Cultural Appropriation III: What social justice activists get wrong about culture

(Pictured above: Stanley Clarke and Stewart Copeland play jazz at the Bataclan in Paris. Merci rocknconcert.com)

The concept of “cultural appropriation” has been making headlines more often in recent years, as social justice ideology becomes more mainstream. What’s the big deal about cultural appropriation? Is it really as bad as social justice activists claim it is? And, if so, how can it be addressed?

This is Part III of a six-part series (Part I, Part II). In this article, I will cover the shortcomings of “cultural appropriation”, including;

  • How the concept is poorly-defined and broadly applied in far too many situations.
  • Many situations where the underlying philosophy of “cultural appropriation” doesn’t reflect reality, and therefore falls apart.
  • One exception where “cultural appropriation” actually makes sense (North American Indigenous people).

Activists play fast and loose with the definition of cultural appropriation

In Part I, we started with the following definition of cultural appropriation, which is perhaps one of the most widely-cited definitions on the internet. (ThoughtCo, Jezebel, NYTimes, Daily Beast, etc.)

“[Cultural appropriation is] taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.”

– Susan Scafidi (Fordham University Law) –

As mentioned in Part I, this definition is very broad and encompasses any conceivable aspect of adopting ideas from a culture that isn’t your own. Although it will be shown that this is not a good definition by any means, it is fair to say that Scafidi’s definition reflects how the concept is applied by social justice activists.

For example, accusations of cultural appropriation have been levelled at everything from fashion to music. White chefs regularly face criticism for cooking dishes from other parts of the world. White people with dreadlocks are often criticized for having that hairstyle, and in some cases have been physically confronted.

And then there’s things like this…

Lots of issues are wrapped up in one term

When looking at the breadth of allegations made, it’s clear that some claims of appropriation are stronger than others. For example, why is non-Vietnamese people cooking pho less obviously “wrong” than frat bros wearing feather headdresses to Coachella?

As far as I can tell, this is because there’s a whole bunch of underlying issues expressed using a single term. The problem is that these issues are often used in a mutually exclusive way, as there’s no set criteria for what constitutes appropriation.

For example, talking about how Elvis stole opportunities from black musicians is an economic claim, whereas disapproving of white people rapping is primarily a complaint about taking a form of black protest music out of context (compare “Ice Ice Baby” to Public Enemy’s Fight The Power, NWA’s Fuck Tha Police, Mos Def’s Mathematics, Jay Z’s 99 Problems). Both of these complaints get expressed by the term “cultural appropriation”, and as I explained in Part II, the root of both claims are that this serves to oppress and marginalize minority groups.

Below is a handy diagram to help make some more sense of what activists might mean when they say something is “cultural appropriation”. In the next section, each of these types of claims will be individually examined and evaluated.


Rules with too many exceptions are not good rules

Each of the four types of claims in the above image can be understood as criteria that an activist may use to classify something as cultural appropriation. There are no rules for how many criteria something has to meet before becoming appropriative – most complaints only meet one criteria, and maybe two if it’s a sophisticated claim.

Broadly speaking, activists will claim any of the following; that one must seek permission before adopting elements from other cultures, that opportunities are stolen from minorities when appropriation takes place, that using things out of context is harmful to people in that culture, or that it is harmful to adopt practices that you can never truly understand.

As I will show, the validity of each of these claims quickly collapses under even the most basic examination. There are many examples that clearly illustrate the futility of the concept of cultural appropriation, but I’ve chosen some of the most obvious.

The “Permission” Rule

Can someone steal ideas from another culture, or otherwise take them without permission in a way that harms that culture? It’s an interesting claim, but it is difficult to see how that theory translates to reality. How can someone be given “permission” by an entire race or culture to use some aspect of that culture?

