Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cultural appropriation is not (usually) oppression

For those new to the term, cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.”  In far-left circles, it is most often used to describe a dominant/majority culture’s use or “taking” of elements of a subordinate/minority culture, usually without much understanding of those elements’ significance. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether.

The term cultural appropriation can have a negative connotation. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.

Cultural and racial theorist, George Lipsitz, outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term “strategic anti-essentialism”. Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group….Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.”

That’s a mouthful; what does it mean in practice?  To me, the nugget of truth in the concept lies in the realization that deliberately mocking or misrepresenting an aspect of a culture you don’t understand is in bad taste, especially if those people are historically oppressed.  Jeering marginalized people as a group is unacceptable, and even accidentally misrepresenting them can contribute to ugly stereotypes that perpetuate oppression.  So blackface, for example, is just mean.  It serves no purpose besides taunting blacks, which is the most obvious example of what some call “punching down”: leveraging unearned social status to ridicule those without it.  And even if you don’t intend to offend, dressing up as an obviously condescending caricature of another culture, like Chief Wahoo, has essentially the same effect.

We already have other words to describe these activities besides cultural appropriation (insensitive, racist, demeaning, being a jerk, etc). But whatever you call it, I wholeheartedly agree this behavior is awful and should be decried.  If such unkindness is all you mean by cultural appropriation, read no further.

Most of the people who talk about cultural appropriation today are still reading, though, because most modern allegations of cultural appropriation are much less obvious than blackface.  In fact, the online allegations are often hurled at things so trivial that most people (minorities included) barely even notice them.  Here are ten examples:

1.  The student body at the University of Ottawa has banned yoga classes as an example of "cultural genocide" and "Western supremacy".

      2.  Dartmouth University banned white people from using the word fiesta, in response to a sorority “Phiesta” fundraiser aimed at raising money for charity on Cinco de Mayo.
      3.  Similarly, student unions at the University of East Anglia have targeted Mexican sombreros for "discriminatory or stereotypical imagery".

4.  Ruth Tam has a series of articles in The Washington Post and Everyday Feminism arguing it is hurtful, oppressive and wrong for white people to sample foreign foods from tourist-friendly restaurants in the States without actually traveling to that country, buying the individual ingredients and preparing it themselves for a deeper understanding of all that goes into the dish. Bitch Media agrees.  Additionally, Tam lists the following things as immoral on account of being culturally appropriative:
a.      Seeking “authentic”, “exotic” or “ethnic” food
b.     Asking non-white people for advice on foods from their culture
c.      Trying to be “adventurous” with your food options
d.     Making money from preparing other culture’s foods
e.      Liking Mexican food without also having strong progressive opinions about “labor equity and immigration policy that impact members from that community.”

5.  Maisha K. Johnson has a series of articles on that make me want to puke from their tone alone (at one point she hyperlinks to her own opinion article as something white people should “research” before daring to even discuss the subject…) Rebuttals to some of her arguments will follow in a future post.

      6.  Back in 2013, a site called Racialicious lamented “The Problematics of the Fake Harlem Shake” on the grounds that the viral video meme appropriated an original 1980’s dance form from Harlem. Never mind that most people who watched the viral version had no idea there was such thing as a “real” Harlem Shake, as the viral version made no reference to the black Harlem inhabitants it was supposedly stigmatizing.  Also never mind that going crazy when the beat drops to an EDM song is an innovation original to my generation and EDM culture, not a copy of anything from the 80s’.  But I digress.

7.  Enormous portions of the internet apparently think Iggy Azalea is some kind of demon because she tries to act, look and sound too black, and that this amounts to white people “stealing” hip-hop. Like Ruth Tam on the food issue, these articles argue Azalea at least has an obligation to publicly agree with black people on issues of criminal justice in exchange for permission to make money off a type of music they enjoy.

