Cultural Appropriation’s National Holiday Is Called Halloween

Cultural Appropriation’s National Holiday Is Called Halloween

If you see a Chinese child racing through a park while dressed up as Superman and you find yourself longing to cry: ‘Cultural appropriation!’ first ask yourself: Whose culture?
Kevin Mims
By

If cultural appropriation had a national holiday, it would be Halloween. That’s the day on the Western calendar when African-American tykes don the outfit of Black Panther, a superhero created for Marvel Comics by two Jews born in Manhattan to immigrant parents from Romania (Stan Lee) and Austria (Jack Kirby).

The names of both those comic-book creators are themselves appropriations (i.e., Americanizations): Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber; Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg. But when you see an African-American child in a Black Panther outfit, it’s difficult to know who is appropriating what culture.

Is the young black child appropriating a Jewish creation? Or were Lee and Kirby appropriating African culture? The proper answer is: Who cares?

Is There Such a Thing as Alien Culture?

Black Panther is a great fictional creation whose current cultural status owes much to African Americans such as Ryan Coogler, who directed the recent film version of the story; Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o, the film’s leading lady; Daniel Kaluuya, an English actor of Ugandan heritage who plays Black Panther’s best friend; and Andy Serkis, who plays a villain in the film and is a white English actor whose father was an Iraqi-born Armenian.

Try untangling all of that and determining just exactly what culture is responsible for the phenomenon known as Black Panther. Me, I don’t really care. I’m just glad it exists and has brought pleasure to millions.

This Halloween you may also see plenty of children—black, white, Asian-American, etc.—wearing Superman costumes. Superman also is the creation of two Jews: Jerry Siegel, born in Ohio to immigrants from Lithuania; and Joseph Shuster, born in Toronto to immigrants from the Netherlands.

Superman is neither a Jew, an American, nor even a Canadian (neither is he a bird or a plane). Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton and his birth name is Kal-El. If you come across a photograph of a Chinese child racing through a park in Shanghai while dressed up as Superman and you find yourself longing to cry: “Cultural appropriation!” first ask yourself: Whose culture is being appropriated?

The Pretend Concern Only Goes One Way

More than likely, no one would ever complain about a Chinese child appropriating American popular culture, because the illiberal lefties who worry about such things are able to see cultural appropriation only when it is the West appropriating from the East, or whites appropriating from blacks. That is odd, because there is a long history of Easterners imitating Western culture, and blacks embracing white culture.

You will occasionally hear an outcry that much of the rock and roll music made by the likes of Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin was appropriated from African-American blues and jazz musicians. No one screams “cultural appropriation” when Leontyne Price, an African American, performs the works of Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but when a white man performs the blues, accusations of inauthenticity will often ensue.

There is no question that Presley, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin were heavily influenced by black musicians. In an era when segregation was still very much the law of the land, Presley was willing and able to veer out of his lane and demonstrate an appreciation of and flair for the music of a culture despised by many white people. Should he be punished for that?

Cultural Appropriation Has Many Benefits

The Stones and Led Zeppelin have occasionally been accused of plagiarizing some of their music from black artists. Actual plagiarism, unlike the phony charge of “cultural appropriation,” can and should be pursued in a court of law. The fact that very few of these charges have prevailed in court suggests that the Stones and Zep are less plagiarists than homage-ists.

If Jimmy Page is a thief (and I don’t believe he is) he can’t be accused of targeting any particular racial demographic. The most famous charge of plagiarism ever brought against him was the accusation that he stole the Celtic-sounding opening riffs of “Stairway to Heaven” from an instrumental called “Taurus,” recorded by the (all-white) Los Angeles-based rock group Spirit. A jury found in favor of Page and his co-writer Robert Plant, although the case lingers in appeals court hell.

Baseball fans should be grateful that Sadaharu Oh never worried much about cultural appropriation. If he had, professional baseball’s all-time leading home run hitter might have taken up Kendo, Sumo wrestling, or some other sport of Asian origin (Oh was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Chinese father).

Instead, Oh took up a baseball bat and swatted 868 home runs over a 22-year career. That’s better than the numbers put up by Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), and Babe Ruth (714), all of whom were born in the same country as baseball itself, the good ol’ USA. Sometimes it takes an outsider to bring a particular cultural product to perfection.

Who Cares If Some People Like Another Culture?

Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1925 novel “Naomi” is set in Japan between 1918 and 1926 and concerns itself primarily with Japanese characters. Nonetheless it is a paean to the West’s popular culture. The narrator, Joji, and his inamorata, Naomi, are united by their mutual love of the cinema, dance, music, food, clothing, furniture, and the lifestyles of Americans and Europeans. Nearly every page of the book emphasizes the narrator’s preference for the West over the East. Tanizaki himself felt this preference keenly.

Anthony H. Chambers, who translated the novel into English for Vintage International, notes in his introduction that Tanizaki longed to see the traditional womanhood of Japan transformed into the freer, more outgoing womanhood of the modern West. Chambers quotes Tanizaki expressing an affection for modern Japanese novels whose heroines “are not descended from the women of old Japan, who, according to the ideal, were to be gentle and demure.”

No, Tanizaki preferred modern Japanese fictional heroines because “somehow they are like characters in a Western novel. While in reality there may not have been many women like them in Japan at the time, society hoped for – dreamed of – the appearance, sooner or later, of the ‘awakened, self-aware’ woman. In greater or lesser degree, all of my contemporaries who aspired to literature had this dream in their youth. Yet dreams and reality rarely coincide. The elevation of Japanese women, encumbered by centuries of tradition, to the position of Western women would require many generations of spiritual and physical cultivation.”

