What’s between cultural appropriation and cultural segregation?

A viewer and “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz—photo by Johannes Schmitt-Tegge

Writer and ethicist Kenan Malik has written an editorial for the Times titled In Defense of Cultural Appropriation, but he spends less time defending appropriation than critiquing how we address it. He opens by discussing Hal Niedzviecki, who resigned from the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine Write after publishing a column “defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.” The outcry, particularly on social media, was intense. Malik mentions another editor, Jonathan Kay of The Walrus, who was “compelled” to resign after merely tweeting in support of Niedzviecki. These examples imply that we are way too worked up about cultural appropriation, partly because we cannot agree what it is.

Malik’s example of an editor who was pilloried for suggesting that authors should write about people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds certainly looks like moralism run amok. But he leaves out some  important details, including that Niedzviecki wrote his editorial for an issue of Write devoted to indigenous authors. In this context, his call for writers to “relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you [and] win the Appropriation Prize” reads like a defense of white authorship. It constitutes fair warning to anyone who would interrogate the idea of cultural appropriation: be careful not to argue for privilege in disguise.

Still, I think most people would agree that white authors should write nonwhite characters. It would be racist if they didn’t. But anyone who has read a book before knows authors routinely screw up when they try to write other races, often in ways that reinforce prejudice. We don’t want to say white writers should only write about white people, but we also don’t want to say that every white depiction of nonwhite cultures is just fine. When does art that reflects modern cultural pluralism become cultural appropriation?

What we need here is a definition. Malik cites Susan Scafidi’s claim that cultural appropriation means “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This definition introduces the fairly obvious question of who could give such permission. If I wrote a letter to Al Sharpton asking permission to write about a black man, A) that would be racist and B) his permission would not be meaningful. No individual can license a culture. Scafidi’s definition of appropriation seems more useful as a negative: Although no one can give permission to use a culture, pretty much anyone can deny permission to use a culture. Cultural appropriation happens when an artist evokes culture in a way that pisses someone off.

That actually seems like a pretty good rule of thumb. If your depiction of another culture has angered someone who identifies with that culture, you probably screwed up. Still, we can’t adopt the idea that cultural appropriation is whatever anyone says it is. We want to be able distinguish between obvious instances of appropriation, like Katy Perry in a geisha costume, and claims of appropriation that might not be made in good faith, such as the Oberlin students who called appropriation on a bad banh mi in their cafeteria.

Bad pan-Asian cuisine my be a crime against gastronomy, but I wouldn’t call it unethical. Putting zucchini in a stir fry is not wrong in the same way as dressing up as an Indian for Halloween. Implicit in our idea of cultural appropriation is that it’s bad because it hurts people. Few would argue that it’s bad because white and nonwhite cultures should stay separate. It might be appropriation when Macklemore makes terrible hip hop, but it’s not appropriation for white kids to listen to Ice Cube. Whatever value we’re trying to protect when we criticize cultural appropriation, it’s not the segregation of cultural products by race.

So what is it? Malik skirts this question and instead argues that trying to stop cultural appropriation will not meaningfully impact systemic racism. That might be true. Stopping your uncle from saying the n-word at Christmas won’t meaningfully impact systemic racism, either, but it’s nice. Malik cites the example of Elvis Presley, who became famous playing the same “race music” radio stations refused to air when Chuck Berry played it. That was surely an injustice, but stopping it wouldn’t have changed Jim Crow, Malik argues. He’s not wrong. But it does seem wrong that a white man could make a fortune playing black music when a black man could not.

We need to put our finger on what’s wrong with that, if our discussions of cultural appropriation are to have any meaning. It can’t just be that white people aren’t allowed to do black stuff. That too closely resembles the old system. Neither can we conclude that white people are allowed to do whatever, for the same reason. I find the topic of cultural appropriation endlessly interesting, because it keeps pitting contemporary values against each other.

We want to live in a plural society, where traditions from different cultures come together to create an American culture that we all own together. But we also want members of nonwhite groups to retain ownership of their own cultures, if for no other reason than that so much has been taken from them already. I don’t know how to reconcile these competing values. I suspect we will keep arguing about it.

