Now is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?
July 27, 2017 2:15 AM   Subscribe

Cultural Appropriation: Whose culture is it anyway, and what about hybridity? (Sonny Hallett, Medium)
I was on-board, more or less, with the anti-cultural appropriation arguments when they mostly centred around condemning the use of racist stereotypes in halloween and fancy dress costumes. Dressing up as ‘default Indian woman’ or ‘stock Chinese man’ almost always has the unwholesome whiff of racist cartoons about them, often only serving to promote absurd stereotypes, disrespectful by nature. If I had a penny for every time a kid in school or in the park pulled the corners of their eyes up and shouted “ching chong chang” at me, for instance, or for every “oh but what about maths?” comment I received when I said that my favourite subjects were art and literature… Even as a kid I wanted this stuff challenged. But I also never for a second believed that the way to challenge these instances of ignorance, and ignorant othering, (which is essentially what they are) is to fence off areas of culture to be the sole preserve of specific peoples, based on some kind of birthright.
posted by Joseph Gurl (144 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'll be honest: I've never quite known what to make of accusations of cultural appropriation. There seem to be invisible lines where it's okay to cross or it's not okay to cross and they seem to move depending on what particular matter or offense someone is focussing on for the moment.

I think there's a major difference between, say, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany's and Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. One is obviously offensive, the other is not. But what do you do with, say, George Harrison and his interest in things from India? And what about the old show Barney Miller?

I dunno. I've never really thought that cultural appropriation was a problem, it was more cultural stereotyping that was the issue. People should be allowed to be the people they want to be and not be accused of anything negative simply because they like a thing that doesn't "match" their skin tone or their nose shape or whatever.
posted by hippybear at 2:49 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


I think this is completely spot on. I'm currently making my way through the links provided at the bottom of the article. The idea of cultural appropriation is well meaning but seems incredibly eurocentric to even make the assumptions that cultural artifacts only belong to one one group of people. If race is a construct/continuum then cultural appropriation can't really, really exist. (Obviously people can argue against this, but it's a messy concept to try and cage.) It's interesting that that author didn't touch native American cultures; perhaps because they evolved in more of a vacuum?

Where can one begin to untangle these things? How can you really claim than banh mi are strictly Vietnamese when they contain pate and french bread? Mexican food and cheese/beef? Thai food and tomatoes or chili peppers? The lines have never been clear cut and it shows incredibly myopic, recency bias.

I'm reminded of Dan Pashman from the Sporkful being reprimanded for trying to improve Bibimbap by making it crispier.

One of his critics wrote:
“Can you understand why Koreans would be offended by your piece? Or are you too white? Serious q.”

The issue is that Bimimbap itself requires many cultures sharing ideas and products in order for it to exist. There is no one pure time when cultures weren't sharing ideas.

Moreover, the world is a better place because of these conversations between culture. Music, food, art, politics, ideas etc. They all improve when we swap them around.

It'd be a sad world without Japanese katsu and tempura or American Chinese food or chicken Tikka Masala or Jazz or Led Zeppelin or Van Gogh's Japonisme art. I'm glad I can order jerk chicken and put feta cheese on on my wrap and make hummus out of mung beans and have access to all the various night shades we got from North America. I'm glad we stole chickens from SE Asia and watermelons from Africa. I'm glad we have people who speak Creoles and that new words are constantly being borrowed and repurposed.

Travel to a place like Penang and point to the authentic food. Is it the Chinese food? The Malay food? The Indian food? The Portuguese food? The British food? I went to Penang and start selling steamed Pao buns made with Hamburger ingredients, who am I stealing from?
posted by Telf at 2:55 AM on July 27 [25 favorites]


I think a great example of food evolving can be found in the Planet Money episode on Salmon and sushi. Salmon was considered completely unacceptable as a fish for sashimi etc. The Norwegians spent years trying to get Japanese chefs and customers to accept salmon as a fish that could be eat raw. Now it's one of the most popular fish used in sushi. So who exactly appropriates what from whom when a University cafeteria serves salmon rolls?
posted by Telf at 3:01 AM on July 27 [9 favorites]


Sorry, for the triple comment. Just went back and started reading a few previous MeFi posts on Cultural Appropriation. Seems like qcubed's comment should be referenced.

