Understanding cultural appropriation
Definitions, history and background
Definitions, history and background
Taken from the low Latin appropriatio, the word “appropriation” has been used in medicine since the 14th century to define the way an organism assimilates food naturally (REY, 2010). The word has evolved over the centuries. Around 1636 it was used to describe the action of taking property for oneself, and during the 18th century it was also used to mean [translation] “the condition of two bodies that can only be united by the presence of a third body that makes them unite”(CNRTL, 2012). At first the word “appropriation” did not seem to have a negative connotation, it referred to taking possession of something or acquiring or adapting an item.
The notion of cultural appropriation appeared for the first time in English in a 1976 paper by Kenneth Coutts-Smith, art historian and professor at the University of Toronto. He used the expression “cultural colonialism” to describe Western appropriation of cultural elements proper to the populations that had been colonized and were still dominated.
Essays and reflections about cultural appropriation have proliferated since the 1980s. James O. Young is one of the significant authors who approached the subject from a philosophical and ethical point of view (2008). In his view, cultural appropriation occurs when what he calls outsiders take possession of elements created by insiders for their exclusive use and benefit. The balance of power does not have to shift, depending on whether the outsiders are in a position of hegemony.
In recent years, in Quebec and elsewhere in the world, several communities that have a history of being colonized, rendered invisible and marginalized have started to have their voices heard as a result of their struggles to denounce the power relationships that still permeate contemporary societies and assert their rights.
Young lists several types of cultural appropriation:
Young attributes moral and immoral, offensive and non-offensive characteristics to each of those types of appropriation in turn, He believes cultural appropriation harms a culture when there is theft or disputed possession of cultural objects, mistaken representation, distortion of some aspects or the perpetuation of stereotypes. In our time it is important to distinguish “cultural appropriation” from “cultural borrowing” – a notion that opens new horizons into a culture, refutes preconceived ideas and generates new works. What must be avoided is the obliteration of the “other,” negative and harmful representations of his/her culture and the perpetuation of situations that could lead to systemic injustice.
Elsewhere on this site you will find a compass you can use as you approach an artistic project that involves some kind of cultural borrowing.
Highlights of the struggle for Indigenous rights from 1982 to 2019 (Quebec and Canada)
The campaign to add section 35 to the Constitution Act, 1982 (recognition of Aboriginal rights)
Resistance at Kanehsatake (the Oka crisis), the Paix des Braves agreement
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples
Creation of Nunavut
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)
Birth of the Idle no more movement, opposed to Bill C-45 among other things
Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)
National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)
They supported movements for emancipation and calls for political and identity recognition. That is the backdrop for shows like “Kanata.” Artistic works and actions may, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate the power relationships resulting from colonialist settlement and Indigenous policies.
1 Kanata, written and produced by Robert Lepage, started rehearsals in 2015. The controversy flared in Montreal in the summer of 2018.
A process in critical thinking