Stop calling it “Cultural Appropriation” and call it what it is: Colonialism

June 4, 2018
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By Dr. Suzanne Forbes-Vierling, AFROPUNK contributor


Let’s examine the words “Cultural Appropriation.”  It seems like all of us use this term to describe all combinations of cultural groups using each other’s artistic and intellectual expression. I propose that we discard this term when we are describing the taking of artistic and intellectual expression where there is a power differential between the groups. Cultural appropriation does exist between peoples and cultures where there is no power differential but it is a nonexistent term to describe actions between those who maintain colonial power over those whose culture is taken for profit. Under those conditions, we should use another term instead: Colonialism.  

Why is the term ‘cultural appropriation’ so problematic? The term as we know it presupposes that artistic and intellectual expression is separate from the taking of land and the people that toil it.

Two NYT articles illustrate the continued defense of ‘cultural appropriation’ that attempts to separate liberal sensibilities from that which would have pleased the voracious appetites of Cecil Rhodes, Queen Isabella, Queen Elizabeth and King Leopold.  All those who cheer and defend colonialism fail to center the feelings, resistance to erasure, and economic impact to oppressed people.  

In Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation, Bari Wiess states: “So long as the impulse is one of homage and not derision, we should encourage borrowing.  Culture should be shared, not hoarded.”  In the article “In Defense of Cultural Appropriation”  Kenan Malik surmises that: “Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts.  In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but hijacking.  Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others.  Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.”

The problem is that appropriation IS theft.  It IS analogous to the seizure of land and artifacts.  We shouldn’t encourage borrowing without asking for it and only after waiting for an answer. People need to understand that this answer could be a yes or a NO! #Sorrynotsorry.

Colonizer centered definitions of “cultural appropriation” fails to acknowledge the feelings of the group experiencing theft and erasure.  

The terminology we find amongst proponents of cultural appropriation – “homage”, “borrowing”, and “sharing” – centers the desires of those who take artistic expression for profit.

The term “Cultural appropriation” is a post-civil rights liberal revisionist term. It defends the present day colonial mindset that believes it owns all things black.  There is in the ethos a term I coined entitled post colonial ownership syndrome (PCOS).  Post colonial ownership syndrome posits that the dominant ruling class possess varying levels of assumptions that they still physically own black bodies and all that come from them. Buried in the European psyche, post colonial ownership syndrome is the unchecked reflexive act of taking from whom it believes it still physically owns.

The pushback from colonialists when we fight to reclaim what we believe to be ours is shock and indignation. You hear reactive terms like “selfish”, “self-segregationist” and “black nationalist” to describe the real fear of letting us-and our culture-go.

Basically, if you are black, colonialists are accustomed to taking all that you have. If you create something that you love, they’re gonna ‘love it’ too-and take it!

Cultural appropriation is a term that conveniently avoids talking about the most important issue of all:  the economic benefits to colonizers for freely taking artistic expression from subjugated cultures. Alternately, people of color are dissuaded from using the same rules of engagement set forth to protect colonizer’s own artistic, creative inventions.  

Colonial power has the desire and power to legally protect their art and intellectual creations all the while feeling justified in taking the art and intellectual creations of those subjugated and capitalizing on it.

Colonizers ensure that they legally protecting their intellectual and artistic property rights through the US patent and trademark office.  Any hint of transgression with using a tune, mark, letter, clothe pattern, fashion, or computer program, is met with the full force of a legal team blocking use of that which is protected. For example, Intellectual and creative ideas shared with Microsoft, Facebook, Google and many others, are always in fierce multi-million dollar battles over who owns the creativity.  Not an episode of Shark Tank goes by without one of the sharks asking if the creativity in front of them is legally protected.

Note to colonizers:  You don’t get to have a billion-dollar intellectual property law institution that fights daily to secure ownership of your artistic expression via trademarks, copyrights and patents and then tell people of color that our culture is not our property; that it is to be shared. I think not!  

These facts nullify the use of the term cultural appropriation and introduces the proper terminology – colonialism.  

The basic definition of colonialism is the “policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” The goal is to exert complete control and extraction of all resources of the oppressed people that can yield a profit for any member of the colonizers. It is then followed by exclusion of that group from the economic system that their resources initially created.

  1. Colonizers take.
  2. Colonizers never ask to borrow.
  3. Colonizers never return – which is the polite thing to do after you are allowed to borrow something.
  4. Colonizers never say thank you.
  5. Colonizers purposely exclude you – the actual person – after they have taken everything else from you.
  6. Colonizers take all profits.

While demanding the abdication of ownership over intellectual and artistic expression from those colonized for the sake of “sharing”, colonizers ensure that their own creative work is solidly patented, trademarked and copyrighted for ownership and profit.  