Hi,

It looks like you're about to comment on a thread about Cultural Appropriation.

To review previous discussions, please try these three links.

To review the MetaTalks explaining why those ended up as tire fires, please review these two.

Before you decide to comment with a hot take or try to litigate whether cultural appropriation exists, please refer to this video.


*Links still working in the referenced comment.
posted by Telf at 3:09 AM on July 27 [32 favorites]


I've never really thought that cultural appropriation was a problem

I think one of the issues with the debate around cultural appropriation is that term has shifted in its meaning--but not among everyone. Some people interpret it to mean any and all forms of cultural exchange, while others use it specifically to refer to members of a dominant group using the culture of a minority group in a disrespectful or harmful way.

If you're operating under the first definition, the backlash against cultural appropriation as a whole makes no sense; isn't it good if we borrow and learn from each other? But to other people, cultural appropriation is bad by definition, so labeling something as "cultural appropriation" means that you're calling it disrespectful and harmful. Then these two groups talk past each other.

Obviously this isn't the only issue. There is a big range of opinion on what is actually disrespectful or harmful. It's clearer when members of a minority group are unified against some form of appropriation, and becomes fuzzier as ... it becomes fuzzier, and opinions are more diverse. This is an ongoing issue in my field, in fact, when it comes to ownership of language data; if no member of the community wants the language data to be shared, or if every member wants it to be shared, the decision is made. After many decades of ethical evolution, the field almost universally recognizes that it is the community's right to decide. But what do you do when opinions are split?

But, anyway--ever since I've stopped to take the time to make it clear what definition people are using, conversations about cultural appropriation I'm in have gone better and people agree more than is often immediately apparent.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:13 AM on July 27 [52 favorites]


The author quotes the original definition of cultural appropriation but to me the point is that cultures in this world are not on equal footing, because Western capitalism is predominant, thus the impact of cultural copying is not isotropic. It's a problem of sociological opportunity cost, which is not obvious from the definition. If one group's successes are due to historical oppression, then cultural appropriation only serves to further that. That's precisely the sort of thing that reparations (and refraining from appropriating) are supposed to address.

The Appiah quote is misused, because the whole point is the legacy of racism is exactly what destroys that heritage that needs "caring"--it's the destruction of the original cultural you that never existed. Talking about celebrating fusion food (which can be delicious) becomes an act of whitewashing, by this alternative interpretation. It's pretty dark to think about.
posted by polymodus at 3:16 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


I think it's also difficult to compare attitudes about these matters from within the US and from other countries. This article is obviously not written from within the US, and it might be difficult for those of us living in the US to be able to see what it might be trying to say.
posted by hippybear at 3:16 AM on July 27 [6 favorites]


I was thinking about this the other day because I was cooking kheema pav in my new Instant Pot. There are few dishes that illustrate the benefits of the cross cultural exchange of food better than kheema pav. A common Mumbai street food, it has been perfected by the Parsis, descendants of Iranian immigrants to India and commonly served in Irani cafes. Several of its key ingredients are of very recent entry into the Indian culinary scene such as the tomatoes and chillies, not to mention the pav itself, the small rolls of bread that are served with the meat mixture, which are likely Portuguese in origin. Yet the dish itself is quintessentially Indian. Here in the US, I put my own spin on the dish, using an Instant Pot, and substituting potato rolls for the pav (which btw were utterly perfect, crispy after being spread with ghee and toasted in a pan). As I ate my kheema, topped with cilantro, red onion and lime, dipping in my crispy bread, I couldn't help thanking all those cultural appropriaters of the past for my delicious, delicious meal.
posted by peacheater at 3:27 AM on July 27 [18 favorites]


what about hybridity?

