Cultural Deprivation Syndrome

Fair warning: this post poses more questions than answers.

I guess you can say that for all of my posts, but this is one I’d really like to hear your thoughts on.

I have for some time pondered the subject of cultural appropriation. A South Asian friend says it’s the result of Cultural Deprivation Syndrome.

She offered the example of a yoga center that features pictures of Hindu Gods in their studio. Some of the pictures were displayed in the bathroom, and as decoration no less. Wrong place. Wrong use. Totally disrespectful, if perhaps unintentionally so, but that’s kind of the point, right? I mean, they are using religious symbols without consideration for the religion or the people who practice it.

Idols and pictures were placed at the front of the studio, and students were asked to point their toes toward them while doing poses. Again, for Hindus, this is simply not done. Perhaps worst of all, students are encouraged to use Hindu slokas (prayers) as meditation chants.

And, mind you, they are charging money for all of this.

But there’s more. She described whites who study South Asian cultures in school who claim to know more about her culture than she does, as if South Asian cultures are objects one can purchase access to at school, rather than dynamic, living constructs created among South Asian people, based on tradition but ever evolving, and only truly meaningful in the context of community.

If you’re a person of color reading this, I bet you are running your own examples through your mind.

Whites appropriating the cultures of people of color is nothing new. Art History is rife with examples of Europeans falling into faddish fascination with Persian, Japanese, and Egyptian art. And adopting spiritual practices, especially of Asia and Native America, has been common among whites since the mid-twentieth century.

Whites get to have their cake and eat it too when they use their privilege in order to study or collect bits of the cultures of others, assigning meaning to their acquisitions that color up otherwise beige and tan realities.

I guess the down side, slight though it may be, to being the ethnic “normal” is that some whites feel they have no ethnicity or culture at all. Cultural Deprivation Syndrome, in this context, is just one of many byproducts of the political system of racism.

And it gets worse. In the recession years of the 1980s, I saw the uglier side of Cultural Deprivation Syndrome when white youth, many raised in suburban cultural wastelands, were drawn to neo-Nazism in order to create culture and give meaning to their lives. They appropriated the the working-class skinhead lifestyle and mashed it together with the philosophy of Hitler (or, in some cases, Japanese fascist Yukio Mishima) to create a subculture that gave them a sense of power and meaning in a world where they believed white skin was losing it’s value as social and economic currency.

So what’s to be done? I’ve seen diversity education programs that help whites claim their ethnic heritages. I’ve also seen these efforts go in the direction of Irish supremacy (not to pick on the Irish since I’ve seen many other variations on the theme). Folks often develop a more specific ethnic identification, but without challenging their white racial identification and privilege.

It’s a frustrating situation and one that needs to be challenged. But, I encourage compassion.

Mine comes from the recognition that I have also appropriated the cultures of others. My political beliefs were first inspired by the words of Julius Lester, Eldridge Cleaver, Che Guevara, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Audre Lorde, Ward Churchill and many others, none of whom share my ethnicity or culture. The experiences of oppression as documented by African American, Latino, and Native American people provides the basic architecture for how I understand myself, my oppression, and my privilege. Because of the intellectual legacy of people not of my ethnicity or culture, I’m sitting at my computer writing this post, and not standing on a factory line screwing widgets to widgets.

So maybe it’s the way in which we use what we appropriate; how we negotiate between who and what we are and do, and the ideas and practices we learn from others that matters. The question, maybe, ought not be “why are you stealing from me?,” but instead, “how will you use what you’ve learned? Is it just for you? Or is it for us?”

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

12 replies on “Cultural Deprivation Syndrome”

I don’t think you appropriate when you build your analysis from people of different ethnicities. I think there is a definite difference when you learn from great minds, take in beliefs and practice values you learned from others–and when you appropriate them as your “own”.

I can learn to make a brilliantly tasty mole chicken, it might be the best you have ever had–I can claim it to be delicious, I can *not* claim myself to be a Mexican chef, bringing authentic recipes from my grandma and spreading the gospel of mole to other chefs (some of whom could be Mexican and have variations of their own to the recipe). All I can say is, “This is my delicious mole recipe.” I can credit the source, and explain how I’ve worked on it for years to give myself the credibility I deserve as a great cook.

So, cooking a delicious mole and taking recognition while giving credit where it is due–not appropriation. Cooking a delicious mole, claiming it as “mine” and my expertise–appropriation.

