Cultural appropriation and oppression


In this paper, I present an outline of the oppression account of cultural appropriation and argue that it offers the best explanation for the wrongfulness of the varied and complex cases of appropriation to which people often object. I then compare the oppression account with the intimacy account defended by C. Thi Nguyen and Matt Strohl. Though I believe that Nguyen and Strohl’s account offers important insight into an essential dimension of the cultural appropriation debate, I argue that justified objections to cultural appropriation must ultimately be grounded in considerations of oppression as opposed to group intimacy. I present three primary objections to the intimacy account. First, I suggest that in its effort to explain expressive appropriation claims (those that purportedly lack an independent ground), the intimacy account doubles down on the boundary problem. Second, I question whether group intimacy possess the kind of bare normativity that Nguyen and Strohl claim for it. Finally, I argue that these objections give us reason to accept the importance of group intimacy to the cultural appropriation debate, but question the source of its significance as identified by Nguyen and Strohl.

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  1. 1.

    I follow Young (2011) in adopting a pluralistic understanding of oppression.

  2. 2.

    For a more detailed overview of these and other issues related to cultural appropriation, please see Matthes (2018).

  3. 3.

    Though it is worth noting that the idea of cultural property itself need not (and, I’ve argued, ought not) be understood in a depoliticized, universalist sense either (Matthes 2017).

  4. 4.

    For a broader discussion of gendered behavioral control, see Manne (2017).

  5. 5.

    For an interesting example of appropriation used as a tool to combat oppression, see Walsh and Lopes (2012). Even in this case, though, it’s not clear that the appropriation challenges the dominant group’s autonomy per se.

  6. 6.

    Compare with the idea that we should repatriate material culture to former colonies independently of their claim to any particular item, but rather, as an act of recognition and redress for the undermining of their autonomy (Ypi 2013; Matthes 2017).


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This paper has benefited from helpful discussions with Shen-yi Liao, Nick Riggle, Thi Nguyen, Matt Strohl, and audience members at the 2018 APA Pacific Division meeting in San Diego. Special thanks to Dominic McIver Lopes and Margaret Moore. Some parts of this paper were further developed in blog posts at Aesthetics for Birds: thanks to Alex King for feedback and providing an excellent venue for work in aesthetics. Thanks always to Jackie Hatala Matthes.

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Correspondence to Erich Hatala Matthes.

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Matthes, E.H. Cultural appropriation and oppression. Philos Stud 176, 1003–1013 (2019).

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  • Cultural appropriation
  • Oppression
  • Culture
  • Essentialism