Contemporary cultural debate in the United States has tended to depoliticize the act of appropriation from its historical context, as well as from its agents. Too often, the focus of analysis is either on the individual acts of appropriation by artists and identity-benders or the large-scale exchanges of goods within the domain of global capitalism, without a questioning of the ways these practices intersect. Formalist analyses can make different operations appear to be similar, but only the most extreme forms of relativism would allow us to equate the operations of institutions, corporations, governments, and affluent consumers with the survival strategies of marginalized communities. Appropriation is a process that cannot be reduced to what happens once something identifiable is removed from the place it previously occupied. Cultural appropriation is as much a political act as it is a formal operation or linguistic game. It involves taking something, often from someone, and it is rarely an isolated gesture. Seen from a semiotic perspective, the act may be interpreted as a dramatic illustration of the arbitrary relationships between identities and bodies, or between signifiers and referents. Seen within the historical context of historical relationships among the different sectors of societies in the Americas, however, that act of taking is marked by a legacy of violence, and of forced adaptation to imposed symbolic orders and the loss of the colonized’s right to name things as their own.
While it is true that no culture is fixed and that exchange among cultures has taken place throughout history, not to recognize historical imbalances and their influence is the strategical evasion that enables the already empowered to naturalize their advantage. As bell hooks points out in her essay “Eating the Other,” members of ethnic minority groups that have endured a history of having their cultural production regulated by and capitalized on by whites deploy essentialist arguments as a defense against excessive commodification.