In the second sentence of her Brisbane speech, Lionel Shriver called herself a “renowned iconoclast,” and yet this is not the part of the speech people are angry about. She also says “for my brothers and I,” but people are angry because she’s opposed to cultural appropriation.
Are you opposed to cultural appropriation? Who knows! It’s a vague term that covers a whole host of behaviors. The Guardian’s story on CA is illustrated with both blackface and Coldplay, items that may sit in different locations along the Overton spectrum. Almost certainly you believe that some things that have been called cultural appropriation are odious (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s?) and others are innocuous (bad sushi at Oberlin?). You may have different examples, but you see what I mean. This semantic range makes the concept hard to discuss, because people opposed to appropriation can pretend that their antagonists are in favor of racism, and people in favor of appropriation can pretend that their antagonists are opposed to sharing; in this way we create a fantasy about the world and our place in it.
I have a couple of observations about cultural appropriation which I will try to make without constructing a fantasy. I’m trying hard! Let’s see how this goes.
The concept, though may be slightly older. When William Styron released his Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), “ten black writers respond”ed, and none of them were very happy. Generally, they wanted Turner to be depicted as more of an Old Testament prophet and terrifying hand of God’s vengeance; they wanted him, although they didn’t say it this way, to be “cooler”; but the specter of appropriation avant la lettre haunts the book, in the sense that the ten black writers assert a kind of ownership over the subject. Nevertheless, their complaints (different as they are) focus less on the fact that a white writer wrote about Nat Turner than that a white writer wrote about Nat Turner and made him a neurotic nebbish.
Less easy to find are older examples of the kind of cultural appropriation we’ll primarily be talking about in this essay, the burning issue of whether white college students should be allowed to wear sombreros. Now, it’s clear that certain aspects of what we might call traditional ethnic dress—not just sombreros, but kimonos, moccasins, dashikis, and, less controversially, kilts, lederhosen, and big wooden shoes—when worn by the “wrong” people are offensive to many. The practice is also inoffensive to many, which is where the confusion comes in.
Many articles about Boston’s kimono wars (here‘s a snarky one, provided as evidence) point out that Japan, which has spent a couple centuries as happily selling kimonos and yukatas as it has selling VCRs to the West, couldn’t understand why anyone would be upset about the popularity of traditional Japanese clothes. Perhaps a country whose T-shirts are 95% in English and 4% in French, glass houses, etc.?
Similarly, blogger Fishspeakers relates her experience getting a henna tattoo while visiting her boyfriend’s family in India, and how something so taboo for her to do at home in the US (Fishspeakers is Asian, but from a hennaless part of Asia) seemed to bother zero actual Indians. (That she perceived henna as taboo in the first place of course speaks to her demographic.)
The fact that not everyone is offended by a practice is a bingo square of the “I told this joke to a black person once and he thought it was funny” stripe, and not the best argument. But it helps us trace the spread of the concept of “clothing exclusivity,” a top-down academic theory that has dictated, fairly persuasively, to people what they should be offended about.
Similarly, the fact that something is recent does not necessarily deligitimize it. Every custom and idea was recent at some point. Imagine (if you will) the most mercenary and bogus initial motivation for a word to become offensive; imagine that a shoe company sought to defeat its rival, Finn Comfort shoes, by starting the rumor that the word Finn was a racial slur for Finnish people; it is, after all, an exonym—Finns call Finland not Finland but Suomi. Through a careful propaganda campaign, the shoemakers persuade Finns that the word they were not offended by yesterday is a slap in the face; and eventually enough Finns come to believe it, and complain, such that Finn Comfort shoes, like Ayds, has to change their name at great expense and loss of market share. Surely you agree that Finns shouldn’t be offended by a marketing plan designed to trick them! But their offense is real! We have short memories, which is how we’ve managed to pretend we’ve always super supported gay marriage and have always been offended by the word retarded; surely Finn has always been a racist word! Especially when the second generation rolls around, the fact that their self-righteous indignation at hearing the word Finn is based on a trick doesn’t matter. Advertisements tell everyone that ring around the collar is a big deal, and eventually we all believe it and buy Whisk. Most of culture is a bunch of ridiculous, arbitrary whims that caught on persuasively enough that we are willing to kill people over them. Frauds have founded religions.
But while a concept (like cultural appropriation) is still so new, perhaps there’s time to examine it and see how beneficial it is. But we can’t do this if we pretend that wearing a sombrero has always been offensive. Using a sombrero as a prop for your “lazy Mexican stereotype” act is one thing. But here‘s an old article in which Mexico’s Association of Importers and Exporters is quoted expressing their desire to “impose [sic] the use of the palm sombrero on the entire world.” At the risk of stating the obvious, forbidding Oberlin students from wearing sombreros is going to stand in the way of this grand plan.
You may support the suppression of every aspect of cultural appropriation, and this is certainly something we can talk about. But please don’t pretend that the concept is not novel. Remember that every college student in a sombrero is fulfilling Mexico’s Import/Export Association’s mandate.