Is that like in Alien 3 and Alien 4? I'm against that, then.
posted by XMLicious at 3:53 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


Is it Alien 4 where Weaver wandered through all the bizarre hybrid clones of herself being filmed seeing them for the first time because she wanted the emotional reaction to be honest?

Yeah, that's not actually how I think about these matters at all.
posted by hippybear at 3:57 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


But it's sort of like where a xenomorph cross-breeds with a dog and then massacres all of the inmates at a high-security prison, isn't it?

I have purposefully steered clear of the topic of cultural appropriation and American Indian cultural traditions, for instance, because I know that I am limited in my knowledge of that particular dynamic, and I know that there are many more complex issues there relating to the use of sacred iconography and so on. Of course there is racism in the UK, and in the rest of Europe, and in China, to name three examples I feel I can speak on with more authority, but the dynamics are often very different. People aren’t discriminated against along the same lines, and the cultural stereotypes that have caused problems and divisions are different.

I'm not sure the author is so much talking about a different definition of "cultural appropriation", but trying to make it sound like it doesn't happen outside of the US. Being unable to think of a non-US equivalent when speaking from the perspective of the former British Empire and the part of the world establishing protected designation of origin for Champagne and Melton Mowbray pork pies seems a bit suspect to me, that she or he perhaps isn't trying hard enough.
posted by XMLicious at 4:20 AM on July 27 [12 favorites]


I appreciate how weird it sounds to categorize cultural appropriation with porn, but I think the two are alike in the sense that I don't know the exact definition, but I know it when I see it.

I think it comes down to each of us having some healthy self-reflection about why you are dabbling in a certain thing. There are those who adopt the trappings of a culture because they think it is cool or trendy or fashionable or something; you're trying to be "Hip" and you try to achieve "hip" by sort of fetishizing a whole other culture. That's...not ideal, to my mind.

But then you have the people who have learned something about the culture, who want to meet it on its own terms, and that just feels different to me. A guy from my acting conservatory discovered Japanese noh theater somewhere in the course of college, and apparently was rather struck by it - because he then went on to co-found a 20-year-old theater troupe designed to expose Noh theater to Western audiences. I'm not so sure that would be "appropriation", would it?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:35 AM on July 27 [16 favorites]


XMLicious, I have never considered the asymmetric treatment of valuable cultural property represented by the Protected Designation of Origin scheme, and it is a very interesting point.
posted by Svejk at 4:36 AM on July 27 [8 favorites]


In Canada the outrage over cultural appropriation seems to be mostly fabricated by the dominant culture. Recently a Canadian literary magazine devoted an issue to indigenous writers. The editor of the magazine (a member of the white, dominant culture in Canada) wrote a snarky introduction that referred to the writers as winning an "appropriation prize" and that he did not believe in cultural appropriation. There was a media furor, and the editor, Hal Niedzviecki, quickly resigned.

That wasn't the end of it. Jonathan Kaye, the editor of the Walrus, a sort of Canadian New Yorker wanna be poseur, said that arguments about cultural appropriation were shutting down freedom of speech. Ken Whyte, an influential telecom exec and writer, also thought that the whole "cultural appropriation" debate was shutting down freedom of expression.

Canada's white literary establishment essentially circled the wagons (this not is the first time Canada's literary establishment has shown itself to be by turns clueless and lacking empathy) over the issue of cultural appropriation.

The thing is, it was the white literary establishment that manufactured the controversy in the first place, when Niedzviecki wrote the intro, essentially stealing the spotlight from the indigenous writers who were supposed to be showcased. It's pretty rotten, yet indigenous writers and observers got the blame when they quite rightly took offense to Niedzviecki's bonehead maneuver.