Cultural appropriation? Day of the Dead parade ignores Mictecacihuatl

Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death, goes totally unrepresented in Missoula's Day of the Dead parade.

Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death (artist’s rendering)

Next week, Missoulians will put on skeleton costumes and parade down Higgins Avenue in one of this town’s oddest observances: the Day of the Dead parade. They’ve been doing it for 24 years, despite the fact that approximately 0.0% of the local population is Mexican. We love parades, though. This one concludes the Zootown Arts Community Center’s monthlong Festival of the Dead, which the ZACC describes as an “all-inclusive multicultural event that honors life and death through community involvement in the arts.”

Again, this all-inclusive multicultural event mostly includes white people. Is it therefore not a little problematic? Might the good people of Missoula not be appropriating someone else’s culture by celebrating this holiday? I agree Missoula’s Day of the Dead festivities stray unconscionably from cultural tradition. They make no mention of Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec goddess of death. In fact, when it comes to appropriating the culture behind the Day of the Dead, the only people worse than Missoulians are Mexicans.

You can read all about in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which we chart the fine line between resisting cultural appropriation and enforcing cultural segregation. Centuries from now, when ape-robot cyborgs are marching through the ruins of Washington-Grizzly Stadium in skeleton costumes, people who are a quarter Missoulian will lambast them for stealing our culture. Fortunately, I will be dead. We’ll be back tomorrow with Friday links!


Friday links! Simper at the devil edition

"So then I took out a full-page ad in the Times saying they should get the chair."

“So then I took out a full-page ad in the Times saying they should get the chair.”

I don’t mean to overgeneralize, but everyone is shit. The Ivy League warmongers are in a tight race with the uneducated racists, and everyone who ought to know and/or do better is busy pandering to what segment of those audiences they imagine most lucrative. Also it’s leaf blower season, and nobody signals their turns anymore. Sometimes a small sample of unrelated events starts to seem like the end of civilization as we know it—or at least civilization as we like it—and the best thing to do with that feeling is to get it out of your system. Today is Friday, and H.L. Mencken was right: These dickcharmers are going to outlive us all. Won’t you yell through the windshield with me?

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Oberlin students protest “cultural appropriation” in dining hall food

Oberlin students protest the shooting of Tamir Rice, an actual injustice.

Oberlin students protest the shooting of Tamir Rice, an actual injustice.

For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the slippery slope between objecting to cultural appropriation and demanding cultural segregation. It’s probably appropriation for Eminem to release two of the three top-selling rap albums of all time, but is it appropriation for white kids to listen to Outkast? It would be appropriation for me to write a play about slavery, but surely I can still eat soul food. Anyway, there’s no point in examining these questions now, because Oberlin students have obliterated the field of inquiry with genius satire. At least I hope it’s satire. Per the New York Times:

[An article] published by The Review in November, detailed what students said were instances of cultural appropriation carried out by [food service provider] Bon Appétit. The culinary culprits included a soggy, pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwich that tried to pass itself off as a traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwich; a Chinese General Tso’s chicken dish made with steamed instead of fried poultry; and some poorly prepared Japanese sushi.

First of all, General Tso’s chicken is hardly authentic Chinese culture, and making sushi poorly isn’t appropriation. Would a just world only allow ethnically Japanese people to make sushi? That sounds structurally similar to old-school racism—a system that makes race a totalizing identity and rigidly enforces separation, just without the normative component that declares one race superior to another. But again, Oberlin students are way ahead of me:

Last week, Oberlin’s black student union issued a list of demands to campus administrators, which include the creation of segregated safe spaces for black students on campus, and an annual 4 percent increase in black student enrollment.

There you go. Finally, after decades of struggle, the civil rights movement might achieve a lunch counter for blacks only. Now is a good time to remember that these are well-intentioned young people whose concerns are probably not as ridiculous as news reports make them sound. But they are also students at a private college, and “justice” in their world is not too different from their own comfort. “The food in the dining hall sucks” has become “the food in the dining hall is immoral.”