2. Cui bono?
Let’s examine one of the early victims of the cultural appropriation wave: yoga. Clearly #notallIndians have had problems with Europeans practicing yoga. Vivekananda toured Europe and the US in the late nineteenth century, spreading the word about yoga, and the first (and best!) book on yoga I ever read was by Selvarajan Yesudian, who left Madras explicitly to teach yoga to the West, starting in Hungary and Switzerland. These people wanted Westerners to practice yoga. Why then, would eager do-gooders now seek to undo the work of Vivekananda and Yesudian? As we will see, it is the very ambiguity of the role of yoga that makes it useful to those interested in cultural appropriation. (The same argument, of course, will then apply to exportable sombreros, kimonos, etc.)
So…why would you seek to persuade a non-Indian not to do yoga? Your answer may be that you believe it’s the right thing to do, which is fair enough. But, as is my nature, I’m here to look at what you gain from your persuasion. Please note that the very fact that you’re gaining something from your actions doesn’t mean you were wrong from the get go. You may do the right thing and gain from it, as is implied in the culturally appropriated concept of karma. Cynics may say that your action is compromised, in the same way that a politician is compromised for receiving money even from virtuous lobbyists, but I’m less interested in moralizing than in seeking what underlying incentives shape our desire to persuade.
To understand how this works, and why yoga is a good way to signal-and-exercise, let’s look at a contrasting behavior that has nothing to do with cultural appropriation. Let’s say you see a guy waving a Nazi flag and you get up in arms about it. What have you accomplished? I mean, maybe you got him to take the flag down, but what else have you accomplished?
- What have you signaled? That like 99% of Americans, you don’t like Nazis.
- What is your demographic, then? Mainstream American or like almost anything. Ho hum!
- Over whom do you have power? One person with like the lowliest and most despised demographic in the world. Kittens and babies have power over this guy.
- So what have you accomplished? Nothing.
Now get up in arms over soccer moms doing yoga. What have you accomplished?
- What have you signaled? That you are more virtuous than most people!
- What is your demographic, then? A special group of hyper-aware progressives!
- Over whom do you have power? Lots of shame-faced bourgeois moms!
- So what have you accomplished? Check you out! You are amazing and powerful and good good good!
Protesting blackface is like protesting a Nazi flag. It offers no new information. It gives you nothing. You may have to protest blackface if you happen to run into Ted Danson, just because not protesting it would signal something, but in general, protesting yoga will get you more bang for your buck. In general, the “sillier” (to a mainstream audience) your protest, the better it signals, and, if successful, the more people it will give you power over. There is some risk of becoming too silly, and failing to persuade anyone, but the greater the risk, the greater the reward.
(Closely related to this idea is the idea of the toxoplasma of rage; if you have not read this essay you should because it is the smartest thing on the internet.)
3. Cui really bono?
Who really benefits from forbidding cultural appropriation?
Not the exporters of sombreros or kimonos, that’s for sure.
Our culture has moved, in last few decades, much further towards one in which it has become important for us to control other people’s reactions to us. The fact that we believe a stranger talking to our child should be arrested, the fact that we all shared a video that counted saying “hello” as an example of harassment, the fact that tumblr kids make up fanciful gendered pronouns (mercself and necroself are my favorites) that apply only to them, are examples of ways in which we now believe, in a way we did not twenty or thirty years ago, that we control aspects of our experience. It’s easy to make fun of some of these things (necroself, I would have thought that was so cool in seventh grade), but I don’t mean to do that here. There are reasons why “hello” can be harassment; my point is that this very idea, that you have the right not to be spoken to if you don’t want to be, is, like cultural appropriation, really new.
People now list (here‘s just one example, from Bustle) staring at someone as a form of harassment, and I’m not even disputing it. Bustle is correct! Staring now counts as harassment, and although it’s not like we never before in history tried to control where people looked, we’ve rarely been this proud of it. As the proverb goes, a cat may look at a king.
So much of internet discourse can be replaced with the words “I’m in charge.” Who’s in charge of where some random dude looks? “I am,” says Bustle. Who’s in charge of the way other people talk? “I am,” says tumblr. Who’s in charge of what hats people can wear? “No one,” says Lionel Shriver, and then the rest of us say, “Actually, Lionel, actually I am.”
There’s an old Archie cover from the 1970s (not the one above; I couldn’t find this one; someone help me!) in which Dilton or Jughead asks Archie why he whistles at all the girls. Archie replies, “The beautiful ones expect it, and the not-so-beautiful ones appreciate it.” I don’t mean to hold Archie’s weird time capsule of 1940s dating mores as an authentic record of culture, but surely any look at the record of the last few decades, or even at the dissenting voices from a demographic that I, and presumably you, dear reader, do not share, will indicate that what constitutes harassment has shifted, such that Archie’s whistle has joined “hello” and looking as taboo actions. It is perhaps worth repeating that this shift is not due to new technology creating more sensitive harassment meters, nor even to the empowering of silenced voices speaking up; it is just another arbitrary shift in our culture’s arbitrary ethics.