Other times, "cultural appropriation" is used to mask what is outright theft or plagiarism. Most recently Joseph Boyden, who has always identified as an indigenous writer, got "outed" for having no indigenous heritage whatsoever (his uncle or something like to pretend he was an "Indian", and it passed down to Boyden). On top of that, Boyden is accused to stealing First Nations oral stories word-for-word to be published in his books, which he profits from. If the allegations are true, and I personally think they are true, it means Boyden was "appropriating" them in the most blatantly concrete possible. That's plagiarism, not some abstract concept that only the "SJW's" get outraged about.

Another recent example in Canada is an Ontario artist was accused of "cultural appropriation" because her artwork was said to be influenced by a particular First Nations style of art in Canada. But it turns out she copied an indigenous artist. Once again, that's not some abstract "liberal progressive social justice warrior" concept of "cultural appropriation." It was plagiarism.

My point is that a) the whole cultural appropriation debate is fueled by the sensibilities of the dominant culture, rather than by the people who are getting ripped off and b) it's also used as a concept to mask outright theft, or at the very least blatantly dishonest behavior.

I'd also like to say the whole Boston kimono controversy is mind-bending, since the Japanese government invited people, white or otherwise, to try on kimonos. But it was Americans (who, in some cases, identified as Asian-American) who were offended. And the exhibit itself, organized in part by the Boston Japanese consulate, pointed out how much Western art has been "influenced" (or has appropriated) Japanese art, and that the Orientalism of the late 1800's is still very much alive today.
posted by My Dad at 4:51 AM on July 27 [30 favorites]


Some people interpret it to mean any and all forms of cultural exchange

Then those people are deeply ignorant of the basic plain English meaning of the word 'appropriation' and should go read more. About anything, honestly.
posted by PMdixon at 4:53 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


I think it's also difficult to compare attitudes about these matters from within the US and from other countries. This article is obviously not written from within the US, and it might be difficult for those of us living in the US to be able to see what it might be trying to say.

This. I've noticed that in the broader discourse about the topic, Brits often tend to be quite resistant to the idea that cultural appropriation is necessarily a bad thing. I think this has a lot to do with our historical experience of racial integration within our urban communities. It's not a big country either, so if you live in a city, where a great deal of culture gets shaped, it's impossible to pretend you live in a homogenous society.

The British empire obviously had more than its fair share of blood on its hands, and as a nation we certainly have plenty of racists in our midst, but over the last hundred years or so and up until relatively recently we've been surprisingly accepting of immigrants into our cities. Indeed, I suspect the received, unspoken idea (born out of personal experience for many people) is that respectful cultural exchange has been a major influence in combatting racism, because it allows individuals to connect socially through the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the music we dance to.

This is obviously very localized - slavery and genocide didn't happen on the same scale on our soil, and the British ruling class was always pretty good at oppressing its own peasants at home, particularly during the industrial revolution. All this is not to devalue a useful and important concept, just to offer context to this perspective.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 4:56 AM on July 27 [7 favorites]


Good thing there aren't geographical indications for Colombian coffee, Iranian caviar, Darjeeling tea, Mexican tequila and so on from Kobe beef to Pinggu peaches. It would be so sad if you couldn't sell Minnesota-grown wagyu for half the price. /s
posted by sukeban at 4:59 AM on July 27 [5 favorites]


by which I only want to say that DOPs are a good idea and it's not that Europeans should allow you to sell Rochefort cheese from the famous caves of New Jersey but that developing countries have a right to control their heritage and stop other countries from stealing it.
posted by sukeban at 5:01 AM on July 27 [10 favorites]


over the last hundred years or so and up until relatively recently we've been surprisingly accepting of immigrants into our cities

Maybe "surprisingly" is doing a lot of work here but there's a Mr Powell who would like a word.

(cw: extreme anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric)
posted by PMdixon at 5:14 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Then those people are deeply ignorant of the basic plain English meaning of the word 'appropriation' and should go read more. About anything, honestly.

Well, in some cases I do think that they're being willfully obtuse. If you're familiar with the current discourse around cultural appropriation, you should be clued in to the fact that people have different ideas about what the term means. It's one thing if you haven't read much yet--but another if you want to write a thinkpiece chiding the oversensitive youth of today without ever acknowledging that their position is more nuanced than "cultural exchange is bad."