8.  Twitter's favorite white villain may be the ever-threatening Taylor Swift, whose massive hit “Shake it Off” made the inexcusable error of featuring twerking black women for a few seconds, as part of a montage of dancing methods in which Taylor Swift is not adept.

9.  Salon (which can always be counted upon to publish ridiculous clickbait) published an opinion piece titled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” The crux of the argument is simply “belly dancing is Arab!”  My hero, Eugene Volokh, offered this fantastic rebuttal, titled “Why I Can’t Stand Asian Musicians who Play Beethoven. His response is much more worthy of a read than the original.

10.  In 2014, Time posted an opinion piece called “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing from Black Female Culture.” The author insinuates that such crimes as twerking, quoting Madea, talking about how large your butt is, and talking about having sex with black men amount to “claiming the identity” of black women.

Here are six reasons I think these complaints are unfounded.

1.  Culture does not belong to anybody. A recurring theme in these articles is the allegation that white people are “taking” or “stealing” elements of minority cultures.  It is almost as if the left has finally come around to the notion of property rights!  Culture is portrayed as collectivized property which belongs to one race or ethnic group, sometimes expressed by saying “[X part of black culture] isn’t FOR YOU” or “isn’t YOURS to take.” Almost every modern accusation of cultural appropriation uses rhetoric along these lines.

But this is wrongheaded, because culture is not property.  Property is a means of allocating scarce resources, and culture is not scarce: it is infinitely replicable.  Those wishing to use a culture need not take it from anyone else in order to do so.  Like air or germs or online media files, everyone can have it at the same time without seizing it from the possession of others.

Accordingly, a people can have culture, but they cannot own it.  Culture is just a set of shared ideas, experiences and customs, and ideas cannot be owned; they are just floating around on the ether for anyone to use, forever being modified and reapplied to new uses. Sometimes ideas die out, or are reinterpreted by outsiders and changed into something new. That’s okay!  None of this is unjust, whether or not those traditions originated from historically marginalized peoples.  The cultural legacy of humanity belongs to humanity.

Despite academic debate on the merits of assimilation, I think most people understand that experimental cultural intermingling can be healthy.  They recognize the tremendous benefits that can come from fusing foreign cultures, and that it is futile to try to prevent or undo this fusion.  Take this sampling of comments from beneath Volokh’s article on white belly dancing, for example:

·       When I see Arab businessmen and politicians wearing "western" style business suits and
ties I always cringe. I immediately think "who are these posers" trying to appropriate a tradition they have never lived? Or when "whites" meeting Asians bow, it really seems like whites are appropriating too. Conversely, seeing Asians shaking hands makes me shake my head.  
Once when visiting Texas, I put on cowboy boots and hat and went to a country western dance club. It was fun but I'm pretty sure the "real" cowboys couldn't stand me appropriating their gig.

·       Native Americans should stop using that electricity hocus pocus magic, and what in the world are Europeans doing drinking that weird coffee beverage?

·       Are "Arab women and brown women" who use indoor plumbing practicing cultural appropriation? They didn't invent that, did they?

·       In other news, with the exception of native American cuisine and possibly cooked wild game, the entire American menu is now racist (especially offensive is the notion of pizza, Cajun, Tex-Mex all take out not prepared by native cooks of that particular nationality of that cuisine.  

·       Salon clearly was engaged in the performance of the fine art of "click bait" with that article. That's an art form, by the way, that originated with low class computer technology web sites written predominantly by white males, and thus would not be appropriate for a Magazine-of-Color like Salon.