Our increased demand for micromanaged control over how we are approached and perceived is well documented ; I assume it’s a reaction to our powerlessness in other arenas—as we are increasingly infantilized by a culture that doesn’t trust us to be alone or to have an unmediated experience and paralyzed by a governmental bureaucracy that only budges if we pay lawyers to do our thinking for us. That’s a whole different post, I understand! But the point is, we want control, and one place we focus on control is in small things that we never used to think about, such as who is allowed to look at us and how long; this tiny plot is all that is left or our autonomy.
Control is a zero-sum game, of course. The more autonomy we have over where other people look, the less we have over where we look; but since we lack ideologies, we rarely worry about the inconsistency.
We’re getting off topic, but what I want to establish is that cultural appropriation did not catch on in a vacuum; our culture was poised for something like it. In the beginning was the desire, the desire to control 1. other people and what they wore and 2. how other people reacted to the things we might like to wear. Along came a theory from academia, a theory that can be quite useful in analyzing how colonial powers relate to “exotic” cultures, in understanding eighteenth-century chinoiserie and why romantic/gothic texts are so often set in Islamic countries. This scalpel is useful to like 1% of the population, but we saw a scalpel and realized we could stab people with it.
In the beginning was the desire, as amorphous as a bear cub, and someone said, “I thought of a justification for your desires,” and we were off to the races. Cultural appropriation is best understood as permission, the permission we have been waiting for so anxiously. Complaining that someone else wears a hat without your consent makes you a selfish control freak—unless you can hijack postcolonial theory to make the requirement of your consent a moral imperative. “When I tell you what to wear I am a good person!”
The real ambiguity that confronts us when dealing with novel offense is who is better off from the new taboo. In the hypothetical Finn example, the rival shoe seller is better off, but are the Finns? This is not a trivial question. When we decide that a word is now taboo, as we have, within living memory, for multiple words it would be trivial to enumerate, does the referent benefit?
Laws create criminals, as everyone knows. Taboos create “bad people”—people who violate taboos. As we have already seen, this is the function of taboos: They separate bad people, people who do not know or follow them, from us. A new taboo, a tabooing of the word Finn, creates bad people; it also creates oppression for Finns. Every time someone says Finn, every time someone opens an old book that talks about Finns, the hypothetical Finn is being oppressed.
(The actual slur (perhaps obsolete) against Finns, incidentally, is Finlander.)
Just to be clear: The ostensible goal of newly tabooing a word is to decrease oppression; the actual immediate real-world effect is to increase oppression. Before people decided the Washington Redskins were offensive, no one was oppressed by them. Even if you manage to impute your modern values to the past, and pretend that the concept of a team named after a race has in some platonic way “always been” offensive, clearly other novel taboos—the series of letters that spell the word Oriental, for example—are simply arbitrary; and they create oppression.
They also create opportunities to exercise power, as established above. They are touted as being an opportunity for a people to name itself, although because we are rarely unanimous this always translates as allowing a section of the people to impose a name on their friends and neighbors, either erasing them (the notorious Eskimo example) or ignoring them. Although I have always understood mulatto to be a slur, I learned working at the US Census in 2000 (I’m probably not supposed to divulge data I learned as a census taker, so I’ll leave the details vague) that there are whole neighborhoods where the residents predominantly self-identify as mulatto, even though they had to pencil this word in on their census forms.
Who benefits from the Washington Redskins’ new but ongoing offensiveness? Do Native Americans benefit when Amanda Blackhorse screams at them that they are secretly being insulted without their knowledge?
I know I’ve spent a long time talking about ways in which you can increase the power of your microfief by making demands on other people. This has been implicit in much of what I’ve said, but let me make it explicit: Only from a position of privilege does it make sense to spend your time trying to get parents arrested for zoo conduct, or sending death threats to comic books writers. Mao once wrote that the supreme question in life is where to get enough food to eat, and few people in or near my demographic have a similar problem (thank goodness!); but there are many, many steps between Mao’s question and the supreme question being what kind of hat should people wear.
I am not blind to the trickle-down theory of culture: The legalization of gay marriage is a direct result of the mainstream acceptance of homosexuality is a direct result of the expansion of gay representation in media and on Oprah. If for one moment we were interested in realpolitik gamesmanship to make life better for people, then we could talk about sombreros as one salvo in a war to help Mexicans (to defeat Trump, among other things). Probably some people somewhere are working a long game to help oppressed demographics. But in general they’re not the ones fretting about renowned appropriator Justin Timberlake’s tweets.
Who benefits from our dialog (not really a dialog) about cultural appropriation? A small demographic of privileged internet wonks.
Of course, this—all of this that we’ve been talking about, with the hats—is only one small aspect of cultural appropriation. Ted Danson’s mileage may vary. And, yes, sometimes a culture really is in danger of becoming fully appropriated by the mainstream, such as when non-comics readers wear Avengers T-shirts.
Who’s in charge of whether you can wear that T-shirt? I am!