The term cultural appropriation never entered my vocabulary. (Neither has microaggression or White privilege.) I don’t recall anyone using the term in my early adulthood during the 1990s, but the concept did exist and was debated among professors at major universities.
Afrocentric scholars applied this concept to antiquity. They claimed all the great cultural contributions attributed to Western Civilization were first developed in Africa and then stolen by the Europeans. There was a popular book that specifically claimed Greek philosophy was appropriated from Egypt. It was called: Stolen Legacy
Now, in academic circles, culture has three working definitions.
1) To cultivate through education.
2) The intellectual side of civilization.
3) The collective customs of a people.
The Afrocentric scholars were focused o
n definitions one and two. They believed university curriculums presented a Eurocentric worldview that disregarded the intellectual contributions of different cultures to civilization, and that type of education cultivated an inferiority complex inside students of color.
Multiculturalism was the popular theory promoted during that time to counterbalance Eurocentrism. The idea was to celebrate diversity. Of course, traditional historians preferred the phrase “cultural exchange” and resented any accusations of theft. In defense of their tradition, they demanded to know how culture can be stolen.
One professor said, “If I steal your car you no longer have your car. Let’s hypothetically say philosophy didn’t develop independently in Greece and the Greeks took it from Egypt, what did the Egyptians lose? The Egyptians would still have their philosophy, so how is that theft?”
The professor was right.
But the multiculturalists were also right to challenge Eurocentrism. One Black columnist wrote, “The world has been multicultural for centuries before this word (multiculturalism) was coined … The very paper on which these words are written was invented in China, as was the art of printing. The letters come from ancient Rome and the numbers from India, via the Arabs. All this is being written by a man whose ancestors came from Africa, while listening to music by a Russian composer.”
During the academic debate over paying cultural homage in antiquity Black students majoring in African American Studies could enroll in a course called: An Introduction to Black Existentialism (a tradition that traced back to a Danish philosopher) and hundreds of others pledged Black fraternities and sororities, also known as African American Greek organizations. And none of these students were introduced to the term cultural appropriation.
Speaking of students, I recently saw a photograph of a White elementary school teacher leading a group of Black students in “mindfulness.” The reporter described “mindfulness” as a secular version of Buddhist meditation practices.
At first, I thought, what’s the difference between secular Buddhism and silent prayer, not much, except someone would associate prayer with the religion of the dominant culture, and if the dominant custom (definition #3) is imposed on others, especially students of color, it would be considered “cultural imperialism.”
Then I thought why isn’t this considered cultural appropriation, Western Civilization appropriating from the East? Now, let’s assume it is, why would that be wrong if it’s beneficial to the participants?
But this type of debate doesn’t occur.
Culture to the Afrocentric scholars was the intellectual side of civilization, but, today, for those that accuse others of cultural appropriation, culture is nothing but prom dresses and hair styles. There’s no depth to this. That’s why cultural appropriation has never entered my vocabulary.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)