Economics & Stolen Opportunities

A common claim by social justice activists is that people who are part of the dominant culture (white people) will popularize and monetize aspects of a culture they like, thus creating economic opportunities for themselves, and not people who are actually from that culture. This is a highly theoretical position that doesn’t line up with actual economic realities.

Taking food as an example, I can find no data whatsoever to suggest that white chefs are profiting disproportionately from cooking ethnic cuisines. When compared to their USA population baseline, minorities are appropriately represented as head chefs, and people of colour (POC) are one of the fastest-growing demographics of restaurant ownership in the USA.

This also lines up with common sense. Most cities can sustain about six or seven restaurants per 10,000 people, which leaves a great deal of room for non-white restaurant owners to set up shop.

I don’t think the majority of social-justice warriors are truly concerned with justice. I think they enjoy causing people pain and “social justice” gives them an excuse. I think real activists are focused on stuff that truly matters, like housing, education, immigrants’ rights, and so on.

Some say the problem is that it takes money out of the hands of minorities. But many of the most popular restaurants in Portland in various cuisines —Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, et cetera—are owned by people of color. Just in the past year, we had an Asian chef, Ha Luu, and Latina chef, Gabrielle Denton, receive Beard nominations. A Korean restaurant with an Asian owner, Han Oak, received a nomination, as did Castagna, a New American restaurant with an Asian owner.

– Nick Zukin (Interview link) –

When it comes to potential representation issues, the lack of black chefs, for example, seems to have more to do with a lack of established networks for young African-Americans new to the profession, and a lack of exposure to chef-driven restaurants coupled with a reduced emphasis on home cooking.

“There’s countless opportunities in this industry and any genre of person is able to go into it. [If a person] comes into a household where food is a synergy, it’s easy for chefs to be cocooned right there at home. Maybe in the African American community, we have forgotten about the sit-down dinner and taken the more comfortable route of forgetting what you’re going to feed your children and your family.”

– Tre Wilcox (Interview link) –

 
I’m not even going to get started on the claims that black musicians are being stolen from. Although the 1900’s were OBVIOUSLY unfair to black musicians, even a cursory glance at contemporary earnings statistics such as the “Forbes 30 Highest-Paid Musicians”, and modern “best-of” lists, black musicians who pioneered and advanced genres like blues, jazz, soul, R&B, funk, and hip-hop are clearly doing quite well for themselves.

Again, it is important to note that this wasn’t always the case. Throughout the early and mid-1900’s, black musicians got screwed out of countless opportunities because of their race. But to suggest that this is still happening to musicians in any significant way is disingenuous and flies in the face of virtually all evidence to the contrary.

Context & Taste

Yet another claim that social justice activists will make is that it is wrong and harmful to use cultural elements out of context or in bad taste.

Although this is a complicated proposition, it is perhaps the strongest and only reasonable claim that activists can make.

It’s complicated because saying something is in bad taste begs a whole host of difficult questions. What is wrong about bad taste? What constitutes “harm”? Who defines “out of context” or even “bad taste”? Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

For example, Madonna’s music video for “Like a Prayer” was incredibly controversial for its use of burning crosses, which caused the Vatican to not only call for a boycott on Madonna, but also on Pepsi products and restaurants that sold those products, since the song was featured in a Pepsi commercial.

As everyone probably knows, the Christian cross is a sacred cultural symbol, and burning several of them in a music video – in the relatively puritanical 1980’s, no less – would obviously be deeply offensive to many religious people.

Given this, it would be difficult to say that one ought not to use cultural symbols out of context. Similarly, it would also be difficult to make the case that it would be wrong to “offend” people – sometimes, that’s the point of art (see: parodies, comedy).

Perhaps the most compelling case for appropriation is made when any aspects of the culture being adopted by the mainstream oversimplify that culture, reinforce negative stereotypes about that culture, or adopt cultural elements in a way that would be obviously disrespectful or disingenuous to anyone even passingly familiar with that culture.