The free hand on feeling justified in capitalizing off of black artistic expression has a solid historical foundation that endures today.  


In the early 1830s, an actor named Thomas Rice took keen interest in an enslaved African American man whom he observed while dining in a restaurant with friends.  As the black man was walking around it was clear that he had a permanent injury. The brother was singing the “Jump Jim Crow” song while walking around limping.  Thomas Rice stole the human and artistic expression of this man and mimicked the brother in his stage routine.  Thomas Rice never looked back and went on to win international accolades for his ability to entertain. The enslaved man whose existence, song and mannerisms were stolen remained a slave for the rest of his life while Thomas Rice became financially successful. The Queen of England bestowed upon him the best actor award, very much like today when white people, like Rachel Dolezal, are rewarded for playing “black.” He was called “Daddy” Rice, the father of American minstrelsy, a form of entertainment mainstreamed as a normal part of the American lexicon. This is what “borrowing” and “paying homage” looks like for the colonizer and the subjugated to this very day.  

As we know, a plethora of artists have all profited significantly by donning varying forms of performative minstrelsy.  From Iggy Azalea’s mocking stance toward poverty to Justin Timberlake’s desire to drag Prince from his grave and into his NFL half-time show – there is an insatiable, sadistic need and sense of entitlement (post colonial ownership syndrome) for minstrel performers to scrape off and use blackness for fame, reward and profit.  


Around the same time, Saartje Baartman was trafficked to Europe and sold to zoos to be put on display.  She was also sold to French and British scientists who used her for live scientific experiments as well as for sex.  She was also used for sex when she was returned to her “stable” to sleep.  She was worked 24/7 until she died of alcoholism.  Her body was then dissected, researched and yet again put on display in the museum l’Homme in France.  South Africa had to fight with France for years in order to reclaim her body and provide her with a proper funeral.

The Kardashians are primary beneficiaries of America’s fascination with both black male sexuality and 100% of every move of black women. From the cells of Henrietta Lacks, to the sadistic gynecological experiments, modern medicine stands on the back of black bodies.  To this day, while there is an apology to the Tuskegee experiment victims from President Clinton on the Center for Disease Control website, there is no legacy for the descendants. Henrietta Lacks family is fighting for remuneration while the pharmaceutical companies swim in billions.  


Our creative intellect hasn’t been spared from colonization.  An early example of this is West African native Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) who was brought to the U.S. and enslaved.  Her owners decided to educate her and she published her first book of poetry in 1773.  While educating an African American was illegal, her owners-the Wheatleys-would have dinner parties where curious guests would come to be entertained by listening to an “articulate” black woman recite poetry. This is a perfect example of intellectual expression used for entertainment.

We’ve all been told how “articulate” we are right? We know that our Collins, Davis, Walker, hooks, and Crenshaw feminist/womanist voices have been co-opted to bring life to all of the white women’s marches and protests. We know that all the co-opted concepts of Parhem, Akbar, Grier and Cobb, and White’s intellect have strongly influenced the rhetoric of white social justice warriors. We participated in the invention of everything from whiskey to the automobile. We sent the first man to the moon. Yet we are erased and decentralized from full participation, including well deserved economic legacies.

Many will argue that “appropriation” goes both ways.  That Black people “borrow” as well. That is to say that those subjugated also take from that which is considered culturally “European.”  Black women’s hair is often used as a whataboutism when it comes to those trying to clap back on what appears to be black appropriation of that which is white. Well we know that black women are required to change their hair literally in many cases just to keep their jobs. Not appropriation or colonialism but sheer survival.  Black people bring life and profits to Twitter. Are we majority shareholders? What about those entering the arena of co-opting European-centered activity such as golf and tennis and ballet? What of the success of Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena, and Dance Theatre of Harlem? Tiger, Serena and Venus, and Dance theatre of Harlem – who we perceive to be borrowing and winning – are simply absorbed within a bigger system.  It’s not as if black folk absorbed golf, tennis and ballet into black owned economic systems and controlled the media, marketing, use, manufacturing, product development, and distribution of that which was “borrowed.”  

The primary financial beneficiaries of black excellence in “white” activity – are white stakeholders that capitalize on talent. European culture has the power to absorb artistic, intellectual and any other aspect of POC’s culture and monetize it inside a multitude of systems. Black excellence sells stock and yield profits. Each of these systems create employment and wealth building primarily for non-black beneficiaries.

With all the wealth built from the taking of natural resources, land, labor AND creative design from African, African American, South American, African European and Caribbean people, billions of dollars in revenue should have been routed/shared into the Black community to benefit the people.  As long as big money is being made off of anything from black people to the exclusion of black people, there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. There should be no black person living in poverty given the gross theft of everything black. We should abandon the use of the term cultural appropriation so that it is clear what is being experienced. Colonialism.