My latest column for Al Jazeera English on the the controversies over ‘cultural appropriation’ and what they reveal about the degradation of contemporary campaigns for social justice. It was published in AJE under the headline ‘The bane of cultural appropriation’.
Another week, another controversy about ‘cultural appropriation’. The latest has been the furore over Justin Bieber’s dreadlocks. The Bieber furore followed similar controversies over Beyoncé’s Bollywood outfit, Kylie Jenner’s cornrows, Canadians practicing yoga, English students wearing sombreros and American students donning Native American Hallow’een costumes.
Many of these controversies may seem as laughable as Bieber’s locks. What they reveal, however, is how degraded have become contemporary campaigns for social justice.
Cultural appropriation is, in the words of Susan Scafidi, professor of law at Fordham University, and Law author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, ‘Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission’ This can include the ‘unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.’
But what is it for knowledge or an object to ‘belong’ to a culture? And who gives permission for someone from another culture to use such knowledge or forms?
The idea that the world could be divided into distinct cultures, and that every culture belonged to a particular people, has its roots in late eighteenth century Europe. The Romantic movement, which developed in part in opposition to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, celebrated cultural differences and insisted on the importance of ‘authentic’ ways of being. For Johann Gottfried Herder, the German philosopher who best articulated the Romantic notion of culture, what made each people – or volk – unique was its particular language, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.
Herder was no reactionary – he was an important champion of equality – but his ideas about culture were adopted by reactionary thinkers. Those ideas became central to racial thinking – the notion of the volksgeist was transformed into the concept of racial make-up – and fuelled the belief that non-Western societies were ‘backward’ because of their ‘backward’ cultures.
Radicals challenging racism and colonialism rejected the Romantic view of culture, adopting instead a universalist perspective. From the struggle against slavery to the anti-colonial movements, the aim was not to protect one’s own special culture but to create a more universal culture in which all could participate on equal terms.
In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics. As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as ‘antiracist’.
But how does creating gated cultures, and preventing others from trespassing upon one’s culture without permission, challenge racism or promote social justice? Campaigners against cultural appropriation argue that when ‘privileged’ cultures adopt the styles of ‘less privileged’ ones they help create stereotypes of what such cultures are like, and assert racial power. ‘By dressing up as a fake Indian’, one Native American activist told white students, ‘you are asserting your power over us, and continuing to oppress us.’ The trouble is, in making the case against cultural appropriation, campaigners equally perpetuate stereotypes. After all, to suggest that it is ‘authentic’ for blacks to wear locks, or for Native Americans to wear a headdress, but not for whites to do so, is itself to stereotype those cultures.
Cultures do not, and cannot, work through notions of ‘ownership’. The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation – of cultures borrowing, stealing, changing, transforming.
Nor does preventing whites from wearing locks or practicing yoga challenge racism in any meaningful way. What the campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal is the disintegration of the meaning of ‘anti-racism’. Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all. Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society.
This takes us to the second question: who does the policing? Who gives permission for people of other cultures to use particular cultural forms? Who act as the gatekeepers to gated cultures?
Most black people could probably not care less what Justin Beiber does to his hair. Inevitably, the gatekeepers are those who are outraged by Bieber’s locks. The very fact of being outraged makes one the arbiter of what is outrageous. The gatekeepers, in other words, define themselves, because they are ones who want to put up the gates.
The debates around Justin Bieber’s hair or Beyonce’s Bollywood outfit are relatively trivial. But, in other contexts, the creation of gatekeepers has proved highly problematic. In many European nations, minority groups have come to be seen as distinct communities, each with their own interests, needs and desires, and each with certain so-called ‘community leaders’ acting as their representatives. Such leaders are frequently religious, often conservative, and rarely representative of their communities. But they wield great power as mediators between their communities and wider society. In effect, they act as gatekeepers to those communities.
Their role as gatekeepers is particularly problematic when it comes to policing not fashion styles or cuisine but ideas. Community leaders often help define what is acceptable to say about particular communities, and what is ‘offensive’. And notions of ‘offence’ are often used to police not just what outsiders may say about a particular community, but to shut down debate within those communities – think of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or the shutting down by Sikh activists of Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti, which explored the role of women within Sikh communities.
