Whose culture is it anyway? The cultural appropriation debate

Saturday 21 October, 14:0015:00, National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EWUK satellites


This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Edinburgh, a day of debates at the National Library of Scotland. Full details and tickets here.

Denunciations of usually white celebrities for appropriation are now a regular part of the entertainment and fashion landscape: singers who wear their hair in cornrows are accused of exploiting black culture; Selena Gomez has been slammed for wearing a bindi; fashion designer Marc Jacobs was attacked when his New York Fashion Week show featured models whose hair had been styled in colourful dreadlocks. Even eating has become a political minefield. College cafeterias have been denounced for cultural appropriation for serving of samosas, kebabs or curries. Critics argue that this is ‘colonial’, a form of theft – quite literally in the case of some historical artefacts, as some argue in the case of the Elgin Marbles, for example – from a minority or less powerful culture by a dominant culture.

Yet others view such instances as a normal and positive interaction of ideas. Ideas about art, science, philosophy, music and much more have been borrowed and developed since the dawn of civilisation. Science writer Matt Ridley has talked about the history of human progress as being the product of ‘ideas having sex’. Isn’t imitation the highest form of flattery?

How should we view this appropriation of elements of one culture by another? What does the debate say about our attitudes to culture? Should we see ‘culture’ as belonging to one group of people at all?