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Cultural Appropriation Is Culture


I follow nerdcore, a genre of music that uses the conventions of rap to express thoughts about video games, disaster movies, and life in eighth-grade math class. It’s a fascinating, boundary-ignoring hybrid, but really, so is every other artistic innovation. In Memphis Jook you can see elements of commedia dell’arte. Buckethead cites Michael Jackson as an influence. Akira Kurosawa studied American pulp novels, and George Lucas studied Kurosawa. Elvis is unimaginable without black-gospel music, and Jimi Hendrix is unimaginable without Elvis.

I could go on. Forever. Where does new culture come from? It is copied, with alterations, from existing culture. The process is reproductive. Sexy, even. So of course, the outrage-as-a-lifestyle wing of the progressive Left wants to dictate rules for its proper enjoyment.

In this case its complaint is about “cultural appropriation,” defined by Nishat Baig at The Source as “adopting elements of a different culture, typically without consent.” In reality, all culture is “adopted.” As with humans, its adoption often means that it gets to live in a pleasant, new home. The French Impressionists, for instance, looked at Japanese printmaking and borrowed its compositional motifs. The initial conditions of exchange were far from consensual. Matthew C. Perry forced Edo open on threats of cannon fire. But the ensuing trade in fine goods caused Utamaro’s prints to reach Degas and inspire him to produce works that changed the course of Western art. Europe returned the favor when Art Nouveau influenced Japanese art and design.

Resistance Is Futile

Demanding constraints on such an ancient and universal process is like trying to turn the tides by yelling at them, but these particular scolds seem unaware of the folly. They have complained about straight women appropriating lesbian fashion, art students appropriating Native American dwellings, couture houses appropriating Native American garb and Latina hairstyles, a Canadian post-punk band appropriating the name “Viet Cong,” non-Asian pop singers looking too Japanese or too Hindu, and white models looking too black.

Miley Cyrus’s twerking a couple of years ago sparked a national crisis. Baig warns against showing up at this summer’s music festivals wearing “tribal” or “Aztec” designs on your clothing, or with a bindi dotted on your forehead. “Even the purest of intentions and most earnest interest in a foreign or unfamiliar culture does not necessarily warrant a person’s right to practice a cultural or religious tradition outside of its original context,” as if donning that zigzagged smock to go hear Belle and Sebastian rises to the level of a religious practice.

Katherine Timpf notes that it’s going to be difficult to obtain consent for those tribal designs. “Perhaps you could look into which tribe the pattern was inspired by and get permission from them,” she suggests. But the mechanism for forgiveness, if not permission, has been worked out in the world of hip hop: conspicuous self-deprecation. When Macklemore won the Best Rap Album category in the 2014 Grammys, condemnation rained down upon him. Jaimie K. McFarlin, writing for the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, wondered, “[H]as Macklemore opened the doors for White, post-Eminem rap artists to dominant [sic] the hip-hop landscape? Regardless of the answer, America must remain aware of its history of ignoring cultural origins and devaluing Black artists.”

We Want Cultural Licensing Fees

Then Macklemore, asked to comment upon the feud between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks during a radio show appearance earlier this year, publicly confessed to being white. “It’s important to listen and to be humble,” he told Ebro in the Morning on New York City station Hot 97. “This is not my culture to begin with. This is not a culture that white people started. So I do believe, as much as I have honed my craft, as much as I have put in years of dedication into the music that I love, I do believe that I need to know my place, and that comes from me listening.” Reggie Ugwu at Buzzfeed reported that he “Got Real About White Privilege And Appropriation,” or so ran the approving headline. This is in contrast to Azealia, whom Ben Westhoff at The Guardian noted critically “has refused to be introspective in the wake of criticism from folks like Banks.” Paradoxically, the introspection has to take place in public.

The idea of consent here is absurd. Who is empowered to lend cultural material on behalf of his identity group? But it wouldn’t sound so good to say it plainly: “We’ll forgive you for referencing our culture to the extent that we can extract apologies and abnegation from you for doing so.”

James Kirchick, a liberal writer who has grown weary of the new extremes of political correctness, describes a victim hierarchy in which some victims are regarded as more victimized than others. Appropriation assumes that it’s wrong for lesser victims to borrow culture from greater victims. But when two oppressed parties can’t establish their relative victimhood, what then? There’s a protracted and as yet undecided battle between gay white men and straight black women about the former appropriating speaking mannerisms from the latter. (This goes on.)

Control Masquerading as Justice

Last year in Time magazine, Sierra Mannie upbraided gay men mightily. “Black people can’t have anything,” she said, with the implication they don’t even get to own their culture, or rather, own in a way that would stop other people from taking it. “Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth.”

Retaliation was brutal. One gay white man threw her screed back in her face almost word for word. Straight black women recently won a skirmish in this war when the National Union of Students at its Women’s Conference in the United Kingdom advanced a motion to demand that gay men stop acting like them, but no victory is forthcoming for either side.

This simply isn’t how culture works. You don’t own it in the way that you own your furniture. Your insistence that other people not take it doesn’t prevent your loss, it circumscribes their behavior. As is the case in all examples of political correctness, it is an attempt at control masquerading as an appeal for justice.

That we can admire each other’s beauty, even without cultural context, is part of what makes us human, and serves as a bridge over chasms of language and understanding. This cross-cultural admiration has been going on since the eastward campaigns of Alexander the Great fomented a vogue of Hellenism in Indian sculpture, and probably long before. When culture is borrowed, a new thing forms without the old one diminishing. Cultural appropriation is culture, and if you halt one you halt the other.