i dream of being possible

free cultural appropriation


In doing the research for this post I essentially found no resources that discuss this issue in the context of F/OSS, free culture, or even software generally. I’ll admit… since I’m not actually aiming for a lit review or fully fleshed out article at this point, perhaps my research was too quick and not comprehensive enough. Or I’m a bad researcher. Nevertheless, it is somewhat of a concern given that much of the discussions about F/OSS tend not to live in journal articles or other academic areas. And it is a concern that there seems to be little easily found criticism addressing the problem of cultural appropriation in the F/OSS community.

Now, someone on Facebook asked why I was dealing with F/OSS and not the larger software community. There are two main reasons. The first being that the F/OSS community, overall, tends to take or claim the moral high ground to paid/closed/non-free software. One could say that few people are surprised when for profit organisations are willing to exploit anything and everything for, well, profit. The second reason is that the overlap between the free culture movement and the F/OSS movement (if any meaningful distinction actually exists) means that F/OSS is actually particularly vulnerable to enacting cultural appropriation.

Nevertheless, it became quickly apparent to me that the F/OSS community has a problem with cultural appropriation. I recently went through about six or seven linux distros looking for a decent, lightweight one to run on my very old netbook. Over the course of this, I encountered Bodhi Linux and Zenwalk Linux. Which, after dealing with Ubuntu, was making me scratch my head. Then when you look at a list of linux distros you see a distressingly large amount of this.

##What is Cultural Appropriation?

This is a fairly well studied/researched/discussed problem, so I’m not going to delve too deeply into it, other than to briefly describe what it is, why it is bad, and how we can perhaps view a distinction between appropriation and exchange/appreciation/whatever.

If we look to our source of general information, Wikipedia, we can see that Wikipedia describes cultural appropriation as:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group… These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held…Appropriation practice involves the ‘appropriation’ of ideas, symbols, artifacts, image, sound, objects, forms or styles from other cultures, from art history, from popular culture or other aspects of man made visual or non visual culture.

And to give a view as to how cultural appropriation is a hot button topic, the wiki page states that “the neutrality of this article is disputed.”1

I’m sure that many people can see the above and, well, not care so much. Or at least not see how it is bad. Since, don’t we all use/borrow elements of cultures outside of our own? Particularly in the current age of social media, globalization, and so on?

Well… Flavia Dzodan fairly clearly and succintly explicates why cultural appropriation can be harmful:

The problem with cultural appropriation is that it replaces the original with a copy created by the dominant culture. It dilutes the original, removes all symbolic value from it and replaces it with a ready to consume product devoid of context and meaning.

Cultural appropriation, at its most extreme, is a violent form of colonization because it removes the original group behind the culture and reinforces stereotypes about that group (i.e. ALL First Nation folks are reduced to “war bonnets”, whether their culture uses them or not; all Latin@s are reduced to a stylized version of Catholicism regardless of their spirituality; etc.). The mechanism of commodifying a culture ends up being a tool to re-inforce [sic] racism as it reduces the people behind those cultures to a mere cartoon like representation of their realities. It’s a great way to ultimately Other and objectify entire groups of people by taking something that is dynamic and ever evolving and freezing it for a marketing photo opportunity.

What we really need to tease out from the above is that appropriation is rarely a neutral act, since power disparities are the context in which appropriation occurs. Interestingly, I’ve seen people argue that, for example, Nigeria’s national language being English is an example of appropriation by Nigerians. This is a fairly absurd argument given that this is the result of a violent history of colonization and not a commodification of English culture.

##Free culture and cultural appropriation

So where is the line in the sand? How do we reconcile this with, for example, the Free Culture Foundations’s mission?

The mission of the Free Culture Foundation is to bring an end to the subjugation enabled by private ownership over media, ideas, and technology.

Blogger âpihtawikosisân gives insight into how reconciliation is possible:

What does the Victoria Cross, the Order of Canada, a framed Bachelor’s degree, the Giller Prize and an eagle feather all have in common?

There is no punchline actually. Each one of these things is a symbol, a visual recognition of a certain kind of achievement. I’m sure you can think of many more of these symbols of military, humanitarian, academic, literary or what-have-you achievement.

The symbol is important, but only because of what it represents. Without that deeper meaning, the Victoria Cross is gaudy jewellery, a Bachelor Degree is just a piece of paper, the Giller Prize is abstract art and an eagle feather is just ornamentation.

Note that there isn’t necessarily a conflict here. If free culture and F/OSS is about, in part, challenging private property/ownership but appropriation, on one level at least, is about cultural symbols, then there is really nothing to be concerned about here.

