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Cultural appropriation and the intimacy of groups


What could ground normative restrictions concerning cultural appropriation in cases where they are not grounded by independent considerations such as property rights or harm? We propose that such restrictions can be grounded by considerations of intimacy. Consider the familiar phenomenon of interpersonal intimacy. Certain aspects of personal life and interpersonal relationships are afforded various protections in virtue of being intimate. We argue that an analogous phenomenon exists at the level of large groups. In many cases, members of a group engage in shared practices that contribute to a sense of common identity, such as wearing certain hair or clothing styles or performing a certain style of music. Participation in such practices can generate relations of group intimacy, which can ground certain prerogatives in much the same way that interpersonal intimacy can. One such prerogative is making what we call an appropriation claim. An appropriation claim is a request from a group member that non-members refrain from appropriating a given element of the group’s culture. Ignoring appropriation claims can constitute a breach of intimacy. But, we argue, just as for the prerogatives of interpersonal intimacy, in many cases there is no prior fact of the matter about whether the appropriation of a given cultural practice would consitute a breach of intimacy. It depends on what the group decides together.

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  1. The term “cultural appropriation” is often used pejoratively; our usage is neutral. We prefer this valence-neutral usage because it accommodates without a proliferation of terminology the possibility that some forms of appropriation are ambiguous, unproblematic, or even laudable. See, for instance, Andrea Walsh’s and Dominic Lopes’s very useful account of the laudable re-appropriation of racist colonial imagery by First Nations artists (Walsh and Lopes 2009).

  2. For example, in the most recent philosophical anthology on cultural appropriation, the majority of essays take up questions of physical appropriation of physical remains and archeological finds, or slightly more esoteric forms of property ownership—such as ownership of genetic information, or intellectual property (Young and Brunk 2012).

  3. James Young discusses other types of appropriation, including content appropriation, which involves borrowing the content of artistic works, stories or myths of another culture (Young 2010, p. 6). Young also discusses what he calls ‘subject appropriation’, which involves adopting another culture or group as subject matter. For example, a white American author engages in subject appropriation when they write a book from the point of view of a Black African character. We take this to be a distinct phenomenon and don’t explore it directly in this paper. We do think, however, that our account would be a promising starting point for an analysis of the norms surrounding subject appropriation.

  4.; discussed in Young (2010, pp. 107–113).

  5. Baraka on cultural genocide discussed in Gracyk (2001, p. 113) and Young (2010, pp. 118–120).

  6. Matthes 2016)

  7. See “Of Seeds and Shamans” and “Native American Intellectual Property Rights: Issues in the Control of Esoteric Knowledge” in Ziff and Rao (1997).

  8. See Briahna Joy Gray on cultural exploitation: Also:; discussed in Young (2010, pp. 114–118).

  9. Elizabeth Coleman argues for restrictions against use by outsiders of certain images from aboriginal paintings. Such images, says Coleman, can count as insignias, which have an essential social function, much like heraldic devices or official stamps. Such insignias can only perform their social function when their use is restricted to authorized persons. In the cases of highly threatened groups, such as aboriginal groups, the uncontrolled use of such insignias threatens the stability and survivability of the group (Coleman 2001).

  10. Cf. Young (2010, p. 153).


  12. See Briahna Joy Gray on cultural disrespect:


  14. For an excellent general treatment of this idea, see the discussion of incorrigible social meanings in Patridge (2011, pp. 307–309).







  21. (Valk 2015)

  22. Ted Cohen’s work on intimacy, especially as it relates to humor, is an important exception, and the indirect inspiration for our account (Cohen 1978, 1999). However, his account does not discuss the normative consequences of intimacy, and so is not directly relevant to our argument.

  23. This is a different view from the one that Young considers at Young (2010, pp. 125–128), according to which appropriation is a violation of the individual privacy of group members. We mean to identify a prerogative analogous to privacy. We do not claim that appropriation in general can be considered a privacy violation.

  24. Inness directly relates autonomy to the right to privacy at Inness (1996, pp. 95–112).




  28. Taylor (2016, pp. 1–2), the theme of aesthetic self-fashioning and the creation of group agency is developed throughout the book.

  29. See, for example, Adrienne Keene’s remarks quoted earlier.

  30. Rovane (2004), Toumela (2007), List and Pettit (2011), Gilbert (2013), Pettit (2014a, b), Rovane (2014) and Lackey (2018) is a very brief sampling of this extended literature. We have, for brevity’s sake, focused on Pettit and List’s account, but our comments are compatible with any of these accounts. Tollefsen (2015) is a particularly good recent overview of the literature.

  31. For those interested theoretical account of such an animating basis from the literature on groups, likely candidates include Bryce Huebner and Marcus Hedahl’s notion of a shared interest and Margaret Gilbert’s account of joint commitment, both of which might plausibly ground prescriptions for behavior towards the group, but neither of which requires sufficient structure for group-hood to guarantee a singular voice (Huebner and Hedahl 2018; Gilbert 2013).

  32. For example, Jennifer Lackey’s study of group assertion largely focuses on groups which are sufficiently organized as to officially designate an authorized spokesperson (Lackey 2018).

  33. Matthes (2018)


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A great many people have helped this paper along the way. We’d like to thank Dave Baker, Kara Barnette, Julie Birch, Franklin Bruno, Anthony Cross, Tilda Cvrkel, Daniel Edelstein, Melinda Fagan, Jeremy David Fix, Mollie Gerver, Theodore Gracyk, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Bryce Huebner, Melissa Hughs, Andrew Huddleston, Shen-yi Liao, Dominic McIver Lopes, Samantha Matherne, Erich Hatala Matthes, Nadia Mehdi, Aaron Meskin, Joseph Rachiele, Nick Riggle, Guy Rohrbaugh, James Shelley, Angela Shope, Nils-Hennes Stear, Katherine Thomson-Jones, Miles Unterreisher, Jonathan Weinberg, Mary Beth Willard, Aaron Zimmerman, and the audiences of the Utah Aesthetic Normativity Conference, the Auburn Aesthetics Forum, the Leeds Cultural Appropriation Workshop, and the Pacific APA—and many more.

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Thi Nguyen, C., Strohl, M. Cultural appropriation and the intimacy of groups. Philos Stud 176, 981–1002 (2019).

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