I read a lot as a kid. Books were a pleasure and window into worlds. I read James Joyce and Marcel Proust, but I also read James Baldwin and Zora Neal Hurston. Every book spoke to me in its own way, and I felt a connection to their authors. I felt like I was having a private conversation with them. After finishing a book, I felt a kind of ownership of it. Each volume took a permanent place in my consciousness.
This was before the popular emergence of the idea of cultural appropriation. Nobody told me that books, music, and clothing created by people who didn’t look like me didn’t belong to me, that I was somehow borrowing them. Today, people do tell me this. They tell me that I must tread lightly when engaging in cultural forms not invented by my white ancestors.
I have listened to their arguments, read their theories, and arrived at a conclusion. They are wrong. All cultures are mine.
Over at The Atlantic, Jenni Avins writes about the dos and don’ts of cultural appropriation. To her credit, she explores how culture blending is central to the development of, well, everything. Since time immemorial, from the spice road to Times Square, cultures have influenced each other and produced the world as we know it.
It’s About Control, Not Politeness
Of course, these cultural exchanges have not always been on equal terms. The ancient Hebrews probably took more from the Babylonians during the exile than the Babylonians took from them. The English had a much greater impact on Indian culture than Indian traditions have had on England, just as Roman traditions had more influence over British culture than the Brits had on Roman culture.
It is in these inequalities where Avins finds most of her don’ts in regard to cultural appropriation. She decries blackface, urges us to pay homage to the cultures whose customs we engage in, tells us not to wear sacred symbols as accessories, and to pay royalties in some form to the culture we are appropriating. Some of this is fine advice, insofar as it urges us to treat people with sensitivity and decency. But in practice, the concept of cultural appropriation is less about sensitivity and more about shutting down anything that anybody (almost anybody, that is) finds offensive.
We have all read the stories about fraternities being punished for ethnically themed parties, or Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea appropriating black music and dance. We have seen screeds against racist Halloween costumes. On a more serious note, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “The Mikado” has been attacked for this. Earlier this year, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Society cancelled its performance of the classic work, amid criticism that its cast was too white.
Only Whites Have No Say Over Their Own Culture
But in America there is one culture that anyone and everyone is free to appropriate. White culture, be it classical music, the novel, or the business suit, is never the subject of claims of appropriation. Last week, a perfect example of this disparity was on display in an announcement from the theater world. Howlround, a website that describes itself as a theater commons and has a strong influence on the theater community, announced its call for 2020 to be a Jubilee year to promote diversity in theater.
What form will this Jubilee take? Well, it’s a doozy: “We declare the year 2020 the year of Jubilee. For the 2020–2021 season, all performances produced in the United States of America will be by women, people of color, artists of varied physical and cognitive abilities, and LBGTQA artists. Every theatre large and small is included in the vision…This is also a time for straight, white men to rejoice, to witness, to listen, and to be fed for one year by the stories they’ve also been denied. “
On its face, this is absurd nonsense. The idea that any American artists would seek to officially prohibit—in other words, ban—any artist’s work on the basis of his or her race or gender is mind-numbing. It is also quite likely that any theater company without an ethnically based mission that officially signed onto this plan would be breaking the law. Finally, it’s obviously not going to happen. But for all its preening silliness, this Jubilee fiasco tells us something interesting about cultural appropriation.
Theater as we know it—its customs, forms, and practices—has a distinct and traceable cultural legacy. From the Greeks to the Romans to Shakespeare and Stanislavsky, theater was unquestionably primarily developed by white people. And because theater is thousands of years old, most of those white people were men.
Howlround is not only asking that everyone be able to participate in this white cultural legacy, a noble goal, but they are going so far as to ban participation by the very people who have the greatest claim to ownership of the art form. Of course, no white person has any special ownership of theater. Nobody would ever claim that they do. That being the case, how can minorities have special ownership of their culture’s customs, forms, and practices?
This Will Keep White Culture Dominant
The source of this hypocrisy over cultural appropriation is privilege theory, which seeks sacrifices from the dominant culture in the hopes of undoing systemic inequality. Because white people have advantages in the America of 2015 they are asked to deny ownership of their cultural legacies but to respect minorities’ ownership of theirs. Unwittingly, the social justice warriors who promote these theories are undermining anti-racism efforts, and creating exactly the conditions needed for white culture to remain the dominant culture.
This amalgamation of cultural appropriation and privilege theory creates a situation in which white culture is open-source and minority culture is proprietary. Nobody gets upset when Yo-Yo Ma plays the hell out of Bach. Nobody asks him to pay homage or royalties to white culture. As a result, white culture is open to everyone. It is the cultural lingua franca that binds together Americans’ understanding of the world.
The proponents of privilege theory and the concept of cultural appropriation seek to decentralize whiteness but, ironically, they are doing precisely the opposite. They are guaranteeing the central role that white culture plays by insisting it is the only culture that belongs to all of us. The price of this proprietary power play is steep. It encourages division and denies all of us the full flower of our shared human cultural history.
There is not a white person alive who invented the novel, there is not a black person alive who invented jazz, there is not a Japanese person alive who invented Kabuki. So no person alive can claim or assign ownership of the products of any culture.
It’s Not Cultural Appropriation, It’s Willfully Hurting People
Is wearing blackface for Halloween wrong? Certainly, but not because it’s cultural appropriation. It is wrong because we know it is hurtful. It is wrong to knowingly hurt people for our amusement. In cases like “The Mikado,” or the use of slurs in “Huckleberry Finn,” we must balance our cultural heritage against the chance that people might be offended. But there is no way to do this systematically, and that is exactly what those scolding us for cultural appropriation are attempting to do.
A few months ago, I was riding the subway in Brooklyn and across from me I saw an Asian kid, maybe 15 or 16, reading “On the Road.” It made me happy, I remembered being about his age when I read the book for the first time. I remembered the joy in natural beauty and other people that Jack Kerouac expressed to me, his burning desire for freedom and love.
I wanted to say something to the kid, ask him what he thought, but we don’t tend to do that on that subway. At one point I saw him smile, just as I must have two decades ago. When I think about that moment it is absolutely clear that even though I am white and Catholic just like Kerouac was, his book doesn’t belong to me even the slightest bit more than it belongs to this kid.
All cultures belong to him. All cultures belong to you. All cultures belong to everyone.