What follows is a guest post from Erich Hatala Matthes (Wellesley College).
Last month, Nicki Minaj released the video for her new song “Chun-Li” (along with an accompanying performance on SNL). Replete with chopsticks, conical hats, and other unimaginative Asian stereotypes, the performance quickly led to charges of cultural appropriation. I’m late to the party as far as the Internet commentary cycle is concerned, but I think this case highlights an important aspect of the debate about cultural appropriation that doesn’t always get enough attention. So here’s my ice-cold take: the fact that Minaj is herself a member of an oppressed group does not mean that those calling “Chun-Li” cultural appropriation are misguided.
Let’s back up. Cultural appropriation is only morally objectionable if the appropriated elements come from an oppressed cultural group; that’s generally accepted as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition. Though there are multiple ways of explaining the harm of cultural appropriation (in terms of exploitation, silencing, misrepresentation, etc.), the common element is that the harm is predicated on the relative lack of social power possessed by members of a particular group. Even if members of oppressed groups wanted to engage in harmful appropriation of the dominant culture, they would be unable to activate the relevant mechanisms of power that make appropriation harmful. You can’t easily exploit people who have more power than you do; it’s difficult to silence the person with the loudest megaphone and most opportunities to use it. Indeed, due to the power of dominant cultures, it is typically more accurate to think of them as assimilating members of other cultures, rather than members of other cultures appropriating from them.
It is easy to slide from the idea that only members of an oppressed group can be victims of cultural appropriation to the further claim that wrongful appropriation can only be carried out by members of the very group responsible for that oppression. For instance, because white colonists enslaved Africans and committed genocide against Native peoples, it is only when white people appropriate elements of Black and Native cultures that such appropriation is harmful. To be sure, there seems to be something especially wrong in such cases, and there is thus good reason why most discussion about cultural appropriation focuses on people who derive benefits from histories of colonialism and imperialism (white people) appropriating cultural elements from the victims of those very forms of oppression (for much excellent coverage on this score, see nativeappropriations.com). This is why, for instance, Brittney Cooper specifically highlights the role of relative power dynamics in her incisive discussion of Iggy Azalea, a white female rapper. Azalea derives substantial benefits from appropriating the sound and style of Southern Black women who themselves are denied the opportunity to benefit from those very cultural elements due to systemic racism, hurdles that Azalea does not face. Cooper goes so far as to say that if Black women were better represented in rap, she wouldn’t even have a problem with Azalea (even if she might still find her absurd). Fix the power problem, fix the appropriation problem.
However, although unequal power dynamics are what give cultural appropriation its objectionable bite, those dynamics need not always hold between the appropriator and the oppressed cultural group specifically. One of the most important discussions of cultural appropriation was written by Métis/Cree scholar and artist Loretta Todd back in 1990. In her article “Notes on Appropriation,” (Parallelogramme 16) Todd writes: “For me, the definition of appropriation originates in its inversion, cultural autonomy. Cultural autonomy signifies a right to cultural specificity, a right to one’s origins and histories as told from within the culture and not as mediated from without” (24). Historical and ongoing oppression through colonialism and imperialism themselves involve significant violations of cultural autonomy through schemes of intentional erasure and destruction, including both laws and norms that forbid or repress cultural practices, from the Potlatch laws of Canada to corporate norms that police Black hairstyles. But moreover, these processes establish background conditions that make it all the easier for others, no matter who they are, to play a role in further violations of cultural autonomy and harmful appropriation.
Consider this analogy. A Chinese-American student, Jenny, attends a predominantly white suburban high school. Brent, a white student, frequently denigrates Jenny by publicly making racist comments about her, which has a harmful effect on Jenny’s experience at school. Luckily, Brent moves away. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, Jenny finds that Mike, a Black student, is making the same bigoted comments about her. Despite the typical racism of a predominantly white suburban environment, Mike is very popular, and other students listen to what he says. Now, the reason that both Brent and Mike’s comments have the effect they do is because of the broader systemic racism of their community, which, in the U.S., is entangled with white supremacy; if Jenny made bigoted comments about Brent, they would have no bite. But the fact that Mike is also a member of an oppressed group and a victim of racism does not counteract his ability to activate the same racist mechanisms that Brent does. Perhaps a richer version of this case would reveal reasons for thinking that Mike is less blameworthy than Brent; but that conclusion would not entail that his actions are morally permissible.
The same dynamics hold in cultural appropriation cases. Although it is dominant groups that cause the marginalization of others in the first place, members of dominant groups need not be the ones mediating representations of culture in order to produce the violations of cultural autonomy with which Todd is concerned. The fact that Minaj wields the power of celebrity, despite otherwise being a member of an oppressed group, can exacerbate that violation, especially if her work trades in misrepresentations and stereotypes as some have suggested (though I leave further discussion of that matter to others).
To be clear, the aim of raising these points is not to start policing artists’ use of elements from other cultures. Many commentators who bristle at objections to cultural appropriation immediately leap to dystopian visions of censorship based on essentialized caricatures of cultural groups, which I certainly don’t endorse. But many morally objectionable actions are important to understand and identify, even if they shouldn’t be subject to legal or policy norms (though for a fascinating (albeit long) defense of legal mechanisms for managing cultural property, see here). If your friend is constantly breaking his promises for no good reason, it doesn’t mean he should go to jail; it just means he’s a dick. If “Chun-Li” presents a stereotyped amalgamation of “Asian Culture” for popular consumption, then people aren’t wrong to point out that it’s insensitive, offensive, or harmful. Minaj’s own cultural and racial identity doesn’t change that.
Notes on the Contributor
Erich Hatala Matthes is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. His research focuses on the ethics, politics, and aesthetics of cultural heritage, art, and the environment.