Something like that?

Great, great point. I’ll keep posting on this subject if you promise to keep feeding me ideas and making critical and helpful comments!

Hi Scot. Where to begin…?
Isn’t believing in “Cultural Deprivation Syndrome” —as catchy and sassy as it sounds—in itself a way of viewing the dominant culture as the invisible norm? It’s comparable to people who never believe that they themselves have an accent. Everybody has an accent. It also reminds me of the self-evidence with which people seem to view the heterosexual norm as the empty slate, by which to judge non-norm behavior as queer, literally, or not. Perhaps it has more to do with the laws of statistics than it does with any cultural imperative, but I’m not a sociologist. In any case, I want to emphasize that “culturallessness” doesn’t exist. (according to my spell check it doesn’t either.)

Okay, I will admit there is a certain paucity of colorful otherness (i.e. “identity”) to the average white American experience. It’s so dominant that you can’t distinguish yourself with it. You can’t be “special”, you can’t be an interesting outsider. Even I, with my singular European ethnicity from mom and dad’s side, was just subsumed into the great white American borg. Never the less, you do live it, as unconscious as you are of it. I hardly have to describe the mine field one enters when you care to assert your White identity as a country rube on a college campus. (Oh, the humiliations! ha ha) So, one dabbles and borrows. A time honored tradition.

When I moved to Europe as a perky, freshly college-educated, de-rubed young American, with visions of Gothic spires, Jacques Brel, Ingmar Bergman, berets and baguettes, I was unprepared for all of the expropriations from MY culture. My non-existent white America culture was being evidently gobbled up by bored Europeans, who wanted to replace their self-image of kitschy windmills, tinny citroëns, and geraniums with something more “authentic” and “modern”: America. Granted, in many cases it was a double expropriation: rock-n-roll comes to mind, and jazz. But also old pick-up trucks and Cadillacs, cowboy boots, Johnny Cash, Jack Kerouac, Levi’s, skateboards and graffiti. Frankly, I resented it a little. It was all a pastiche to me. It was the superficial trappings without the hard-won understanding of its complicated codes. Rebel flags? Blue bandanas? So naïve. What about self-sufficiency, informality, egalitarianism and other Tocquevillean virtues? It took me a long time for me to grant them the right to synthesize cultural snippets in their own way.

At the risk of stating the obvious: if you get two people together, they will borrow from each other and a new culture-of-two is born. And this new thing will be made of two slightly superficial halves. You get two cultures together and they will meld somehow, perhaps superficially. Still, complete new codes are born which a new generation perceives as self-evident. You can find these meldings in Moroccan Jews, in Lebanese Brazilians, in Japanese Hawaiians… but also on smaller scales: Sicilians and Romans together in NYC, Kurds and Druze, etc. It just gets sociologically tricky when you enter such en enormous normative culture like the United States into the equation. Somehow it seems to disappear out of the story, into the background. But how many stories we have heard from “ethnic” Americans who travel to the cultural homeland only to discover how American they are. Similar stories I’ve heard from Dutch Moroccans and French Senegalese.

You will never have control over cultural appropriation. Nobody owns culture. And nobody’s culture is definitive. There is no PROpriation that anyone of good will would really want to put their name to. My auntie’s apple pie is different than your auntie’s apple pie, and for good reasons of complicated pedigree. We can lament the lack of depth that we perceive when cultural symbols are blithely plundered, and maybe a lack of richness. But whether we hope that people who appropriate are well-meaning doesn’t really matter. It’s going to happen anyway, everywhere, all the time. Dutch tulips? Navajo blankets? Haida silver? Pancakes? Zen Buddhism? Chocolate Easter bunnies? It all comes from somewhere else. And probably with a tinge of resentment from whom it was borrowed. In fact we are all hybrids somehow. I’ll take it over triumphant ghettoization any day.

This is why I LOVE talking to you. You always make me think broadly, force me outside of my usual schema, etc. I want to do a European tour of racism and colonialism. You up for thinking it through?