The campaign against cultural appropriation is, in other words, part of the broader attempt to police communities and cultures. Those who most suffer from such policing are minority communities themselves, and in particular progressive voices within those communities. The real fight against injustice begins with ridding ourselves of our self-appointed gatekeepers.
Another masterpiece Kenan. Well said, as ever. I will tweet next week. Solidarity! Peter
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That the gatekeepers define themselves, and that they become the reactionary guardians of those factors that divide communities is a given. The question remains, should the gatekeepers of the opposite extreme, demanding no differences whatsoever, not look long at the landscape they promote? That one looks universally beige to me.
What human achievements should be celebrated and promoted? I suggest we accept that there are, in fact, differences between people – in their skills, desires and degrees of creative exuberance. There are differences that flow organically across groupings of people. Some of the variations hit against extremes of behaviour – my university anthropology professor, self-identified as a Maori, highlighted the unusual behaviour of women in the Chimbu tribe of Papua New Guinea of 60 years ago, where they waited over the year for the Chinese trader to come by with a mill bastard file to file down their teeth to points.
To be tolerant of behaviours that do not conform to one’s range of expectations is to allow for creativity to flourish. But to remove the grinding capability of one’s teeth for life, may not be of benefit to anyone but the person accepting payment for wielding the file.
At this point some may fall into the trap of being prescriptive. Let us set up, they say, the parameters by which we can define the conditions that specify personal and cultural benefits. That Book of Specifications will be quite large, and will continue to grow as those with special interests find loopholes to their own benefit.
The other path depends on critical thoughtfulness. Admittedly that is an aptitude with a varying degree of expression. Perhaps you will agree that it is one that, when done with aplomb, shows itself to be a rare and precious gem.
Can we give over to these reluctant, thoughtful gatekeepers the power to say, “You may wish to rethink the consequences to your future self – one that is less dependent on the vagaries of fashion and sexual appeal – of having to gum your food during the declining years of your life.”
No. That would be, well, rational!
Great article. Gatekeepers are the self appointed proclaimers of why they are different. Almost never in these discussions does it arise that across all cultures we are in fact we are much more the same than we are different. The personality types that define all humans cut across all racial and cultural boundaries. The kind, the gentle, the angry, the xenophobes, the activists, those that long for a bygone era that never existed (a substantial majority) all appear in all races and cultures.
My favourite stupid cultural resurgence is the desire for people to learn some long dead language to discover “who they are”. Its not language that defines us but how that language is used to express the ideas and thoughts we have. The world is poised to have unprecedented peace and stability through the use of increasingly common languages. History shows international disputes between common language states rarely end in military actions because it is too difficult to demonise people who similarities are too hard to ignore.
Monty Python put it best in Life of Brian. “Yes we are all individuals….”. Each person genuinely believing they are special without ever stepping outside their own frame of reference. Gatekeepers have this in common with each other right across the world.
Debates like this have always interested me, but is there really a ‘furore’ taking place? White musicians have worn dreadlocks for decades, for instance Rage Against the Machine (90’s) or Boy George (80’s). Dreads ceased to be purely a signifier of black cultural pride once crusties adopted them in the late 70s. I think any sense of distaste the pictures have generated is more to do with a performer widely seen as lacking authenticity, suddenly adopting the style of a more ‘credible’ subculture. Basically, he’s trying to look like a skate-punk.
A thoughtful, enlightening comment upon cultural appropriation. The comments, too, have clarified the issue greatly for me.
I would love to hear some non-white male opinions. Being a white male in Australia, there are tens of thousands of years worth of cultural knowledge woven into our First Nation people that I certainly don’t have a right to appropriate as my own. I think the article presents some valid points, but is too sweeping in its conclusions, undervalues the importance of respecting difference in creating a harmonious society, and selects not to discuss cultural homogenization.
Being a white male doesn’t mean you’re incapable of seeing reality for what it is, unlike what SJWs have been screeching over the last few years to decades.