·       Are you going to demand S. Americans stop having Spanish and Portuguese derived holidays and language? Should Arabs stop using Arithmetic (derived from Roman -who got it from the Greeks- and Indian maths)? Should we as a society, since we rediscovered it through invasions of Europe and then Crusade? Should we stop using our current number system since it was developed from Arab sources? What do we use then, because Roman Numerals are, well, Roman, and were spread through invasion and cultural osmosis and trade. Should the Arabs stop belly dancing because they appropriated it from earlier, now dead, cultures? Should the Muslims give up their religion since it's an amalgamation of Christianity, Judaism, and Arab Paganism? Should Christians give up because it's an offshoot and appropriation of cultural aspects of Judaism and various Roman regional pagan groups? Should Jews give up on their religion because it's an apparently an amalgamation of a variety of old pagan religions and tales (most notably ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian)? Should we give up the entire English language because it's an amalgamation of languages -mostly from other white cultures, or is that okay because it's from other white cultures? Should the French stop speaking French because it's a combination of Frankish, Latin, and languages of several other now long dead cultural groups? Who gives up what between the Chinese and the Mongolians, since their cultures have long traded and exchanged ideas, and from time to time invaded and imposed their politics and cultures on the other? What cultural practices do the Filipinos keep? Their culture is a mishmash of everything that's ever crossed the Pacific; including Spanish and Moorish.

·       The funniest bit about it is that belly dance is older than the Arab Culture, which means they appropriated it too, by her standards. Everyone's invaded and occupied everyone else throughout history so much -and this ignores cultural osmosis through trade and peaceful migration-, it's impossible to find out true origins for something so ancient, so she can go suck eggs.

·       “This woman hilariously writes about belly dancing in Egypt without ever once wondering how it is that the ancient land of the Pharoahs suddenly became an "Arab" country. Maybe the indigenous people of Egypt (that would be the Copts) aren't too happy about the way this stupid cow's ancestors "appropriated" their entire country? Maybe the Berbers (the indigenous people of North Africa) are kinda upset at how this moron's ancestors "appropriated" their countries as well. Last I heard, they weren't getting along too well with the descendants of their Arab colonizers.  
…you come from a culture that was not too shabby itself at imperialism and colonialism in its hey day.

·       Virtually every existent culture is an amalgam of other cultures with a new bit added in. Even Jesus was a Jew for goodness sake.

·       Muslims “appropriated" the basic design of their mosques from Christian Byzantine churches. They also "appropriated" much of their Islamic religious doctrine from Jews and Christians. A basic belief of the Muslim religion is that all Jewish Prophets, plus Jesus and the 12 Apostles, were Muslims, not Jews or Christians. Talk about "cultural appropriation"

·       cultures are not and never have been either static or hermetically sealed. Borrowing goes in both directions, and there is nothing more patronizing than to suggest that X,Y or Z group should remain "pure" in their "own" cultural tradition. Math and Science advanced over the millennia through multiple borrowings from multiple sources -- Chinese, Indian, Arab as well as European. Over a period of centuries, the violin has become so fully assimilated into classical South Indian music that it would be impossible to have a concert without one. You haven't seen cultural appropriation until you've seen that. But it is magnificent and so utterly a part of the culture that it would be foolish to see it as alien.

·       They want us to embrace multiculturalism, but if you're in the white majority don't embrace it too deeply. That's appropriation and appropriation is racist.

2.  The people I hear complaining about cultural appropriation are usually not the *actually oppressed* in our society.  When I think about the victims of American racism, the editors at Everyday Feminism are not who come to mind.  I think of the people in jail for a little marijuana, or dead from a wayward drone strike, or shot for looking at a policeman the wrong way.  And frankly, I reckon the people trapped in the ghetto or jail don’t give two shits about how Miley Cyrus has been dancing lately.  Outside the manufactured outrage of the left-wing social media echo chamber, ordinary folks are thoroughly unoffended by yoga or Taylor Swift.  The ones who do care are normally people privileged enough to encounter “Phiestas” at Dartmouth fraternities and then write about it on mainstream feminist blogs – which is to say rich suburban professionals, using their skin color to lord some ethos over their white peers.  At best, they’re punching sideways, which makes for a futile sideshow distraction to the actual issues faced by the minority community.

If there is a connection between cultural appropriation and the real-world abuses I’ve described, I’d be very interested to see it.  But nobody’s been able to show it to me yet, and until such time as they do I will continue to roll my eyes at all the outrage.  Even as a privileged white guy, I retain the right to decide for myself which lamentations I give the time of day.