Until then, here’s what I have to offer. I think that cultural appropriation within the context of unequal power relations structured by racism – by which I mean, of course, the political system of white supremacy – puts a different spin on the usual process of syncretism among cultures. After all, I first came to the U.S. mainland as something of a “rube” myself, coming from a very rural part of Hawaii, speaking Creole (and only recently fluent in writing and reading in standard English), and then quickly came to grips with the necessity of adopting a generic American accent and mannerisims, to keep certain observations to myself (like that it seemed quite apparent to me that there are white ethnicities in the U.S. and an overarching white culture organized around an idea of white race, and that the characteristics of same included behaving like the majority, behaving like one has no race, and assuming the normative and dominant position), and generally blending in to the extent possible.

I didn’t adapt for fun. I did it out of necessity. And then I learned there were other signifiers of belonging, including looking a certain way and cooperating with cultural norms that put me at a disadvantage as though they were neutral…I think you know the litany.

In the end, though, I think it’s just natural to adapt and blend. But, what is specific to the context of racism is the tendency to exoticize, romanticize, objectify, control, and consume. I didn’t get into all of that for the sake of brevity, but plan to as I post more on this subject.

Hi Scot. I just read your post and the comments here. I have several thoughts to add to the conversation. First, I want to commend you on keeping the focus on the political contexts in which cultural appropriation happens. For me, there are a few key issues that I try and keep central when considering this stuff.

One is: who politically benefits from such appropriations? Who is left with more or less than what they had? What are the larger patterns of appropriation and exploitation? Are those patterns part of something else that is less easily disguised as innocuous or innocently done (such as genocide)?

Another key issue, speaking as a middle class white gay Jewish male, is this: what assumptions are carried, usually unconsciously or insensitively, into the process of appropriating others’ cultures?

I agree with a commenter above: I’d also say that learning from great thinkers and activists about oppression and resistance isn’t “appropriation”. Keeping in mind the first key issue, you are using this knowledge to co-create a less oppressive world WITH marginalised people, not just FOR yourself.

I see many middle class whites with Native American, Asian, and Caribbean art and “artifacts” in their possession. They will speak very positively about those cultures and admire the artwork. And I wonder: what do you offer to those cultures and to the people, collectively, who make the art you consume and enjoy? Because what a one-time or regular “collector” paid an individual artist or seller for the artwork isn’t a way of responsibly and ethically being with other people with less social privilege and political power. It is an expression of the advantage, the privilege, and the power. This isn’t to say that owning the artwork is “bad”; the money one paid for the artwork was likely needed by the artist (this is also true for most white artists I know). It is to say it is part of something beyond but inclusive of the act that is more insidious and hideous.

I learned as a white person to consume despised-while-coveted cultures in a very white supremacist/male supremacist/capitalist way, with great regard for what such acquisition could do for me, and with little to no consideration of what I ought to be offering in return. My people didn’t encourage me learn what the conditions were and are that led me to be able to be that kind of consumer or coveter; instead, they taught and encouraged the behavior; after all, it serves the rulers of the oppressive status quo by mimicking their most horrible acts without revealing the rulers’ bloody hands.

I see many white middle class people practice New Age spirituality which sloppily and grossly (racistly or “whitely”) appropriates practices that may or may not be Indigenous North American. Workshops are offered or classes are taught, never to Indigenous people; only to other whites. The goal is to enrich the lives of whites, to make “culturally deprived” white lives seem more fulfilled, and maybe to cut a profit while doing so. But the capitalist/male supr./white supr. practice of taking-without-giving, and taking-without-asking, operates under an overarching assumption that the world is “for” me not “with” me; it exists to plunder and pillage; bodies exist to be exploited and raped. This is the problem. Appropriating more and more, consuming more and more, is not likely to be a solution–surely not an ethical, responsible, or considerate one. Lorde’s caution to us, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, comes to mind.

The most central global atrocity, to me, is this: white/Western/Anglo and male supremacist “cultures” are built on the backs, brains, and blood of other cultures and people. The ruling classes mass murder, exploit, rape, and otherwise seek to steal from, deplete, and destroy, people and their/our ways of being as well as their/our natural “resources”, including stealing and polluting land bases intimately and intricately tied to the cultures being destroyed.

Middle class whites purchasing stocks of corporations that commit genocide for retirement, and whites teaching “Native Ways”, and white het men purchasing corporate, for-profit pornography or renting girls or adult women, usually poor, often of color, for sexual assault named “consensual” and “harmless” by the men, all contribute to genocide and gynocide. In my experience, men don’t encourage other males to learn what the conditions were and are that led us to be able to be that kind of consumer; instead, we teach and encourage the behavior in other males.

