Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is taking heat for getting cast as a 19th century Hawaiian king in the upcoming film, “The King,” because he’s not Hawaiian. Activists say Johnson is wrongly appropriating Hawaiian culture by accepting the role. “I’m opposed to The Rock being King Kamehameha in a film about my ancestors because he’s Samoan and not Hawaiian,” said indigenous Hawaiian activist Healani Sonoda-Pale.
The furor over Johnson’s casting has reignited an ongoing debate about the validity of cultural appropriation — whether people should be free to borrow from cultures that they aren’t born into. Liberals argue that white people shouldn’t be allowed to participate in all sorts of activities, ranging from belly dancing and yoga to wearing their hair in cornrows, because doing so is disrespectful to the minority cultures that gave birth to these traditions.
But a world in which these activists get their way would be worse for everyone. We shouldn’t try to create a world in which people are allowed to adopt only certain hobbies based on the color of their skin. This is especially true of actors such as Johnson, whose job is to portray people unlike them.
Johnson is not the only entertainer who’s inspired ire by refusing to stay in his racial and cultural lane. Singer-songwriter Bruno Mars has taken a lot of heat because he incorporates traditionally black genres, like funk and hip-hop, in his songs (Mars is Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Jewish). But Mars’ work has been praised by R&B musicians like Charlie Wilson, and Mars cites black rappers like Dr. Dre and P. Diddy as major inspirations. It’s obvious that his music is not designed to demean traditionally black art forms. On the contrary, it’s meant to celebrate them, while exposing new audiences to genres they might not have otherwise explored.
Who would benefit if cries of cultural appropriation made it so Mars never released a record? Not his producers and fellow artists. Not his listeners, who fork over their hard-earned money because they appreciate his work. And certainly not the black artists and traditions whom he praises and elevates in interviews.
Many artists also come from poor backgrounds. Iggy Azalea, a white rapper who also faces cultural appropriations criticisms, came to the United States at 16 to pursue her dream career in the rap industry, leaving her family and home behind in Australia. She didn’t have a silver spoon in her mouth; she worked as a maid while earning her GED. Azalea made it big in the rap game, but if she hadn’t, she might still be working odd jobs for low pay.
Poor people have few enough opportunities to make it rich, especially if their dream is to be an artist. If liberals get their way on cultural appropriation, we’d be limiting their opportunities even further––just because of the color of their skin.
Cultural appropriation witch hunts also prevent art from evolving. Mars added something new to the traditionally-black music genres that he fused together, in the same way that Elvis added something new to traditionally-black rhythm and blues music when he invented rock and roll. The more people who participate in an art form, the more it can adapt and evolve, to the benefit of both fans and future practitioners. That’s especially true when those artists come from different cultures and backgrounds, and can feed their disparate cultures into their art.
When social justice warriors cry foul over cultural appropriation, they become a mirror of the alt-right, although the alt-right’s views may be more destructive. When the alt-right tries to “keep minorities in their place,” they’re drawing on a deep history of bigotry and discrimination in the United States, from slavery to Jim Crow to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. We’ve seen the past they want us to return to, and it’s awful. Liberals who want to keep white people (or Asians, or whomever) “in their place” don’t have a long history of their ideas being acted out, and their intentions often seem much nobler.
But cultural appropriation witch hunts ultimately aim at the same world the alt-right yearns for: a world where people of different races don’t interact. Only black people should produce rap, only people of Arab descent should be allowed to belly dance. Would social justice warriors prefer a world where Mars and black rapper B.O.B. had never collaborated? Where Elvis had never riffed on rhythm and blues? Or a world where white women can’t take hairstyling advice from their black friends?
If Johnson’s starpower encourages more Americans to see “The King,” which tells the story of a Hawaiian king who united the Hawaiian islands, then these Americans will learn more about Hawaiian history and heritage. That’s not a bad thing. We should aim for more spaces where people of all races can come together to collaborate, not a world in which individuals are forced to stay in their racial and cultural lanes.
Social justice warriors often claim that cultural appropriation is tolerable if the appropriator approaches the culture with respect, and pays homage to their influence. But Mars does both. He says, “In my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag.” And he’s open about being deeply influenced by an array of black musicians. But that doesn’t seem to be enough to satisfy many critics.
Social justice warriors also mirror the alt-right in how much they care about race. Cultural appropriation witch hunts lock people into a small set of hobbies and careers based on their race. With enough witch hunts, your race becomes your destiny.
Notorious white supremacist Richard Spencer noted this in an interview with a New York Times magazine contributor. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” Spencer said, referring to the way social justice warriors care deeply about race.
When we fetishize race and claim that members of certain races should only be allowed to partake of certain activities, we encourage racial division. A truly cosmopolitan and pluralist worldview would deem your race as irrelevant to your future opportunities as your eye color. This is a future that both social justice warriors and the alt-right rail against, and we should reject both of their critiques of multiculturalism.