That Moment When Cultural Diffusion & Leveling Become Cultural Appropriation

Yoruba Priests Performing An Eyo Olókun Masquerade

The line of demarcation that distinguishes cultural diffusion and the subsequent cultural leveling it creates from cultural appropriation can at times be as fine as a strand of hair; other times, it’s as broad as a canyon of the grander type.
Cultural diffusion is the spreading of both material and nonmaterial cultural traits from one group of people to another. Through the course of this diffusion process, the importing culture begins to level with the exporting culture; technology is always the fastest cultural element to be diffused, thus knowledge is the chief export. This also means that background assumptions, beliefs, ideologies, values and norms are also exported.

As you might surmise, cultural diffusion is a significant part of hegemonic influence. And with hegemony comes the “right” to claim and appropriate various kinds of wealth for its own use. To the peoples from whom specific cultures and cultural artifacts are “borrowed,” it’s tantamount to being mass objectified and dispossessed of an entire shared history specific to their collective experience.
It is to experience this treatment of one’s personal narrative, and the collectively-held narrative of one’s people, as nothing less than a species of what some scholars have described as scientific colonialism (Nobles, 1976).
Critical to the healthy development and sustainability of any people are their processes of socialization into their dominant culture. A fundamental psychic outcome of these processes is the emergence and development of self-concept. In that light, consider the impact of scientific colonialism.

“[T]he scientific colonialism model . . . comprises an external power base, rights of access and claim, and removal of wealth (e.g., data). Negro self-concept literature is a prime example of scientific colonialism. The most important aspect that defines this literature as scientific colonialism is the processing of raw material (i.e., the relationship between theoretical assumptions and the nature of the findings). The general characteristics of Euro-American philosophy differ from those of African; thus when African data are processed by Euro-Americans, the integrity of the original nature of the data is distorted. A schematic compares European and African psycho-behavioral modalities, values and customs, and ethos. Understanding of the African self-concept is one of “we” instead of “I” (an extended self philosophy) and notions of “one with nature” and “survival of the tribe.” Domination, oppression, and subjugation by European peoples have caused psychological confusion” (Nobles, 1976).

Cultures are philosophically informed. How so? Firstly, all cultures contain an ontology; a conceptual framework concerned with the nature of the universe; i.e., what it is and isn’t. Secondly, all cultures have epistemologies; i.e., “ways of knowing”; of creating the corpus of knowledge that supports and crystallizes an ontology. Lastly, the epistemological paradigms of all cultures determine methodologies; i.e., theories of how best to execute the processes of finding out knowledges. Knowledge is nothing if not culture-specific.

Such knowledge is earned at the great cost of generations, centuries and millennia; of myriad lives. It is theft of the highest order of magnitude that these knowledges are then trafficked for their value as entertainment, novelty and yes, as profit to and for other peoples without a passing thought of acknowledgment of the creators, nor of the painful processes and costs of its production.
Scientific colonialism is comprised of both structures and processes by means of which a people’s fund of knowledge is expropriated for use by others without benefit of equitable exchange, while simultaneously diminishing or completely invalidating the indigenous epistemologies (ways of knowing) that produced the gnosis being harvested (Smith, 2002).

So what’s the big deal about some people’s use of some elements of other peoples’ cultures? What is culture, anyway?
Schein (2012) formally defines culture as (a) a pattern of shared basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, © as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, (e) is taught to new members of the group as the (f) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. Let’s now deconstruct and examine the applicability of this definition in the context of “jumping the broom” as a matrimonial symbol in American culture at large, and Black American culture in particular.
A pattern of shared basic assumptions . . .”
Basic assumptions are those that are accepted to such degree that they are taken as given, and frequently operate on so deep a level of subconsciousness that not only are they never questioned, they aren’t even consciously perceived. They form the foundation on which an entire societal frame of reference is built.
“ . . . invented, discovered, or developed by a given group . . . “
These unconscious but fundamental assumptions aren’t universal, but are specific to the social groups by which they are created.
“ . . . as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration . . . “
Obviously the problem of external adaptation for a given social group depends on how it is defined by its spatial and temporal horizons; i.e., both the period(s) and the location(s) in which said group is attempting to exist.
The requirements of external adaptation across a social group’s transgenerational lifespan aren’t static, but are altered by changes of location and the passage of time; particularly when these are involuntary. This is clearly true of social groups that are compelled to migrate from ancestral lands.
When we read that “so-and-so lived for X years and slept with his fathers,” we understand it to mean that this person has lived and died on ancestral lands. When dispossessed of the time and/or spaces by which a given social group is defined, massive psychological trauma is introduced into its collective experience, and puts at risk not only such group’s ability to successfully adapt to these changes, but also to sustain internal integration. Black people in the Americas are unable to live or to die in their ancestral African lands; except for those of us having indigenous American lineages, we cannot “sleep with our fathers.”