3.  No matter what white people do, those convinced that racism permeates every facet of our society will find a way to construe it as an example of that racism. Cultural appropriation is just one more instance of this phenomenon.

For decades, white people who did NOT sample minority cultures were portrayed as narrow minded and uncultured and ethnocentric and oppressing. Now, white people who throw themselves into those cultures wholeheartedly are apparently appropriating and stereotyping, and therefore oppressing.  White people who refrain from jumping in all the way, but seek to merely understand those cultures, are now said to be micro-aggressing with their nosy questions, and therefore oppressing.

When minorities do not assimilate elements of the white culture, they are said to be excluded by fearful whites who erect systemic barriers to intermingled communities in order to preserve segregated social circles.  But when minorities do assimilate elements of white culture, it’s viewed as an example of whites imposing their worldview upon them through “respectability politics,” which only causes blacks to internalize racist values.

When the cultures remain wholly separate, people bemoan that our “melting pot” is more like a “salad bowl” where nobody trusts one another and everyone is hostile and skeptical about things unfamiliar to them. But when the cultures do melt together, they lament that the distinct identity of historically oppressed groups is not being respected or cherished or preserved, and that minorities face an unfair burden to change their ways of living.

When white people move into a predominately white area, they are accused of redlining and choosing “good schools” as a code word for minority aversion.  But when white people move into predominately minority areas, they are accused of gentrification and pilfering black neighborhoods.

Apparently, no white course of action is not an example of white people oppressing black people.

Meanwhile, every black course of action is portrayed a heroic struggle against oppression, even when it’s the exact same action they just called problematic for whites. When Taylor Swift subtly pokes fun at women with different body types or dancing styles than her own, she’s blasted as being racist for money. When Nicki Minaj does the same thing, only in openly disparaging terms like “fuck you skinny bitches”, she’s lauded as an anti-racist feminist genius. When Robin Thicke makes videos alluding to naked women’s obvious desire for him, he is pilloried. When Nicki Minaj does it in reverse, it’s hailed as gloriously empowering. When Robin Thicke tells a female “I know you want it”, he’s called a literal rapist. When Beyonce tells a man the same thing, she’s hailed as a model feminist.

When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when the only thing you know how to do is blame the patriarchy, or blame white supremacy or some other form of systemic oppression, everything looks like an example of that oppression. No matter what the status quo is, those engaged in identity politics have made up their mind that it is wrong. That makes articles like the ten I listed above much easier to understand.  If you’re clever enough with words, and sit there long enough, and do enough torture to the English language, you can formulate convoluted rationales that seem to demonstrate just about anything you want.  That’s what cultural appropriation is about.  The term has gone viral not because it produces any clear victims, but predominantly because some people simply demand something to rail against, so they can validate their self-identity as a rebel fighting the system.

4.  There is only so much empathy I can dish out in a day, and there has to be some criteria I use to dish it out – some minimum threshold of suffering which need be surpassed before I start changing my preferred behavior and calling out other people who refuse to do the same.  Cultural appropriation of the sort described above doesn’t meet that threshold.

Like everything else, empathy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The relationship between how empathetic you are and how good of a person you are is not strictly linear. There exists a certain point where it sort of plateaus – where subsequent amounts of sympathy for people’s most minor afflictions doesn’t make you a worse person, but it does less and less to actually help people either. Further along the line, additional units of empathy become unserious – incompatible with human nature – and people claiming to have such empathy are likely just pretending or grandstanding.  And somewhere even further along the spectrum, subsequent amounts of empathy are probably even counterproductive, coming at the expense of other qualities or considerations.  What the left calls “cultural appropriation” too often falls somewhere between those last two points.