Which I have seen happen. A lot.

(Not to mention that it's not just a youth thing, or a white thing--but something that many members of minority groups have expressed for a long time even if not in the same jargon.)

I don't think they're unaware of the negative connotations of "appropriation," though. They think that the oversensitive youth of today are using a negative term to describe something that is often positive or neutral. That's why so many of them try to show that the idea of "cultural appropriation" is bullshit by throwing out positive examples of cultural exchange--hey, you like American Chinese food, right?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:33 AM on July 27 [6 favorites]


I think it comes down to each of us having some healthy self-reflection about why you are dabbling in a certain thing.

The word "exotic" encompasses like 95% of what I at least personally perceive to be the problem with appropriation. White people get bored and reach out into other cultures and pull in things because they are "exotic"... but continues to brand the same things "weird" or "other" as practiced in a routine and boring way by the people who came up with them. Yesterday I got Thai food, because I like Thai food. There were samosas. They had potato in them. People adopt foods because they're tasty. Sometimes people adopt clothing because they discover something to be comfortable or practical in particular contexts. As long as those things aren't of some kind of sacred significance to the originating culture, I think you're good. Lots of English-speaking people watch anime; lots of people in non-English-speaking places watch English-language TV. A subset of the people who watch anime have a serious problem with fetishizing Japanese culture, but doing so isn't an inherent feature. Sometimes people far away just make some media you like.

On the other hand, "exotic" things tend to be a problem for white culture when nonwhite people do them and fine when white people do them in small nonthreatening quantities for the sake of performative novelty. A lot of the problem with something like dreadlocks on white people, hair textures aside, is that black hairstyles are still regularly cited as not being sufficiently "professional" and it basically screams, "I want to be different and I don't have to worry about the lasting socioeconomic implications of doing this because I'm white and at least middle class."
posted by Sequence at 5:34 AM on July 27 [16 favorites]


Then those people are deeply ignorant of the basic plain English meaning of the word 'appropriation' and should go read more. About anything, honestly.
PMdixon

No, because as noted by several commenters above "appropriation" is a very vague term and is used by different people to describe a range of behaviors. There's no clear, obvious bright line separating "exchange" and "appropriation" which is why we see "cultural appropriation" applied in all sorts of situations.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:35 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


PMdixon: Astonishingly, we who have lived in the UK over the last fifty years have heard of Enoch Powell, but thank your for your attempts to educate us. Our assessments of multiculturalism and its benefits (which don't go undisputed even to this day, to put it mildly) take Powell and his dismal repercussions into account. Places in the real world are a lot more complicated than those who do not participate directly in them can sometimes appreciate.
posted by Grangousier at 5:46 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


If one group's successes are due to historical oppression, then cultural appropriation only serves to further that. That's precisely the sort of thing that reparations (and refraining from appropriating) are supposed to address.

This seems to be begging the question: We should refrain from cultural appropration. What is "cultural appropriation? What we should refrain from doing.

What is cultural appropriation? Do we use Scafidi's definition, which as the article notes is vague and problematic? How do we know what to avoid if it can't be defined? Who gets to define it?
posted by Sangermaine at 5:48 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


No, because as noted by several commenters above "appropriation" is a very vague term

No. It is not. To appropriate something is to take it unilaterally, without regard to the reaction of the entity being appropriated from. That is what the word means. That is why we have budget appropriations. That is why we take about government's appropriating land. In terms of the English language, 'appropriate (v., trans.)' is probably one of the least polysemous words you will find. 'Exchange' is vaguer but certainly bears with it some sense of mutuality, however attenuated.

It's one thing if you haven't read much yet--but another if you want to write a thinkpiece chiding the oversensitive youth of today without ever acknowledging that their position is more nuanced than "cultural exchange is bad."

