On cultural appropriation
This week I want to discuss one of the contenders for Silliest Idea Ever, that of “cultural appropriation.” Just to ensure we are on the same page, let us stipulate that cultural appropriation is the use of materials or elements of one culture by members of another. That use can be anything from playing music, to wearing clothing, to fashioning one’s hair, to eating the food of a culture that you are not historically, geographically, or ethnically descended from.
To borrow a phrase from the ever more thin-skinned among us, the concept of cultural appropriation is deeply racist from start to finish.
To suggest that a white woman cannot wear dreadlocks, or that indigenous peoples cannot serve as mascots for sports teams, or that a western singer can’t make use of Japanese imagery in a music video, or that college students shouldn’t wear certain costumes on Halloween or sombreros on Cinco de Mayo… Actually, when you string a list of “cultural appropriation” offenses together like that, it comes across as rather silly, doesn’t it? The complaint of a mewling child, perhaps?
“Pay attention to me!” (stomps foot) “I’m special! Momma said so!”
Yet there are grown men and women who work themselves into high dudgeon about this and expect you to take them seriously. And not all of the people making these childish demands are in it for the headlines: about a year ago, I attended a screening of “Reel Injun.”1 One of the scenes depicted a boy scout troop, led by a German counselor, as they dressed in “Indian” garb and engage in war whoops.3 After the film, a young woman in the audience announced that the cultural appropriation depicted in the film offended her and…honestly, I don’t know what she said after that, because I had tuned her out.
Whenever I hear someone start to drone on about “cultural appropriation,” “privilege” (male, white, or other), or any other type of collective offense, I…just stop paying attention. Because at that point I know that the person speaking is not someone to be taken seriously.2 I’m dealing with a child—no, worse! An adult who has abandoned any pretense of maturity in order to act like a child…and one who is deeply ignorant of history.
Because human history is written in the blood of conquest. There is no place on this earth where the current inhabitants’ ancestors did not wrest the land by force from the previous occupants. Nor is there any culture extant today that is free of influence from other peoples. None.
Now, you may personally be a thin-skinned racist whose self-worth is intertwined with the belief that only people who look exactly like you should get to wear that shirt, get that haircut, use that eating utensil, wave that flag, vote on issues that affect you, marry people who look like you, breed with people who look like you… Oh, that’s different you say? Poppycock! It all springs from the same racist well. Perhaps, instead of telling strangers that they have “offended you” because they want to sample some of your culture, you should take pride in the fact that it resonates with them—or at least learn to slap it on a t-shirt and sell it for a profit.
In any case, when you accuse me of appropriating your culture, my response has been and shall remain: “Fuck you.”4
1 (c) 2009. Dir. Neil Diamond. Interesting film, and I recommend watching it should you get the opportunity. It is an eye-opening look at Hollywood’s depiction of American Indians from the native perspective.
2 Oh, sure, if they muster a mob or some such of course I’ll take them seriously. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out for everyone.
3 Yes, it looked just as stupid as you imagine. However, there is a vast difference between “You look like and idiot,” and “You are stealing my culture and should be publicly shamed!”
4 Sure, call my boss. Demand I be fired for being insensitive to your feelings. Oh, wait–I’m retired! I suppose you could call for my public shaming on Twitter… Maybe one of these days I’ll work up the energy to care. Tell you what, you go ahead an hold your breath while we wait to see how that works out for you.