If a white American man had written that, he’d have been run out of the Western canon by now. Tanazaki’s characters go to American movies, dance the foxtrot, eat American-style beefsteak, seek out American style housing, study English, and long to learn how to play the piano. And more power to them!

Think how much poorer Western culture would be without cultural crossovers such as Seiji Ozawa, born and raised in the East and one of the greatest classical music conductors of the 20th century. As for Yo-Yo Ma, an American musician born to Chinese parents in Paris—what lane is he supposed to stay in?

Is Appropriation Only ‘Racist’ When Westerners Do It?

Harajuku fashion is a youth-oriented style that grew up around the Harajuku Rail Station in Tokyo. Much, if not most, of it is inspired by Western culture. Google Harajuku fashion and you’ll find images of young Asian women wearing Mickey Mouse ears, Yankees baseball caps, flouncy Scarlett O’Hara dresses, Disney princess outfits, Catholic schoolgirl outfits, and other Western-style garb. Most of these photos look like they could have been taken at an American high-school Halloween gathering.

Of course, if Stefani had an all-white back-up troupe she’d probably be accused of excluding minorities.

For decades none of this was especially problematic or controversial. But in 2004, when American singer Gwen Stefani added to her act a group of backup dancers called Harajuku Girls, she was almost immediately lambasted for cultural appropriation and worse, by Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho and others.

Even ten years later, as Stefani was mounting a career comeback, Time ran an article headlined: “Before We Embrace Gwen Stefani’s Comeback, She Owes Us An Apology.” The author of the article, Eliana Dockterman, insisted that Stefani’s flirtation with Harajuku style “perpetuated some extremely racist stereotypes.”

Stefani called her performances with the Harajuku Girls “A ping-pong match between Eastern and Western.” But, said Dockterman, “Her obsession with the culture walks a very thin line between admiration and appropriation.” She accused Stefani of inciting “a common cultural practice of white female pop stars using other races as props.”

Of course, if Stefani had an all-white back-up troupe she’d probably be accused of excluding minorities. God alone knows what Dockterman must think of Christmas albums by singers such as Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, both of whom are Jews!

What About Actual Racism by Non-Whites?

Curiously, culture warriors such as Dockterman and Cho never seem to have anything to say about Asians’ anti-American racism. Above, I mentioned Oh’s record of 868 career home runs. I didn’t mention that, for 38 years, he held the Nippon Professional Baseball record for most home runs in a single season (55). He held that record for so long only, however, because of outright racism from many people in Japanese professional baseball.

On several occasions during that 38-year period, American players in Japan had a chance to break Oh’s record. But whenever they got within a run or two of doing so, Japanese pitchers and managers conspired to prevent them from ever seeing a hittable pitch.

An unnamed Giants coach threatened a fine of $1,000 to any pitcher who threw a hittable ball to Bass. He was intentionally walked four times.

In 1985, American Randy Bass needed one home run in his final game to tie the record and two to break it. He was playing against the Yomiuri Giants, a team managed by none other than Oh himself. An unnamed Giants coach threatened a fine of $1,000 to any pitcher who threw a hittable ball to Bass. He was intentionally walked four times.

In his fifth at bat, he swung at an intentional ball and managed to poke it into the outfield for a base hit. But the record remained unbroken. In 2001, the same thing happened to American Karl Rhodes, who was playing for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes.

According to Wikipedia: “The Buffaloes played the Oh-managed Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks on a late weekend series in Fukuoka. Rhodes was intentionally walked during each at-bat. Hawks catcher Kenji Johjima could be seen grinning as he caught the intentional balls. Again, Oh denied any involvement and Hawks pitching coach Yoshiharu Wakana stated that the pitchers acted on his orders, saying, ‘I just didn’t want a foreign player to break Oh’s record.’ Rhodes completed the season with 55 home runs.”

In 2002 American Alex Cabrera had 55 home runs with plenty of games remaining in the season. At that point, according to Cabrera, “The last 20 at-bats of the season I think I only saw one strike. They didn’t want me to get the record. All records are for the Japanese.”

That kind of casual anti-American racism goes largely uncommented on by America’s social justice warriors. But in 2017, when Denver Post sportswriter Terry Frei tweeted that he was “very uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 during Memorial Day weekend,” the SJWs attacked him mercilessly. Frei apologized quickly, but it wasn’t good enough. Within 24 hours he had been summarily fired from the Post.

Appropriate It Up, Folks!

On Halloween night, all across America, you can find the children of Chinese immigrants dressed up as Barbary pirates, African-American boys and girls dressed up as Spiderman, proper young Catholic girls dressed up as witches, teenaged girls dressed up as characters from “Mamma Mia” and “Riverdale,” and other kids dressed as Harley Quinn, Wednesday Adams, Shrek, Frankenstein, or Dracula.

Sadly, you probably won’t find many white kids dressed up as Black Panther or as Wakanda warriors. To do so would be to risk being accused of minstrelsy or performing in blackface. Black children can emulate and worship white heroes such as Superman and Batman. But white children who try to do the same with, say, Michael Jackson or Black Panther are increasingly likely to meet scorn.

In the 1950s it was white parents who fought to keep their children from embracing any product of black culture, be it the music, the dance styles, or the language. Now, sadly, it’s social justice warriors who are doing the job of those white segregationists of old.

Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including The New York Times, Salon.com, Quillette, on NPR's Morning Edition, and APR's Marketplace.

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