You’re not missing out on anything. There is no ‘special knowledge’ that non-white people have that you don’t, in the here and now.
(And even if we accepted the premise privileged people are missing out on anything, it would be straight white females that are on top, anyway.)
I can’t say this enough: Cultures alone are not something inherently valuable in and of themselves.
i am a pansexual half black woman and i absolutely am not capable of caring less whether someone ‘appropriates’ a hairstyle. if that helps.
So long one doesn’t goes around calling it an “afro”, this half black male would add.
Actual cultural appropriation is taking something that existed all along within a maligned culture and selling it as a novel creation of one’s own. Think rock and Elvis taking the credit. Justin Bieber doesn’t appropriate, but merely imitates locks.
Another thing that is left to be said, is that like gatekeeping, appropriation has come to conflate culture and identity. As the privileged seize, redact and caricature the identity of marginalised groups, it reinforces their racism and other prejudice.
i don’t obviously know firsthand since i’m too young but i would guess that instead of elvis knowingly taking credit, other people ignorantly ascribe it to him
since he was the one to get famous because of racism preventing black success
I’m not sure what the big deal is about calling it an afro either. Not so etymologically accurate, but that’s it.
I was watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwoSYWIgV9Y Basically, Japanese people love foreigners wearing kimono, and don’t care one bit if you wear it wrong or in ‘offensive’ contexts.
The pattern seems to be that “cultural appropriation” is something offensive to either: guilt-ridden whites, or some children of immigrants. The latter seems to be because they’re caught in between cultures, and aren’t as secure in their identity the way a Japanese person living in Japan is.
The offence is in the appropriation of identity: claiming blackness by pigeonholing all appropriation through culture. An ‘afro’ is Afro-textured hair worn long in its natural state; a racial trait. Usurpation of the marginal drives the archetype into the margin of the margin. And with the colonisation of colored bodies, we are compelled to run from our physical selves.
Also, imbalance of power makes cultural appropriation a potential aggression: I can imagine the humiliation of the Native American, who may feel forced to “appropriate Western culture”, lest he have cultural stereotypes forced upon his person.
“Appropriation of identity”
So now we’re encouraging black people to define themselves by their hair texture.
“Potential aggression” is BS. If a culture has been washed away by colonialism or otherwise actual aggression, it’s the colonialism to be opposed then.
Digging up artifacts and reconstructing languages for historical, descriptive study of cultures is one thing, but to claim that the descendants have some special claim over it is racist and reactionary.
And if anyone is forcing cultural stereotypes upon Native Americans, it’s you, if you think all NAs are humiliated over seeing a white person in a headdress. Because all NAs must be emotionally attached to headdresses.
Noor, I nowhere said ‘all’ Native Americans. Nor did I say that those who would feel humiliated, would be so because of emotional attachment to headdresses. See, when people dress up as Native Americans, they are making a statement about the ancestors of present Native Americans. Descendants are thereby under a burden to prove how much they are civilised away from the stereotype.
Descendants have a stake in their ancestor’s legacy. That is why European history is expounded to everyone. Even the unrelated shall know that the ancient Germanic ancestors of West Europeans had crop rotation and kingdoms. Western history is viewed through idealised imagery, with masonry and as the rule rather than the actual exception for most of it. Compared to that, the Native American and African legacies are still displayed as little more than the trophies of Western conquerors, rather than placed within the historical contexts of Native American and African civilisations. Given this record, who are the real racists here?
And where would it get the New World natives to instead declare opposition to projects of colonialism that have been completed and become physically irreversible, namely the white settler states Canada, the United States, Australia, Argentinia, etc, that absorbed them?
“So now we’re encouraging black people to define themselves by their hair texture.”
Nomatter what they do to it afterwards, black people have afro-textured hair growing out of their scalp and the term ‘afro’ is attached to that racial trait and not African culture. The issue here is with people trying to make blackness cultural, which also deracialises afrophobia.
“Noor, I nowhere said ‘all’ Native Americans. Nor did I say that those who would feel humiliated, would be so because of emotional attachment to headdresses. See, when people dress up as Native Americans, they are making a statement about the ancestors of present Native Americans. Descendants are thereby under a burden to prove how much they are civilised away from the stereotype.”