Denzel Washington does a brilliant job of explaining the importance of being immersed in (and knowledgable about) a culture before trying to portray it in detailed ways, such as in film or TV:


 
 

 
Anyway, adoption of elements that leads to oversimplification and stereotyping is wrong. This would explain why blackface, which has historically oversimplified and parodied African-Americans for entertainment, is almost universally condemned.

And here’s another example of justified indignation about improper use of a cultural element…

 
Side note: Madonna has received her fair share of criticism for her fascination with black culture, including the racially-charged themes of “Like a Prayer” in particular.
 

The “Essence” Rule

This is where social justice theory truly falls apart. Although they don’t always explicitly say it, there is an quiet assumption of racial essentialism – that is, the claim that people of a certain race possess underlying essences that give them deep-rooted traits and abilities.

For example, social justice logic states because rap was a genre forged in a certain racially-charged context from African rhythms and vocal traditions, white people will never be able to rap like black people. The claim is that by attempting to rap, white people are cheapening the entire genre. Clearly this view is not shared by some well known rappers…

“I don’t care if [Eminem is] purple, as long as he can rap!”

– Dr. Dre –

Imagine such a claim being made about European classical music, or Christmas carols, or the scientific method born out of the Western European enlightenment. Or food! The best street hotdog I ever had was in Iceland, and hotdogs certainly weren’t invented in Akureyri.

“It’s not fair to say that because someone is white they can’t cook another ethnicity’s cuisine. I am black and cook with Asian flavors. I have been for 17 years. Am I just as guilty or is my story different because of my race? It is all how it is approached.

I believe in respectfully immersing yourself in a culture, having a relationship with the people of that culture, and honoring and supporting their business and beliefs.”

– Gregory Gourdet (Interview link) –

The nail in the essentialist coffin is how activists almost never object when non-European races will adopt aspects of each other’s cultures. Consider, for example, the (vastly underrated) contributions that Native American musicians have made to “black” genres such as blues, jazz, folk, pop, rock, and heavy metal. Have artists such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Link Wray appropriated aspects of black culture?

 
What about the South Korean T.V show “Man Who Dies To Live”, which has been accused of cultural appropriation for its portrayal of Middle Eastern themes and people? Would it be better, worse, or equally bad if white people had done something similar? What about the relative power balances between the Middle East and South Korea?


 
There is a stark divide between culture activists and culture creators on these issues. The overwhelming majority of people who are actually involved in creating culture – our artists, musicians, chefs, and craftspeople – tend to believe that one can appropriate and adopt cultural elements provided they do so in an informed, respectful fashion. This is not unreasonable in the least.

One of the reasons that social justice activists are attempting to build barriers between cultures is due to their postmodernist-inspired views. In general, postmodernists believe in things like “lived experience”, where someone’s perspective is unique and can never be truly understood by someone of a different gender or race. Postmodernism lacks a belief in common humanity that would allow for cultural exchange, which explains why activists seem to be so out of touch when it comes to things like art and music.


An exception: North American Indigenous Cultures

“When modern Natives see half-naked chicks strutting around on runways or street corners completely devoid of knowledge of our real cultures and religions, AND misrepresenting and misappropriating these sacred symbolic articles, we must demand respect for our religious practices.

Such misrepresentations sexualize, commodify, and pervert our traditions — and impart to children of all cultures and backgrounds that it’s perfectly acceptable to “play dress up” as a Native person, without regard for our ceremonial practices that have persisted here for millennia despite historic violence, and recent legal acts that literally outlawed our religions until 1978!”

– Jennifer Weston –

The term “cultural appropriation” originated with North American Indigenous cultures, where it is most appropriate. For many reasons, I think incredible care should be taken before adopting any elements of Indigenous cultures (if it is done at all). Here’s why;

Indigenous People are still disadvantaged in society

The many tribes that were displaced by Europeans have faced centuries of discrimination and undue hardship. In America, a series of wars throughout the 1600’s, 1700’s, and 1800’s killed many Native Americans (men, women, and children), eventually forcing them onto reserves and keeping them on the outskirts of society.

