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Exploring the Morality of Cultural Appropriation


Nathalie Martinez ’23 is spending her summer working at an interdisciplinary research lab called Scientists, Technologists, and Artists Generating Exploration (STAGE) through a University of Chicago grant. Here, she describes the nature of her work and her academic background.

What’s the focus of your project?

We are currently working on two projects that [attempt] to showcase the core principles of quantum physics and stories of Indian riverine communities to general audiences. This brought up the ethical question of whether our team was permitted to relay the experiences of marginalized communities in India, and if so, how we could authentically and sensitively share their stories through art. My own research project aims to answer one main question: Can cultural appropriation be morally justified? I have yet to fully develop my conclusions, but I am currently arguing that there are instances in which cultural appropriation is permissible, specifically in the realm of the performing arts.

about Nathalie Martinez ’23

Major: Philosophy

Hometown: Miami, Fla.

High School: International Studies Charter High School

read about other student research
How has it been going?

It has been immensely rewarding thus far. I am learning and reshaping the way I think about “culture” and “cultural property,” two terms that are central to understanding cultural appropriation. As a philosopher, I am always asking questions, and the issue of cultural appropriation is so loaded and multifaceted that it seems like my research questions may end up unresolved. It has also been particularly difficult because I am taking a moral stance, so I have to consider a whole host of factors and counterarguments that could undermine my own.

What will be the culmination of your project?

I am hopeful that my research will incite discussion. The term “cultural appropriation” has entered the popular lexicon in recent years, so naturally many people already have strong opinions about it. I also plan to communicate my conclusions to the STAGE team at UChicago so that they can perform their work from an ethically informed perspective and preclude any chance of misappropriating the riverine communities of India. I see the performing arts, specifically theatre, as an active medium through which stories of individuals whose very livelihoods and personhood are being threatened can be shared.

Have any Hamilton courses or faculty provided you with insight for this project?

My education courses with Professor [Chenyu] Wang from the Anthropology Department and my philosophy courses with Professor [Todd] Franklin at Hamilton have significantly contributed to this project. I had reached out to both professors at the inception of the project, asking for sources and articles that might be useful. In the classroom, both of them have encouraged me to view this kaleidoscopic world from different perspectives and settle with the fact that singular solutions are only ideal, so I should expect to grapple with existential and moral questions throughout the remainder of my life and career. As researchers in the humanities, we usually don’t find clear answers to our questions, but that is what makes our work so exciting and worth pursuing. 

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