15th Graduate Conference in Political Philosophy – Abstract/Unterreiner

Miles Unterreiner

What is Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? On Appropriation and Disrespect

Since the Canadian cultural appropriation controversies of the late 1980s and early 1990s — initially sparked by a publishing house which declined to publish three short stories on the grounds that the stories’ authors had created characters from races and ethnicities other than their own — cultural appropriation has steadily acquired a greater degree of public attention. Accusations of cultural appropriation have led to the resignation of prominent university professors, the condemnation of highly successful novelists, and public apologies from artists, authors, celebrities, and singers.

Yet what precisely cultural appropriation is — and why it is allegedly wrong — is rarely spelled out with clarity in public discussion on the subject. Furthermore, the extent of engagement with cultural appropriation by analytic political philosophers has been limited. In this paper, I examine the possibility that cultural appropriation could be wrong because it is disrespectful.

In Section 2, I explain what I mean by disrespect. This section is not specific to the case of CA. Instead, it articulates a general conception of disrespect that applies to a range of cases including, but not limited to, some acts of CA.

Sections 3-5 argue that some acts commonly referred to as CA are best conceptualized not as “appropriation,” but as acts of disrespectful representation. These sections then outline three specific ways in which representations of cultural insiders by cultural outsiders could be disrespectful: they could be inaccurate or reductive, or they could inappropriately omit.

Section 6 shows that the extent to which these representations are actually disrespectful must be modulated by a reasonable effort standard. I suggest that any theory of cultural appropriation as disrespect which did not include this type of reasonable effort standard would generate highly implausible implications, and consequently ought to be rejected.

Section 7 concludes.