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

– Capt. Richard H. Pratt, Union Army –

Canada, internationally respected for its multicultural society, is no better. Throughout the 1800’s and into the late 1900’s, through the Residential School system, children were forcibly taken from their parents, forbidden from speaking their native languages and practicing their traditions, and forcibly assimilated into the European-dominant culture. This has decimated the heritage of many Indigenous people across the country, and the aftereffects still traumatize entire communities;

  • Almost one-third of Indigenous people over age 15 have a disability (double the national rate in Canada);
  • More than 50 percent of Indigneous children live in poverty;
  • The Attawapiskat First Nation declared a state of emergency in April 2016 after 11 people attempted suicide in one night, with 101 attempts in the previous 8 months;
  • The unemployment rate for Indigenous people is 3 times that of other Canadians;
  • One-quarter of Indigenous adults have less than a Grade 9 education;
  • Alcoholism and substance abuse are epidemic in many Indigenous communities across the country.

There is a fantastic documentary called “Cut-Off” that was produced by Viceland in 2016. It documents the suicide epidemics and the lack of clean water in Canadian Indigenous communities.

 

The “mainstream” has cherrypicked elements of the culture while continually insulting the people

Not many people may remember this, but the famous actor Marlon Brando turned down an Oscar for his performance in The Godfather, in protest over the portrayal of Native Americans in film and television.


 

It is fair to say that virtually all attempts to adopt or represent Indigenous cultures over the past 100+ years have been ignorant oversimplifications, harmful stereotypes, or disrespectful parodies.

It would also explain why wearing Native American headdresses to music festivals is also a huge issue, as anyone even remotely familiar with Indigenous cultures would know that such things are important cultural symbols and not mere decorations. It is the equivalent of wearing military medals that one was not awarded, or pretending to have served in the military to receive unearned respect.

This would fit the criteria of “Context & Taste”, where attempts to adopt and portray elements of Indigenous culture oversimplifies that culture, reinforces negative stereotypes about that culture, and adopts cultural elements in a way that would be obviously disrespectful or disingenuous to anyone even passingly familiar with that culture.

“… it is precisely because Native people are so seldom publicly heard, recognized, or rewarded in the market for recounting their historical experiences that non-Native representation of these themes is so offensive. The public seems to be interested in all things Indian, but they seem to have no interest in hearing Native peoples speak on their own behalf.”

– Rosemary J. Coombe –

 

British rockers the Cult have sold almost 400,000 copies of their latest album, Ceremony. But they’re not very popular with South Dakota’s Oglala Lakota Sioux nation, whose Tom and Jennifer Crazy Bear DuBray recently filed a $61 million lawsuit against the group; their label, Sire Records; and Time Warner, claiming that a photograph of their son, Eternity, 11, appears on the cover of Ceremony without permission. Attorneys say the picture may have been taken at a 1984 North Dakota powwow.

The photo also appears in the video for ”Wild Hearted Son,” in which the boy’s image, along with pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon, goes up in flames. Eternity, whose Native American beliefs associate the burning of objects with death, saw a clip on MTV while in a motel with his parents in North Carolina last fall and now refuses to participate in tribal ceremonies or to leave his house by himself, says Pam Liapakis, a lawyer for the DuBrays. ”Eternity’s father said to me, ‘They’ve condemned my son to death before he’s had a chance at life,”’ she says.

1992 Entertainment Weekly Article

 


Up Next: How social justice activists are pulling a philosophical sleight-of-hand

In Part IV, I will show that social justice ideology, which perceives everything in terms of power dynamics, is (intentionally) misconstruing bad taste as immoral behaviour. This means that activists are trying to solve the wrong problem, and are wasting their time playing a very unpopular, but clearly gratifying, game of whack-a-mole.

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