Shared or Stolen: An Examination of Cultural Appropriation by Shannon Wright

A Place For Commentary on Cultural Appropriation

Today NPR published my piece on why “Cultural Appropriation Is, In Fact, Indefensible.” I was inspired to write this article by a recent NYTimes op-ed on the matter that floored me with how the writer misunderstood the topic, conflated it with other issues, and in general did not take into consideration or seem to know about any of the many articles and posts and books that already exist talking about cultural appropriation. It’s frustrating because that often seems to be the case. That’s why my piece has so many links to so many other essays as well as to resources.

It’s been a while since I submitted a piece to NPR, and so I didn’t know that they no longer have comments (I did do a little cheer when I saw). However, some folks are super not okay with not being able to scroll to the bottom and tell me how wrong I am! And thus my Twitter mentions, the Inbox on the Writing the Other account, and comments on unrelated posts here are full of folks offering me their thoughts.

Since this is the case, I thought a post giving folks the opportunity to scratch that itch was in order. Ta da! However, since this is my blog, I have rules, and you’ll have to be bound by them.

First time commenters are always moderated.

If you’ve never participated in discussion here, then your comment will not appear below automatically. It goes into a queue, and an admin has to rescue it from the queue. Since many folks who will rush here to argue with me do not often do so in good faith and/or can’t resist wallowing in racism or misogyny as they type, I will not be looking at the mod queue, someone else will. They will let your comment out if it doesn’t have those issues. If it does, they’ll delete it and I won’t see your words.

Side Note: Someone is moderating the email address my contact form goes to as well, so I won’t see anything deemed to be mired in bigotry there, either.

Before you argue with me about cultural appropriation, read all the links.

I put a ton of links in that piece for a reason. Cultural appropriation is a complex topic that can’t be 100% covered in one 1000 word essay. So I gave all readers the opportunity to delve deeper into it via other great essays. Click every link in that piece and read what’s behind it and click all the links in those pieces as well. Only then should you come here to ask questions or make objections.

“But I don’t have time to read all that!” you might say. “I have a life to lead!” Okay. But if you don’t have time to read up on the subject you don’t have time to argue with me about it. Go do something, anything, else.

Don’t argue with me on points I haven’t made.

If you see something in those links that you want to fight about, fight about it with the person who wrote the article. The person who made that point. Not with me. I’m not the avatar of all people who have written about cultural appropriation ever. Don’t expect me to answer for them.

If you can follow these guidelines, you can submit a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!

P.S. Sorry for the disjointed nature of the comment responses below. My theme doesn’t support threading as of yet, but I’m trying to fix that now.

Top Image: “Shared or Stolen: An Examination of Cultural Appropriation” by Shannon Wright. Find more of her work on her website, twitter, and instagram.


17 thoughts on “A Place For Commentary on Cultural Appropriation

  1. There are a few comments that won’t be making it out of the moderation queue but I will respond to collectively (many of them are similar and only require one response). This comment was part of a larger one which I was ready to answer until i got to this last paragraph and went NOPE. But I’ll address the last paragraph here. This is from “Joff“:

    You’ll probably say I didn’t read your article (which I did, though I did find rather confusing), or that I didn’t read your links (which I didn’t), but I don’t care about the links. If you are going to write a think piece, you should be prepared to defend it yourself. Don’t hide behind the arguments of others.

    First: Don’t dictate to me how I have to act in my own space. The rules in the post are very clear.

    Second: The concept that providing links and therefore providing deeper context is “hiding” behind them is absurd and also sad, because it reveals that you, and many other folks trying to have an argument with me, don’t understand how this kind of discourse works. There is no reason why I should have to sit here and type out the answer to questions that have already been addressed MANY times by other folks whose work I’ve read in order to gain a fuller understanding of the topic and is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. You have eyes, you can read, therefore do the work yourself.

    That’s really what this comes down to. I am well versed on this topic because I took the time to read and listen to experts on it. If you want to argue with me (not even discuss, because many of you are NOT involving yourselves in a discussion but instead looking for a fight), then you need to be at least 50% as well versed as I am. That means reading at least 75% of what I’ve read. Which is why I gave you links. If your understanding of the topic is shallow, and you refuse to utilize an avenue to rectify that situation, I don’t owe you anything.

    In conclusion, read the links. If you won’t read the links, then move along.

  2. Hi,

    I liked your article a lot and I found your writing style really clear and easy to read (I’m in school studying english so I love seeing how writers write). I felt, though, that for an article showing the indefensibility of cultural appropriation you missed out on one thing, that for me, especially as a white man, I look for in articles or think pieces surrounding different issues in order for me to better understand; you gave no definition of cultural appropriation. This did not seem like the goal of your piece, however, I think it could have played an important role. I understand that, “cultural appropriation can feel hard to get a handle on, because boiling it down to a two-sentence dictionary definition does no one any favors.” (Dope sentence by the way) So why not take your best shot at an extremely elusive topic which no one can seem to put a solid definition to. If you want to, use as many sentences as you need.


    1. Hi Ian, thanks for commenting. One reason why I didn’t try to define it more fully is that I honestly did not have the space. The definition is complex and sometimes even depends on what cultures you’re speaking about and also what artistic discipline one is working in (if you’re even talking about art, which you might not be, and then there’s other stuff to consider). This is why I really, really encourage people to read the last link in the piece, which is to the Cultural Appropriation Primer:

      The first half of the links there are articles that tackle defining cultural appropriation, some of them from different angles. My hope is that by offering so many viewpoints on the matter, and so many articles that are dedicated specifically to that, readers will be able to get a grasp on what it is. Let me know what you think once you’ve read them!

