16 May 2017
Dear Intrepid Reader,
Two weeks ago, we talked about race and why it’s such a loaded topic. For many people, race is tied up with culture such that racism is often linked with cultural appropriation and vice versa.
When a segment of society calls into question some closely-held belief of that society, it’s normal to get pushback, and when there’s pushback, the rhetoric escalates until each side is characterizing the other as subhuman, depraved, and evil.
There was an article recently on Medium that typifies the hyperbolic turn the conversation has taken. The individual points made — that cultural appropriation causes actual harm to people in marginalized cultures; that the conversations around cultural appropriation aren’t just about clothes, music, or hairstyles; that fixing the problems associated with cultural appropriation would involve fundamental changes in the structure of American society — are all valid points.
But the language Ijeoma Oluo uses to describe the problem is pretty inflammatory.
When well-meaning white people say, “Help me define cultural appropriation so I know what to do and not to do,” what they are actually saying, even if they aren’t aware, is, “Help me understand how to continue in this system of privilege and oppression without feeling bad.”
By the end of the article, Oluo is literally calling for revolution: “It will do little to simply remove one of the players from its place on the ladder — the system has reserves to put in its place. To change the hierarchy, we must take a sledgehammer to the pillars that make the system itself.”
But because these systems of oppression are so deeply engrained, reaching out to work with people from other cultures is difficult. Efforts to bridge that divide are viewed with suspicion and anger, as though it’s impossible for one group to genuinely want to make space for another group without some kind of self-serving agenda.
Understandably, when you start talking about dismantling the foundations of white society, white folks start pushing back. In 2015, author Cathy Young published a piece in the Washington Post that talked about how those crying “cultural appropriation” had gone overboard, citing every instance of a person from one culture using, wearing, or eating something from another culture as immoral.
But it’s not clear what Young views as appropriation. She points out some of the more extreme examples of appropriation protest, such as the the one against a museum exhibit featuring kimonos that visitors could try on. Young didn’t think that white people trying on the kimonos was inappropriate, but in the article, she never questions the basis for the exercise. The exhibit was not one of Japanese art or cultural artifacts; it was Claude Monet’s painting “La Japonaise,” which depicted his wife wearing a kimono. For the museum to decide that trying on the trappings of a culture that is neither the visitor’s nor Monet’s would somehow give the visitors insight into something about Monet’s life or art is a stretch, and a lazy one at that.
Young admits that “critics of appropriation, including some anti-kimono protesters, say they don’t oppose engagement with other cultures if it’s done in a ‘culturally affirming’ way,” but seems unclear on what is affirming, versus what’s just exploitative, and ends by saying that appropriation is “a way to breathe new life into culture,” and ends by telling people “Appropriate away.”
But Young leaves out the link between cultural appropriation and race, even though she admits that “The concept of cultural appropriation emerged in academia in the late 1970s and 1980s as part of the scholarly critique of colonialism.” Because she ignores the relationship between cultural appropriation and the white shaping of others’ experiences, her notion that it’s not just okay, but healthy to appropriate, is exactly the kind of willful ignorance Oluo calls out.
This past week, Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine Write, chose his magazine’s issue on Indigenous writers to proclaim “I don’t believe in cultural appropriation.” After the predictable outcry, other white Canadians said that his article was actually a good thing, because it stimulated discussion. Because marginalized people, who have been pointing this shit out for years, have stimulated no discussion, right? Worse yet, the whole thing comes full circle with a whole bunch of well-known members of Canadian media all volunteering to fund an “Appropriation Prize” to be awarded to someone “who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”
So, it’s not enough that white writers get the prize of easier access to publication and promotion, the prize of being the ones to shape the popularly-held notions of what marginalized experiences look like, the prize of being accepted as the baseline from which all other experiences are measured. Now they get an actual cash prize for doing it publicly and unapologetically, and it’s hard to see this kind of support for appropriation as anything but outright racism. “Your stories are ours to tell.”
What’s surprising to me is that after the outlawing of slavery everywhere in the world, after the striking down of miscegenation laws, after decades of civil rights work to dismantle some of the centuries of damage done to marginalized people by white nations, white people who think appropriation is okay aren’t concerned about being on the wrong side of history.
We’d love to hear your ideas about appropriation and how it’s exercised, abused, or mischaracterized. Catch up with us on social media!
And you can check out Adele Gardner’s poem “Silicone Valley,” now with AUDIO!