Inspiration vs. Cultural Appropriation

An intimate conversation between two scholars and fiction writers who’ve witnessed both

Robin Kirk
ZORA
Published in
8 min readAug 9, 2019

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At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando.
At the 1973 Academy Awards, Sacheen Littlefeather refuses the Academy Award for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando who won for his role in The Godfather. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

By Robin Kirk and Karla Holloway

TThe conversation over cultural appropriation is necessary, long in coming, and deeply fraught. By their nature artists, including writers, absorb and incorporate many things into their work. Groups and cultures do this, too. Journalist Nadra Kareem Nittle notes that Americans who grow up in diverse communities “may pick up the dialect, customs, and religious traditions of the cultural groups that surround them,” all natural, predictable, and even desirable.

Appropriation is fundamentally different. Members of a dominant culture appropriate when they take things — sacred ideas, clothing, music, lifeways — from a historically oppressed or marginalized group, separate them from their original meaning, then use them for their own benefit and often without attribution, context, or respect. The dominant culture may celebrate these elements. But the key divider is power and the theft, erasure, and silencing of the communities where these ideas and lifeways were created.

This doesn’t work the other way, with minority groups adopting elements of the dominant culture. Nicki Lisa Cole points out that, “While people of color are forced to adopt elements of mainstream White culture, White people can sample at the buffet of other cultures at their leisure, picking and choosing what they wish to consume.”

AAmerican culture is chock-full of ferociously dissected examples. The way Hollywood appropriated Native American culture was the motivation for actor Marlon Brando’s refusal to accept a 1973 Academy Award for his performance in The Godfather. Instead, Native American actor and activist Sacheen Littlefeather stepped up to the podium, politely refusing the statuette to scattered boos and some applause. In his statement, Brando noted, “the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile, and evil. It’s hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become…

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Robin Kirk
ZORA
Writer for

Kirk is the author of Righting Wrongs: 20 human rights heroes around the world & a YA fantasy, The Bond Trilogy. She teaches human rights at Duke University.