In this view, these practices are all part of a dominant US white/male supremacist culture: these practices define, delineate, replicate, and enforce that culture. These practices, and so many others, tell us what it exists, fundamentally if not only, to do. Ignorance, sometimes feigned or willed, and arrogance, often denied, are two crucial ingredients of that culture.

So, for example, whites appropriate Indigenous North American cultures without understanding the history of whites forcing Native Americans to either give up their own cultures, “adopt” the dominant culture (religion and language, for example), or perish. Another example: men consume corporate pornography as if the people in the pictures or videos aren’t as real as the consumer and without regard for the conditions that led the prostituted person to be in front of a camera to begin with. Are girls and women and LGBTIQA people across gender made to fear homelessness and poverty, or are they/we beaten or killed if they/we don’t do what pimps (with or without cameras) want? The women I know who have endured and survived such abuses say racist and misogynistic threat and force are endemic and systematic: requisite and definitive rather than anecdotal or apolitically “unfortunate”. And of course too often they/we are made homeless, are impoverished, are beaten, raped, and killed for doing exactly what the pimps want, which is, after all, to be a thing for him and other men to possess, use up, and discard–dead or alive.

Whites and the rich appropriate, steal, and consume the lives and cultures of people of color and the poor, including through slavery and mass murder. Men appropriate, steal, and consume girls and women, including women’s sexuality and labor, including through slavery and mass murder. We do not share or borrow. We certainly do not “give back”. “White-giver” or “Anglo-giver” ought to replace the deeply racist term, “Indian-giver”.

I believe these realities ought not be obscured or ignored when the conversations happen. I believe those of us with at least one foot in a structurally oppressive position, if not also a hand, a home, and a retirement account, must strive to continually arrive at less exploitive, less oppressive, less lethal ways of being while challenging and transforming those larger structures and systems of harm and horror. Thank you for not putting these issues aside in your discussion here and in your work beyond the internet.

Sorry I didn’t reply to this sooner. Thanks, Julian. All great, interesting and useful comments. I learned a lot reading this and I appreciate you writing it.

Todd, this is exactly the point of calling it Cultural Deprivation Syndrome. The notion that white Americans feel that they don’t have a culture (or they might not be ‘interesting enough’), so they appropriate someone else’s. Through exoticism, co-opting, etc as Scot mentions below.

Not all white folks are diagnosed with CDS. Just that you see symptoms and CDS-sufferers everywhere.

I definitely wonder about cultural appropriation from time to time, mostly in terms of popular culture and fashion, because those are two things that I’ve always been attracted to. It is easy to see how fashion borrows so easily from ethnicities and races from around the globe, and then a trend catches on, and all of a sudden it’s cool to wear Navajo inspired jewelry, African print dresses and flip-flops, and purses made from recycled Japanese kimonos.

I (white, Jewish woman with Eastern European roots) have always been attracted to black popular culture–music, fashion, etc. and have done a lot of work with self-taught artists from marginalized communities (people who are homeless, living with mental illness, in recovery from addiction, etc). I have fallen in love with some of the artists and their artwork that depicted African American subject matter, because I like seeing that which is not often depicted or represented in mainstream art and because race and race relations is also a strong interest of mine, and I have bought artwork from this community that I cherish. But sometimes I let what I call my Jewish Woody Allenesque guilt take over and I start to question my attraction to this work. Is it patronizing for me to like this work? Am I romanticizing, exoticizing, idealizing this work?

And, of course, there is also so much to look at in terms of white people co-opting hip hop culture. Look at Ryan Lochte, who wore an American Flag grill in his mouth to the Medal Ceremony. What do we call that?

I’m sorry–I’m afraid I have more questions than answers, too. Thanks for the thought provoking post

I think part of why there is a sense of culturelessness in America is that for the majority of people, there seems to be nothing that is uniquely ‘theirs’ to call a distinct culture. And in a way, it’s due to schools and the federal recognition of holidays.

Holidays, in the literal sense of Holy days, have become for many just days you don’t go to school or that the banks are closed and mail doesn’t come. The reason for that is that someone else’s religious observations were institutionalized at a national level, so that whether it’s *your* holy day or not, you get to (*cough*have to*cough) observe it.

Because it’s coming up again, think of Halloween. It’s a religious observance originating in the British Isles and revolving around the belief that the veil between worlds is thinnest at this time of year, that the spirits of the dead might wander the earth, and the various customs that accompany it are specific to the culture from which it sprang.