What “statement” is being made here, exactly? That certain headdresses are/were commonly worn by a tribe/its leaders? That’s a fact. Most white people know very well that modern NAs don’t wear that in every day life. If they do think that, they’re uneducated and can be corrected, but that’s it.
“Descendants have a stake in their ancestor’s legacy.”
And here we go again with the Volksgeist talk.
“That is why European history is expounded to everyone. Even the unrelated shall know that the ancient Germanic ancestors of West Europeans had crop rotation and kingdoms. Western history is viewed through idealised imagery, with masonry and as the rule rather than the actual exception for most of it. Compared to that, the Native American and African legacies are still displayed as little more than the trophies of Western conquerors, rather than placed within the historical contexts of Native American and African civilisations. Given this record, who are the real racists here?”
You do realize that much of that has to do with that we have no written record of a lot of Native American or African civilizations? There are entire millenia lost to history because of the lack of a writing system for entire language families. Most of what we know about these civilizations’ history comes only from the written observations of European conquerers. A writing system for the Cherokee language was invented only in the early 1800s, so how do you expect us to know anything about their ancestors’ civilizations 2000 years ago, while we can still read records in Latin from that time?
That being said, I don’t deny that history is often taught around an unnecessarily Eurocentric perspective. If you want to research the history of these kingdoms lost, by all means do it.
“And where would it get the New World natives to instead declare opposition to projects of colonialism that have been completed and become physically irreversible, namely the white settler states Canada, the United States, Australia, Argentinia, etc, that absorbed them?”
You can’t hold descendants of colonialists today, at all responsible for what their ancestors did. People that did unfair things are long dead. You can’t change that. The most you can do is point out the hypocrisy if white people today claim people should go back to where their ancestors came from. (Though, that claim is probably more likely to come from a so-called ‘anti-racist’ today.)
“Nomatter what they do to it afterwards, black people have afro-textured hair growing out of their scalp and the term ‘afro’ is attached to that racial trait and not African culture. The issue here is with people trying to make blackness cultural, which also deracialises afrophobia.”
You originally said “appropriation of identity” in regards to white people wearing afros (or rather, for accuracy, afro-inspired hairstyles). Which would mean black people should view their hair texture as a fundamental defining trait, as black first and foremost, over other things like their social roles, profession, politics, etc.
Also, there are black African peoples with naturally straight hair. So are you erasing them by equating being black with kinky hair? Not necessarily, and those that are not too invested in their identity as a “black with straight hair” won’t take offense either. That’s what I mean by encouraging people to not be overly invested in an identity based on physical traits.
Yes, got the impression that most people did not mind the Gap ‘racist’ kids advert pic, which very clearly exposed how simply an agenda is projected onto things. I hope the day comes soon when the extremist gatekeepers of religious piety are sent packing, when the regressives are replaced by progressives, and universal values set differences dancing, as they do at music festivals already anyway.
A very astute post.
In the interests of the same desire for cultural purity which is at the heart of the ‘cultural appropriation’ issue, I’ll hereby be boycotting any African-American jazz musicians who have appropriated such white European instruments as saxophones, trumpets or pianos. The turntable is not an African-American technology and non-white proponents of hip hop culture should refrain from using them – banjos are African-American in origin however, so let’s hope respect for the purity of differing traditions prevails, and Kanye West rerecords his back catalogue on one.
Also any non-white, non-American who appropriate jeans and t-shirts – or the British-originated lounge suit for that matter – in their dress, will receive a rather stern glare from me. And don’t get me started on white anti-Zionists sporting keffiyehs.
If respect and honesty play the major role in our cultural interactions*, authentic, human, meaningful creativity will emerge. Strict controls based on ethnic identity and cultural practise and wielded by cultural authoritarians have never, to my knowledge, turned out well.
*And even this suggests that human cultures have the kind of specific borders which, particularly in this day and age of connectivity, they very rarely do.
tom george – the furore against dreadlocks is a relatively new development, starting in the mid 00s. since then, outrage has been manufactured against yoga, kimonos, and even learning another language