Yes, and being willfully tendentious is distinct from having a terminology disconnect, and is something that should be called out as such --- anyone who's getting published anywhere that anyone hear would read is in the second category.
posted by PMdixon at 5:48 AM on July 27 [7 favorites]


A subset of the people who watch anime have a serious problem with fetishizing Japanese culture, but doing so isn't an inherent feature.

I met a number of those guys (always guys) in graduate school, who had gone into area studies programs to follow their interests that had started with anime and then deepened during a study-abroad year. A couple of them were seriously creepy but most were just people with focused interests who were well aware of the complexity of the issues.

Back to the main discussion, the different ways people use the term makes it really hard to discuss without getting cross-ways quickly, over and above the issue that even the most caricatured examples of cultural appropriation will have fervent defenders (see, for example, the recent FPP about the Koshare Indian Museum -- it boggles my mind that anyone would do this in 2017, and yet they are and they have an appreciative audience). I wish that the broader (non-academic) discussion of this would more clearly delineate the spectrum (and complexity) that extends from adaptive cultural synchretism to offensive appropriation.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:49 AM on July 27


Places in the real world are a lot more complicated than those who do not participate directly in them can sometimes appreciate.

(a) Don't assume you know which places in the world people have and have not directly participated in.

(b) I was responding to a comment claiming that "over the last hundred years or so and up until relatively recently we [British ha]ve been surprisingly accepting of immigrants into our cities." If someone says the US has historically had relatively good race relations, I think it's pretty fair play for someone to bring in, say, a George Wallace clip, regardless of their denizenship.
posted by PMdixon at 5:51 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


I think it's also difficult to compare attitudes about these matters from within the US and from other countries.

I think a great accidental case study related to this point is a Finnish band called Steve 'n' Seagulls, whose awesome tongue-in-cheek bluegrassy cover of Iron Maiden's The Trooper is relevant on many levels. The very first shot is the most Finnish-looking pudgy guy you'll ever see exiting a small barn of some kind to join the rest of the band, wearing a war bonnet. The rest of the band liberally borrows hillbilly aesthetics to fit the style of music, using a late 19th to early 20th century Finnish rural milieu as the backdrop.

I can 100% guarantee you that these guys had never even heard the term "cultural appropriation". Finnish does have a more or less literal translation for it, but it is not known outside academic and extra-woke liberal circles. The whole conversation around it is basically nonexistent and what little there is mainly references high-profile CA-related controversies in the US.

It likely never occurred to the band that wearing a war bonnet might be in bad taste somehow, but they got shit for it in the comments nonetheless; liberal Americans applying liberal American ethical standards on Finnish dudes who you couldn't reasonably expect to know better. The guy switched to a mountain man fur hat in later videos, so good on him/them for reacting to criticism, but I suspect that they don't really feel like they did anything wrong. (And if you queried them on the topic, they probably couldn't tell you why they didn't get shit for appropriating hillbilly music and clothing.)

To Finns and I suspect to many (most?) other non-USians, appropriation tends to be second-hand: artifacts, fashions etc. of appropriated cultures are spread throughout the world only after someone appropriated and later spread them first. People largely know their origin, but the primary contact is often through already appropriated forms (like war bonnets worn by movie-influenced kids playing cowboys and indians, or that dude in the YMCA video) rather than any proximity to the originating cultures. Second-hand, any apparent injustices associated with appropriation basically disappear.

Even first-hand, it's often difficult to convince people that most forms of appropriation do any actual harm, because arguments like "white people having Black hair styles is wrong because they'll never face the burdens of having them while Black" are so intangible. Understanding or accepting them tends to mean you've already bought in to the liberal axiom of "cultures have some exclusive rights to their artifacts", which is far from a given.
posted by jklaiho at 5:52 AM on July 27 [10 favorites]


PMdixon, you're being intentionally obtuse. The point is there's no magical indicator of when a cultural interaction is unilateral and when it is mutual, so pointing at the dictionary definitions is just silly. The term is "cultural appropriation", but the meaning is unclear, and it has been applied in a wide range of situations that some see as unilateral and others as mutual. Hence the reason why there is confusion and disagreement over what is cultural appropriation and what isn't.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:58 AM on July 27 [6 favorites]


I think Kutsuwamushi and Sangermaine have really honed in on the importance of common definitions.