Halloween is a federally recognized holiday, however, so even if it is not a holy day to you, even if you have no connection to the culture, even if you don’t even *observe* the day, it’s become an “everybody” day in the US. It’s about costumes and candy and the thrill of being scared. Which has little to do with the roots of the holiday.

Now here’s the place where ‘culturelessness’ enters into the equation. The current (and far overdue) trend to educate people about the offensiveness of some costumes used on Halloween. This has brought the concept of cultural appropriation to the forefront of many people’s lives whereas they might never have heard of it before.

Most people who dress up as, say, Geisha or the mythical “Indian Princess” on Halloween aren’t doing it out of racism, just out of ignorance. So teaching them about why they shouldn’t is a good thing, and something I think *most* people will accept.

But one of the problems I see is that it rightly addresses the cultural appropriation of Native American, Japanese, etc. cultures… but ignores the appropriation that *already happened* of Halloween itself.

That is, it’s OKAY to celebrate Halloween as a candy-filled day where you dress up as cats and go to haunted houses and display zero understanding of the roots of the holiday. But it’s wrong to dress up as a Geisha, because that’s offensive and appropriating.

The general argument I’ve heard is that it’s okay to appropriate other ‘white’ cultures. And there we have it. “White Culture” can be appropriated by anyone. Atheists celebrate Christmas as decorating trees and giving gifts, but we don’t call it religious appropriation. But nobody cares, because it’s a Federal holiday, and ‘forced’ on everyone. Everyone has to give Valentine’s Day cards to everyone else in class, whether it’s part of their unique cultural heritage or not (at least, they did in my classes). Everyone wears “Kiss me, I’m Irish!” shirts on St. Patrick’s Day. And no one cares. English has become the global language.

So the result is that people who have no other culture but the one that is forced on all Americans alike are left with the feeling of *no* culture, or sometimes left with the sense of “why can anyone sport a celtic knot tattoo, but I get called racist for wearing henna??”

Or worse, claiming as “ours, absolutely” a practice that one culture had, even if it wasn’t exclusive to that culture and was also present in European cultures. Whatever you think a white person with dreads *looks like*, the fact is Europeans had them, too. To say it’s appropriating for a white person to wear them is, in a way, stripping that from their own history.

It is a very frustrating double standard (even if the double standard is justified), and it certainly doesn’t *help* the feeling of culturelessness.

One can say, “There is nothing I do, nothing I observe, nothing I celebrate that is not or cannot likewise done or observed by my American Indian friend, or my Hispanic friend, or my Portuguese friend without question, but there are things my American Indian, Hispanic and Portuguese friends do or observe that I cannot.”

The problem was, of course, created by those who took the culture and forced it on everyone – I’m not ignorant of that, and I don’t mean to imply that this was done by others to us. I am merely pointing out the reason why today, people feel as if they have none of their own, and the reason they may then turn to other cultures as a form of disenfranchisement with their own. Even if it isn’t a real lack of culture, I think the lack of *feeling* of culture is a very real problem. And one I have no idea how to address.

Interesting thought. I think you’re right that white American culture (not specifically European but those traditions that have been commercialized and nationalized that might be rooted in Europe but have been coopted and “American” and “white”) is forced on everyone, breaking the tie between specific European cultures where they are rooted and making those roots invisible and shifting their meaning. That causes those who are centered and normalized to feel like they are cultureless. Of course, there is a culture there, and nationalizing and forcing these traditions on everyone as “American” is part of that culture, as is a form of individualism and democracy founded in slavery, etc. It reminds me of that statement about the dehumanizing impact of slavery of genocide – that these were attempts on the part of one group of people to completely dehumanize others, but failed…and, in a way, backfired. Consider Thanksgiving, for instance, the second known celebration of which involved colonists’s children playing a form of soccer with the severed heads of Native Americans. Becoming “white” forced European heritage people to break certain cultural threads tying them to their specific European cultures. Now, many feel they have none, but the reality is that they do have a shared culture that isn’t really one many would like to celebrate. Sometimes coopting other cultures is a way to make a break with one you disagree with…so many interesting facets to this one…

Is this syndrome real or a catchy phrase? It needs definition, including explaining who (what group) you are talking about. Depending on the group, it probably manifests differently. References please.

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