When I see video of Jim Crow era black people getting sprayed with fire hoses for trying to drink from a clean water fountain, I experience a visceral physical response to clear injustice.  I feel sad and angry, simultaneous urges to help the injured person and defend them from their assailants.  When Ruth Tam tries to convince me not to eat Thai take-out, I feel nothing remotely comparable.

The fact that Donald Trump is so popular nowadays actually makes the contrast I’m trying to illuminate all the more clear. We live in an era when leading presidential candidates are calling for mass deportations; when the war on drugs continues to imprison hundreds of thousands of morally innocent brown people for no good reason; when black families are torn apart by rampant police abuse and civil forfeiture law and over-criminalization – to say nothing of the murder and indignities which brown people in other countries suffer at our hands.  There are genuine victims of real injustice in the world that we should be fighting for, and Mexicans who don’t like it when I drink a Margarita that my ancestors didn’t fucking invent are not on my list.

I don’t know where the line is for being “too empathetic,” but sometimes we just have to go with our moral intuition.  Nobody who isn’t already brainwashed feels like they’re doing something wrong when they eat a taco on Cinco de Mayo, nor when they laugh at a Harlem Shake video.  People recognize it isn’t harming anybody.  They’re not enjoying it at anyone else’s expense.  When we say something is “funny at X’s expense”, we mean we are laughing at X.  Unlike blackface or racist jokes, Harlem Shake videos did not cause people to laugh at blacks; they caused them to laugh for the entirely separate and non-racial reason that people in goofy costumes were doing goofy things.  I will not feel guilty for laughing at funny Youtube videos just because, unbeknownst to me, the name of the video is borrowed from some earlier thing black people also liked.

Nor do people feel naturally guilty for getting wasted on Guinness and Jameson at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston.  It doesn’t matter that St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, the way my father, grandfather and his entire side of the family understood it, is spent mostly in church. This day of pious Catholic reflection over a nice family meal of cabbage and potatoes has, in the US, been transformed into nothing more than an excuse to get rip-shit drunk.  If you were creative enough, you could even argue that this fuels hurtful stereotypes that the Irish are all raging alcoholics (the “Irish exit,” etc.)  When this happens, does the political left rush to the aid of the historically oppressed and marginalized Irish community? No – it turns out they see St. Patrick’s Day as yet another example of white privilege.  I should call this Doris’ Law: if there exists a thing white people like, somebody on the blogosphere will come up with a reason why it’s racist.

This is why I don’t care about cultural appropriation: it’s not about empathy.  It’s about rivalry and anger and tribalism and showing which team you’re on in the social justice flame wars.  I am proud to call myself socially liberal.  I support Black Lives Matter, and hold a whole host racially progressive political positions.  But I am not going to pause before every momentary decision I make in my life to consider the microscopic impact which the second and third order effects of this decision might have on all the various systems of power and domination in the world.  I won’t pressure others to do this either, because it is unbelievably out of touch with reality to expect that most people will.  If I can put up with it on St. Patty’s Day – and somehow I make do – you can put up with it on Cinco de Mayo and Halloween and Miley twerking and whatever other example of “appropriation” that so torments you.  My sympathy only extends so far.

5. Not even the smartest and most empathetic among us are particularly effective at identifying which modes of speech, dress or behavior further oppression, and which ones combat it.  The whole endeavor requires entirely too many assumptions about what the long term consequences of a given choice are likely to be.  What demonstrable good has a marginal reduction in cultural appropriation done for minorities in this country? You could argue that labelling white people racist for doing such seemingly innocuous things has done more to fuel the rise of Donald Trump than it has to advance the plight of oppressed races.  Political correctness has done less to help racial minorities than backlash against political correctness has done to harm them.  This does NOT make people on the left morally culpable for this backlash, of course, but it does mean there are more efficient places they could be investing their efforts for the good of the cause.