  3. It is almost gospel that Rock and Roll was a white invention. All it was was a marketing gimmick used to sell black music to a white audience. Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 was a pure rock and roll record by any definition. So was most of Big Joe Turner’s music. Little Richard and legions of older R&B stars were creating RnR before the term was ever used. Elvis, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis got the fame and fortune for pale imitations of real RnR.

  4. I just wanted to say that I loved the tone and substance of your writing in this blog post. I am glad you take care to engage with only ideas and people that have a genuine interest in furthering positive dialogue. I have many questions about cultural appropriation, it has become a hot topic at the high school where I teach geography and philosophy. I will take time to look at the links you have provided. Thank you.

  5. Thanks for your article. Also really appreciated the access to other essays too. It’s something we’ve discussed at length in our writing group, and I’ll be sharing it with them.

  6. Thank you for gathering and sharing all these resources. It’s an incredible amount of work, and so valuable. I’m going to look around here to see how I can support what you do.

  7. “Though I’m not the first king of controversy / I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / to do black music so selfishly / and use it to get myself wealthy” -Eminem, Without Me (2002)

    Sure, even though Em got involved in drama during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and has changed since then, it’s easy to forget how genuinely passionate he is about rap, and that Dr. Dre was responsible for giving him his big break. Maybe you could describe that situation as more of an exchange, but why write that lyric then? Were people wrong to describe his work as cultural appropriation? (Even though no-one was really using that term at the time.)

    Regardless, I disagree that discussion on cultural appropriation is that valuable. Of course, working to the mutual benefit for the source and their transformer works best for everyone, but ideas are so pervasive that it’ll happen anyway. I’m not sure whether there’s anything anyone can really do about it, or whether we really should try…

    1. Friendly Faith Plate, from what little I understand of Eminem’s path, I do think that was more of an exchange than an appropriation, but I also think Em was quite aware of how things could look, and perhaps working out some of his own shit and processing with those lyrics and that song. (I don;t know the song so I can’t say for sure.) Eminem has issues and I’m not a fan of him personally, but he strikes me as a self-aware and introspective dude.

      As to your assertion that there isn’t much that can be done about appropriation, I think there is. It’s like anything that’s pervasive yet morally wrong and systemically embedded (slavery, segregation, patriarchy, the list goes on); you have to actively fight against it and also walk the path of doing things better. Not every individual can have enough reach to change the world, but world change starts with working within the sphere of your own influence.

  8. Hi,

    I see from the article that you lecture and teach about inclusive writing practices. I am a musician and wonder how this can be translated to music: how can one go about making music that is inclusive? Sounds, progressions, and melodies have been circling for generations and sometimes it is even difficult to know when you’ve been inspired by a riff/progression that stems from an oppressed culture. How much due diligence should a responsible artist put forth?


    1. Ali, yours is an excellent question and I wish I had an answer for you! In the realm of writing it’s a bit more straightforward, but with music I think the lines between inspiration and appropriation are messier and harder to define. If you are cool with it, I’d like to tweet out your question and see if anyone who is more into the music world can point you to the right conversations.

  9. Thank you for writing this article! Would you also consider hairstyles & fashion to be cultural appropriation? My white teenage son would like to get dreads and I’m on the fence. Thanks :)

    1. Kayla,

      hairstyles and fashion CAN be part of cultural appropriation depending on the culture. In the case of dreds, I know many people who do say that is appropriation and should be avoided by whites. I don’t have a strong opinion on this particular case, but here are some good articles written by people who do!

      Hope that helps

  10. OK. Yes, I know, I know you say “cultural appropriation can feel hard to get a handle on, because boiling it down to a two-sentence dictionary definition does no one any favors…”

    But if one were trying to boil it down to a two sentence… not dictionary definition but rather action plan:

    1. Always remember that you are writing a kind of fanfic—hence praise and link to your influences in such a way that your influencers are glad that you wrote your fanfic.
    2. Try extra extra hard not to be a dick, which requires thinking very hard about how you might unintentionally be dickish…


    Brad DeLong

  11. But isn’t it true that some African American musicians who had their music appropriated by white musicians gained notoriety and (hopefully) some monetary rewards which they might not have had their music not been done by others considered more mainstream? Thanks.

    1. Larry a: It’s a bit more complex than that, but some did eventually get credit for their work and a place in mainstream music culture and history. That is, in part, because people worked hard to not let everyone forget this all happened. It’s also in part because of wider social change around civil rights. One of the beefs I have with the NYTimes piece is that the author acts as if the fight for racial justice can only happen in one arena, and therefore dismisses any connection between pushing back against appropriation and pushing back against systemic racism as a whole. I see it as all part of a larger work. You confront inequity in all the places it manifests in culture, and ensure that the folks who were shoved in the shadows before get recognized for what they did. That happened for many of the musicians that influenced elvis, and yay. But I think we should have to repeat that cycle. Instead, we make sure people from all cultures have the opportunity to get credit for their achievements AND folks get to make art influenced and informed by respectful exchange between cultures.

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