The thing about symbols and other cultural elements often targetted for appropriation, is that absolutely no one is ever asserting that these symbols or elements are owned by any specific individual. Indeed, this is encoded in the term ‘cultural appropriation’ itself. What is actually at issue here is how we understand ‘free culture’ in an inter-cultural context. Or, in other words, how we can understand the priciples of ‘free culture’ as applied to what we might call ‘collective property’?2

Quoted above, âpihtawikosisân, actually gives us a fairly clear explication that even members of a dominant culture have a fairly clear understand of the harms and ills that cultural appropriation has. And, as she further points out:

You can imagine the reaction to someone pretending they’d earned the Victoria Cross…or someone claiming they have a degree in medicine when they do not. Sometimes these kinds of claims are met with criminal sanction, so seriously do we take this sort of thing.

Indeed, some forms of cultural appropriation are already governed by law. And, we can see for good reason (since, I don’t think any of us want to encourage people to make fake medical degrees and run around treating patients).

##Free Cultural Appropriation

The long hanging fruit for addressing cultural appropriation in FOSS is Ubuntu and Apache. Two very popular pieces of software with very active development communities.

Once could be inclined to say that Ubuntu fairs somewhat better, as far as appropriation goes, given that the names was chosen with the original meaning of the word in mind:

Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. It also means ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. The Ubuntu operating system brings the spirit of Ubuntu to the world of computers.source

Whereas the Apache Foundation claims

The name ‘Apache’ was chosen from respect for the Native American Indian tribe of Apache (Indé), well-known for their superior skills in warfare strategy and their inexhaustible endurance.

But the wiki article cites one of the founders saying:

The name literally came out of the blue. I wish I could say that it was something fantastic, but it was out of the blue.

In the case of Apache, then it really seems to have the clear indications of appropriation: it decontextualizes the word ‘Apache’, it commodifies it, it erases the symbolic value. This is appropriation. And, yes, I really do think that they should change the name of the software.

What of Ubuntu? Someone pointed out to me yesterday that people tend to let it go because Mark Shuttleworth is South African. Which, is about as meaningful as pointing out that Brian Behlendorf is American. Both of these things are nationalities. More importantly, being a white settler does not give you cultural rights to Indigenous cultures.

Moreover, Ubuntu is no less guilty of decontextualizing and removing the symbolic value of ‘ubuntu’. Note what the about page says “ancient African word”, unless I’ve missed a significant fact about the world, ‘African’ is not a language. Or even a people. What language is the word from? What peoples speak this language?3

Okay. But why is it a problem? Remember Flavia Dzodan from above:

Cultural appropriation, at its most extreme, is a violent form of colonization because it removes the original group behind the culture and reinforces stereotypes about that group

Given that the two examples above are things done by white settlers… this is cultural appropriation at its most extreme. Both remove the original groups and both reinforce stereotypes about these disappeared groups.

##But what about…

Another Facebook friend asked me about Koha which we could see as being similar to the above…

But a key difference is that Koha started as a small, community driven piece of software. And the foundation that supports it appears (from all the research I was able to do) to be embedded in the communities from which the word ‘koha’ is derrived in ways that neither Apace nor Ubuntu are (especially Ubuntu, since people claim Shuttleworth’s nationality as excusing, except that he is a dual national and Ubuntu isn’t based in South Africa).

While I couldn’t find specific information about Koha’s community ties to the Maori, a great example can be seen from the world of sports, where culturally appropriative names are rampant and far more common than in FOSS.

The Florida State Seminoles clearly have a name derived from some of the Indigenous groups of the area. But the clear difference here is that Florida State’s use of the name and their mascot has been endorsed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

This is an example of how to do it right.


Cultural Appropriation is a problem. This problem isn’t unique to FOSS or free culture, but it is one that needs to be addressed.

I notice, now, that all of my examples are derived from settler appropriation of Indigenous culture. I find that this is particularly salient at a time when Canada just voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As did the US, Australia, and New Zealand. Which isn’t surprising given that these are four of the major settler states with the most to loose if they ever take Indigenous rights seriously.

It is also important at a time when #idlenomore continues and when Canada is still in conflict with First Nations over land rights. Or when we still have things like the Edmonton Eskimos.

It is something that the FOSS community must address if it ever wishes to functionally distinguish itself as an alternative to current practices and economies. Since, as far as I can tell, not only is FOSS not a viable alternative, it is actually far behind the general culture, as far as freedom is concerned.


“About Ubuntu Ubuntu.” Accessed October 23, 2013. http://www.ubuntu.com/about/about-ubuntu.
“About Us Free Culture Foundation.” Accessed October 24, 2013. http://freeculture.org/about/.

“Apache HTTP Server.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 21, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Apache_HTTP_Server&oldid=576564941.

“Apache HTTP Server.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 21, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Apache_HTTP_Server&oldid=576564941.