6. If our society is to be “free” in any meaningful sense of the word, there needs to be a certain sense of live and let live, which in turn requires a certain thickness of skin on the part of all involved.  The price of peaceful coexistence is that sometimes we have to put up with neighbors who conduct their personal life in a mode we find upsetting or offensive.  What music I play, dances I perform or clothes I wear fall within that realm of behavior which people should just have to deal with – just as I deal with their preferred music, dances or attire.  It’s simply nobody else’s business but the individual.  When we moralize these personal preferences, we only launch antagonizing culture wars that nobody really wins.  This does not advance social justice.

Historically, when prudish parents or grandparents have nosed into the younger generation’s preferred music, dance or clothing due to highly subjective moral qualms, the progressive youth have always objected – and rightfully so.  So when minorities tell me what I oughtn’t wear or eat or listen to because of their own highly subjective moral objections, I give them the same reply grandma gets: mind your business.


Some will no doubt dismiss my points here as mere defensiveness, or white identity politics, or an inability to emphasize with others.  I confess I hesitated to publish these thoughts, because progressives are so often on the right side of history regarding race. But being right about 90% of racial issues doesn’t give you a pass on the other 10%.  The biggest threat to the truth is not that it be skillfully attacked, but that it be improperly defended, so effective public messaging on racial privilege requires that we weed out the bad arguments.  Cultural appropriation is one of them.

Immediately upon completion of this blog post, I will be meeting some friends at a South African restaurant called Braai Republic, located by my home in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Though it was recommended to me by a South African I met in a Seoul hostel, I have never been to South Africa myself, and haven’t the faintest understanding of how their delicious pies, stews and sausages are prepared.  I will never learn how to prepare them.  I will never be able to fully trace how South African cuisine was molded and influenced by the complex cultural trifecta of English and Boer colonizers alongside the original African inhabitants.  And of course, I will never even comprehend, much less personally relate to the infamous legacy of apartheid, nor have to suffer through the same oppression that most South Africans did and still do.  In all likelihood, the primarily South Korean staff of this restaurant won’t either. 

And when I return from this restaurant, and waddle into bed stuffed to the gills with overpriced, exotic and delicious meats, I will lose not a wink of sleep pondering what transpired, because I will understand that not a single person anywhere was in the slightest bit harmed by what I ate for supper.

If this bothers you, too bad.


  1. Could I suggest money as a criterion to identify real cultural appropriation? That is, if I *pay* money to enjoy something from another culture, particularly if I'm buying it from a member of that culture, or if no money is exchanged, it seems benign. However, if I start making something from another culture and charging for it, while people from that culture can't get a foothold in the business, then the situation is less benign.

    Consider the question of drug development based on indigenous knowledge of natural remedies. What does a pharmaceutical company owe the local community that first clued them in to the use of a tropical plant? The community may not own the plant, and may not own the knowledge they shared, but they have saved the drug company millions of dollars and years of scattershot testing. How is their contribution to the final drug to be adequately rewarded?

    The Volokh article surprised me with how shallow it was. I expected him to tell me something about intellectual property law, and why it would not apply to some artifacts and would apply to others.

    1. Pat - Thanks for a thoughtful reply. Perhaps it matters whether anyone from the indigenous culture ever attempted to profit from the thing in the first place? So if a local community approaches a pharmaceutical company with a traditional remedy, but makes their hint or guidance conditional on certain preemptively negotiated terms of their compensation, it would of course be unethical to renege on that agreement and steal their idea. In this way indigenous peoples are treated no differently than inventors; conventional Western conceptions of intellectual property would likely forbid the company from taking their inventions without permission, and entitle the inventors to sell that permission for a hefty fee.

      But if the local community in question never attempted to profit from their culture, and an entrepreneurial pharmaceutical company executive merely ventured out to see what he could find in their culture that may be of benefit to the company and the world, I don't see why he owes them anything. That company was ambitious, saw an opportunity to make life better for millions of people which the locals originally knowledgeable of the remedy never saw, and took advantage of that opportunity to the profit of many, without ever making the members of the original culture any worse off than they were before. What is unethical about that?