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Cultural appropriation, you just canít be too careful

By Russell Grenning - posted Thursday, 19 July 2018

We all agree that racism is a terrible, unforgivable thing but even the most enlightened of us are sometimes guilty of what could be called inadvertent racism - I refer, of course, to cultural appropriation.

Put as simply as possible, cultural appropriation is a concept dealing with the adoption of elements of a minority culture including, for example, cultural and religious traditions, fashion, symbols, language and songs by those of a dominant culture. Critics of the practice nowadays don’t just equate it with racism but with colonialism which they see as more or less the same thing.

But all is not lost.


The United Nations, working with its usual breakneck speed, is riding to the rescue to save us from ourselves. Naturally, this means they have established a committee - indeed, reflecting its paramount importance - it is a specialised international committee comprising delegates from 189 countries as part of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). This vital work has been going on since 2001 which may suggest a certain sluggishness, but they are working hard on creating on three pieces of international law that would, if implemented, expand intellectual property regulations to protect things like indigenous designs, dances, words and traditional medicines.

Yes, and they want it done quickly. In fact, they said so and now every one of the 189 member states are going through these three draft laws line by line which should more or less ensure that the other principal objective of the UN - international peace and good will - will be achieved first.

Meanwhile, they continue to take submissions to inform their work. One witness, Professor James Anaya, Dean of Law at the University of Colorado (USA) and identified as an “indigenous leader” told the Committee that the proposed new laws should “obligate states to create effective criminal and civil enforcement procedures to recognise and prevent the non-consensual taking and illegitimate possession, sale and export of traditional medicines.

Aroha Te Pareake Mead, a New Zealand Maori delegate, says that the number of occurrences of misappropriation happening to indigenous peoples around the world “seems relentless with no relief in sight” and “we asked the international community to help deal with a problem that traverses international boundaries and we are still waiting.”

But this is not to deny this Committee its successes - why, only recently, a US designer of women’s clothing agreed to change the description of one of her lines of coats from African-inspired to Romanian-inspired after Romania complained. Long journeys begin with a single step after all.

But elsewhere, those objecting to cultural appropriation are not waiting for the UN to complete its critical work and are taking action themselves.


The Montreal (Canada) International Jazz Festival has cancelled a series of performances in which white performers sang what were described as “slave songs”. Those shows, entitled SLAV. had been advertised as a “tribute to music as a tool for resilience and emancipation” that brought together “traditional Afro-American songs, from cotton fields to construction sites, railroads, from slave songs to prison songs.”

No way said Lucas Charlie Rose who describes herself as a “multidisciplinary hip hop artist” and “leader” of a global “black trans community”. “As a descendant of black slaves, it is my duty to ensure that their legacy is respected. These songs were not written so that non-black folks could charge other non-black folks $60 to $90 to perform these testimonies of pain and trauma,” she said.

Festival organisers who had added extra shows after the first were quickly sold out backtracked and cancelled the lot announcing, “We would like to apologise to those who were hurt,” they said.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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