Despite Kutsuwamushi dismissing my example of American Chinese food, I feel she's correct. The problem, as Viet Thanh Nguyen pointed out, is that there are extremists on both sides of the debate being willfully obtuse. (Or just overly confrontational.)

An issue that I have, is that some people consciously shift the definition and move the goalposts on some aspects when it suits their needs. It's possible to use a very loose definition of cultural appropriation as a big tent accusation and then tighten up the definition when necessary. What I mean is that people will languidly make a dismissive comment about white suburban moms appropriating yoga or Ethiopian food then pretend that appropriation is only applied when white people actively steal and profit off of other cultures. See (username) My Dad's example above of clear and blatant cultural appropriation by a Canadian author.

This might be outside the bounds of the current conversation, so feel free to ignore this next observation.

I don't know why Americans are so obsessed with whiteness as a veiled pejorative. My wife pointed out that Americans use "white" the same way British people dismiss something as "middle class". (Very different connotation in the UK.)

She's mystified by the casualness with which people throw around insults like, "white person problems" or "stuff white people like" or "white girls in Africa instagram feeds". I didn't realize how strange this was until I left the states 10 years ago. It is weird that we'll just use "whiteness" as a casual dismissal of someone's motives or problems or preferences. I think some people from other countries find this a bit jarring. I realize that it's often tongue in cheek/self deprecating, but it does seem uniquely American to me.
posted by Telf at 6:01 AM on July 27 [16 favorites]


I tend to think that there's a line worth drawing between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.

Full-on appropriation is something that feels easier to spot-- it's using something from a culture that is not your own in a way that disrespects or contradicts its intended meaning, whether out of ignorance or lack of care. This covers wearing things with sacred religious meaning as fashion accessories, using culturally significant images and art as generic elements of design, combining things from multiple distinct cultures without regard for their original uses or contexts, and treating them as interchangeable. So: wearing war bonnets when you are not Native and have not earned that right; wearing religious paraphernalia of religions you don't practice; making art that strips meaningful elements of other cultures of their meaning or mashes them together in a generic 'exotic' stew.

Cultural exchange is fine-- wonderful, even-- when it deals in things the originating culture has willingly shared. Most foods fall into this category, for example. It's fine when people engage with culture not their own in a way that respects meaning and understands context. Things get a little hinky when people try to 'improve' on elements of cultures not their, own, though, or make them so generic they lose their distinguishing features.

There's a murky middle ground, though, which is mostly full of people from a dominant culture gaining status from their use of things that, when used by their originators, cost them status. This is where I file things like "white people with dreadlocks." If doing something makes a white person seem cooler and more worldly, but doing that same thing makes a person from the culture that created it seem backwards or exotic, that's a problem.

To use some examples from my own culture: I'm Ashkenazi Jewish. I am perfectly fine with non-Jews making and eating our food. I am delighted with the way Yiddish slang has permeated the English language. If I saw a non-Jew wearing a prayer shawl or a yarmulke as a fashion accessory, I would be very upset. I am grumpy and annoyed by the way Kabbalah has been taken up by non-Jews as a 'mystical' or 'exotic' practice, especially since it tends to be used to earn coolness points while ignoring most of its actual meaning and context.
posted by nonasuch at 6:03 AM on July 27 [44 favorites]


A lot of the problem with something like dreadlocks on white people, hair textures aside, is that black hairstyles are still regularly cited as not being sufficiently "professional" and it basically screams, "I want to be different and I don't have to worry about the lasting socioeconomic implications of doing this because I'm white and at least middle class."

Yes--this is a real problem: oppression must be fought and it's the fucking worst!