âpihtawikosisân. “The Do’s, Don’ts, Maybes, and I-don’t-knows of Cultural Appropriation.” Âpihtawikosisân, January 30, 2012. http://apihtawikosisan.com/2012/01/30/the-dos-donts-maybes-i-dont-knows-of-cultural-appropriation/.

“Bodhi Linux.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 22, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bodhi_Linux&oldid=576343745.

“But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?” Native Appropriations, April 27, 2010. http://nativeappropriations.com/2010/04/but-why-cant-i-wear-a-hipster-headdress.html.

“Canada Votes ‘No’ as UN Native Rights Declaration Passes.” Accessed October 24, 2013. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-votes-no-as-un-native-rights-declaration-passes-1.632160/.

“Chakra (operating System).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 22, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chakra_(operating_system)&oldid=576070043.

“Cultural Appropriation.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 24, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cultural_appropriation&oldid=577954337.

Dzodan, Flavia. “The Problem with Cultural Appropriation Is That It Replaces the Original with a Copy Created by the Dominant Culture. It Dilutes the Original, Removes All Symbolic Value from It and Replaces It with A…” Red Light Politics, July 4, 2011. http://www.redlightpolitics.info/post/7234896956/the-problem-with-cultural-appropriation-is-that-it.

“FAQ - Httpd Wiki.” Accessed October 24, 2013. http://wiki.apache.org/httpd/FAQ#Why_the_name_.22Apache.22.3F.

janinsanfran. “Can It Happen Here?: Ubuntu: Interdependence and Cultural Appropriation.” Can It Happen Here?, July 7, 2009. http://happening-here.blogspot.ca/2009/07/ubuntu-interdependence-and-cultural.html.

“Juju.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 16, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Juju&oldid=576333629.

“List of Sports Team Names and Mascots Derived from Indigenous Peoples.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 21, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=List_of_sports_team_names_and_mascots_derived_from_indigenous_peoples&oldid=578172395.

“Manjaro Linux.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 23, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Manjaro_Linux&oldid=576777763.

“New Brunswick Fracking Protests Are the Frontline of a Democratic Fight Martin Lukacs Environment Theguardian.com.” Accessed October 24, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/21/new-brunswick-fracking-protests.

Nicholas, George. “‘Do Not Do Unto Others…’: Cultural Misrecognition and the Harms of Appropriation in an Open-Source World (with A. Wylie).” In Appropriating the Past: Philosophical Perspectives on the Practice of Archeology. Cambridge University Press. Accessed October 23, 2013. http://www.academia.edu/428979/Do_Not_Do_Unto_Others…_Cultural_Misrecognition_and_the_Harms_of_Appropriation_in_an_Open-Source_World_with_A._Wylie.

“Racist Stereotypes and Cultural Appropriation in American Sports.” Intercontinental Cry. Accessed October 23, 2013. http://intercontinentalcry.org/racist-stereotypes-and-cultural-appropriation-in-american-sports/.

“RCMP Descends on Mi’kmaq-led Anti-fracking Blockade.” APTN National News. Accessed October 24, 2013. http://aptn.ca/pages/news/2013/10/17/rcmp-officers-enforce-injunction-against-mikmaq-led-anti-fracking-blockade/.

“Snapshot.” Accessed October 23, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Apache_HTTP_Server&oldid=576564941.

“Snapshot.” Accessed October 24, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cultural_appropriation&oldid=577954337.

“The ‘Why’ of Cultural Appropriation.” Racism 101: Are You a Racist? Accessed October 23, 2013. http://racismschool.tumblr.com/post/49817567748/the-why-of-cultural-appropriation.

Ubuntu: A Brief Description, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wg49mvZ2V5U&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

“Ubuntu Juju.” Accessed October 23, 2013. https://juju.ubuntu.com/.

“Ubuntu (operating System).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 23, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ubuntu_(operating_system)&oldid=578405902.

Varacini, Lorenzo. “Settler Colonialism and Decolonisation.” Borderlands E-journal 6, no. 2 (2007). http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol6no2_2007/veracini_settler.htm.

“Washington Redskins Name Controversy.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 23, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Washington_Redskins_name_controversy&oldid=578347064.

“Wikipedia:Five Pillars.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 24, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Five_pillars&oldid=571244060.

“Zenwalk.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 9, 2013. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Zenwalk&oldid=573414137.

  1. Neutrality is one of Wikipedia’s Five Pillars. This entails, for an issue like appropriation, that it is unlikely that the wiki article will ever be considered ‘neutral’ enough, since there is nothing neutral about the issue. 

  2. Although, I cringe at writing ‘collective property’ because I really am not a fan of a using property rights as a framework for cultural elements. Or, well, anything. 

  3. I encourage people to watch this video of Archbishop Desmond Tutu explaining what ubuntu means.