeful sharing of culture will invariably lead to some degree of cultural appropriation. The saying about imitation has a kernel of truth. Admiration of a culture will create a desire to have some piece or part of the culture. The arts are the easiest for outsiders to grasp. Jewelry, painting, pottery, and other artistic expressions are embraced and then copied. The members of the original culture may at first approve of this. After all, it is their goods that are being distributed amongst outsiders. A form of majority acceptance is the result. This road is open ended. It is difficult for the originating culture to say ‘halt” when trickle of acceptance turns into a torrent.
At some point the rush to cultural appropriation will cease to benefit the culture. Be their motivations conscious or unconscious, the positive benefits of sharing their ways begin to also reap negative returns. I see this as a Catch-22. A culture can vanish without some degree of recognition by the majority. The recognition can take the form of political or financial sharing with the majority. Non recognition leads to abuse, neglect and perhaps extinction. This is particularly the case when the minority is fully surrounded by the majority. The cultural minority only has that power that the majority bequeaths them. “The Lady, or the Tiger?” question arises when a culture must decide if their participation in the larger group is worth the price of cultural appropriation. Something will happen. The door may hold the Lady of opportunity. The door may hold a tiger of destruction. The former will benefit the culture and the latter will distort and misrepresent their culture. Sadly, the choice must be made if the minority culture will survive.
In light of the paradoxical scenarios, is the joke of decrying cultural appropriation similar to locking the barn doors after the horses have escaped? Can the guardians of a culture, those on the look-out for harmful appropriation, live in harmony with those who seek to promote the culture? Does one group weaken the culture while the other group strengthens it? Is the soul of a culture lost while the body of the culture is maintained? Can the body survive without the soul? I see these as the challenges to those who struggle with maintenance and promotion of rich cultural groups.