Adding insult to injury, we may thank the authors of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 of the Commonwealth of Virginia (the successful model of which was then exported to other states) for the fact that most of us are bereft of the knowledge that we even belong to those lineages (or if we know, cannot prove lineal continuity), and the authors of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Dawes Act of 1887 for the fact that those of us who have indigenous American lineages are almost equally bereft of a clue as to where those ancestral American lands may be (Matte, 2006).

Two Choctaw Men

In the case of the cultural artifact of the broom as a matrimonial symbol in Black American culture, that it was used in medieval Wales or by other contemporary European cultures is a non sequitur and completely beside the point — in the early life of the United States, the right of Black people to enjoy legally recognized marriages and to establish socially honored lines of paternity simply didn’t exist (Young, n.d.).
 As a symbol of one of the three most sacred rites of passage — birth, marriage and death — historically used by the peoples of the greater Ashanti Confederation, particularly the Ashante people, the crossing over the broom together (or some other form of its use) by an African couple enslaved in America was our attempt to adjust to the loss of agency and autonomy (external adaptation) and maintain a powerful symbolic tether to the Ancestors (internal integration) (Young, n.d.).

Euro-American Couple Jumping the Broom

No. It is insensitive, culturally voyeuristic, and a vestige of both colonial and racial privilege to appropriate the sacred from the collective experience of the “Other” to repurpose as a cute, even quaint cultural novelty and a demonstration of one’s “progressive” disposition. You may not place at our feet yet another indignity to our humanity.

Owing to their personal integrity and a sincere desire to develop the impulses of their personal spirituality through exploration, some people of Euro-American ancestry are understandably concerned by this set of social realities. After all, don’t people of all races and ethnicities study Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other traditions of spiritual practice? Why not also study Oṣa, Ifá, and other African spiritual systems?

Understand that “exploration” has for five and a quarter centuries been a globally problematic term for melanated people. This situation is therefore highly individualized, and there is no answer that is sufficiently broad in scope to be effectively or universally applicable to all cases.

The question of whether a particular Euro-American individual is permitted to undertake a study of Iṣeṣe (ee-SHEH-sheh [the Tradition]) under the tutelage of a Bàbàloṣa (bah-bah-LOH-sha [Lukumi or La Regla de Ocha]) or a Bàbàláwo (bah-bah-LAHW-u [Ifá]) depends on their questionable ability and willingness to humble themselves — perhaps for decades — at the feet of dark-skinned scholars and master teachers. It is a matter of utmost gravity to be determined by the Baba’s mastery of divination with the obi, cowries (diloggún), ikins, and/or Opon and Opele, the nearly 300 Odus by which they are supplemented, and the several levels of interpretation for each method.

Many initiates are highly resistant to admitting funfun (foreigners, particularly Euro/Euro-Americans) precisely because of their unfavorable history of political, economic and scientific colonialism. Other practitioners are more willing to admit those Euro/Euro-Americans who seem to earnestly seek to learn, leaving the intentions and actions (their inner and outer truths) of these petitioners to those terrible and powerful forces that are well-acquainted with issues of integrity and retributive justice. May each house be guided by the sight of its own father.

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Matte, J. A. (2006). Extinction by reclassification: The MOWA Choctaws of South Alabama and their struggle for federal recognition. The Alabama Review, 59 (July 2006).

Nobles, W. W. (1976). Extended self: Rethinking the so-called Negro self-concept. Journal of Black Psychology, 2(2), 15–24.

Schein, E. H. (2012). What is culture? In M. Godwin & J. H. Gittell (Eds.), Sociology of organizations: Structures and relationships (pp. 311–314). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Smith, L. T. (2002). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples (5th ed.). London, UK: Zed.

Young, Danielle. (n.d.). White couple jumps the broom & we’re like, no you can’t do that. Retrieved from

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