But what does shaming that white guy for his dreadlocks do to solve that? Does it even help? Shit, forget shaming--what if all white people rejected this appropriation and never wore their hair in dreadlocks? Would that help fight or ameliorate that oppression?

The diagnosis is right but the prescription is a placebo.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:11 AM on July 27 [8 favorites]


The diagnosis is right but the prescription is a placebo.

Yeah, the actual solution is to stop penalizing people of color for wearing/using elements of their own culture, not shaming the white people who get cool points for wearing/using the same things. Weird how that keeps not happening.
posted by nonasuch at 6:14 AM on July 27 [25 favorites]


Joseph Gurl,

That's the question I always ask myself. What's the endgame? We spend all this time arguing about these things but could either side articulate how they would define a victory? I guess nonasuch provides a pretty good starting point.

It's great that these things are being questioned nowadays, but how do we progress? Merely calling people out is not moving the ball forward for anyone.
posted by Telf at 6:18 AM on July 27


It's great that these things are being questioned nowadays, but how do we move forward? Merely calling people out is not moving the ball forward for anyone.

As a white manager in a public service, I have absolutely seen the ball move forward as a result of the greater focus on respecting culture and not appropriating. The people questioning all of this have made it a lot easier for those of us in positions of some power to enact change.

One such example - a couple of weeks ago, the consultants hired to construct a major public building that I will eventually work out of came up with an idea for a dedicated area for spiritual gathering for Indigenous people. I asked which Indigenous groups they talked to in order to develop this idea. Their answer was - they'd done this on a previous project and the Indigenous people there liked it.

Because these discussions have been had around me for the last decade in places like MeFi, I was able to get a senior level group to understand that this kind of approach is not only continued colonialism (providing something for people they didn't ask for) but also cultural appropriation. From that, a new direction - engaging our local Indigenous people in a discussion about what they would best like to do with space in this new public building (having experience with some of them, I think the answer is space to run job programs for teens) - is going to happen.

The people questioning things made that happen, because without them, I would not have had the words to explain what was wrong with that idea and what a better approach might be. I'm not alone.
posted by notorious medium at 6:33 AM on July 27 [37 favorites]


It likely never occurred to the band that wearing a war bonnet might be in bad taste somehow, but they got shit for it in the comments nonetheless;

It's not in "bad taste," it's straight up disrespectful even if done out of ignorance. A war bonnet is a significant spiritual/cultural symbol for many communities and the reason that some band is wearing a war bonnet in a music video and not some other headgear is because of the long history of western stereotyping of native american culture as monolithic, existing only in history and not in the present, exotic, savage, etc. If the band was unaware of the history of native american war bonnets, then education is the answer, not throwing our hands up and saying "Well they don't know any better!"

TL;DR that guy looks like a disrespectful dumbass in that bonnet and he should get shit for it, whether or not the term "cultural appropriation" means anything to finnish society.

But what does shaming that white guy for his dreadlocks do to solve that?

I follow a lot of dreadlock youtubers and regular white people wearing dreadlock are generally not shamed. I'm not saying it never happens, but it's usually met by black commenters saying that they don't give a shit. The people that are called out are celebrities who adopt 4c natural hairstyles (dreadlocks, bantu knots, cornrows, afros) as a temporary fashion statement then being lauded as a "new trend" (or even worse, "Bjork-inspired") despite women wearing their hair like that forever.

I guess what I'm saying is that I absolutely with the author in that we shouldn't, like, ban all white people from cooking chinese food, but on the other hand as a white person myself and thus someone who would theoretically be affected by this supposed cultural gatekeeping, I don't really see this being a common problem. What I do see is a ton of nitpicking and #notallwhitepeople any time there is a discussion about appropriation.
posted by muddgirl at 6:35 AM on July 27 [29 favorites]


To appropriate something is to take it unilaterally, without regard to the reaction of the entity being appropriated from. That is what the word means.

Applying this definition with the expectation that it will clearly distinguish instances of exploitative cultural appropriation from admirable cultural exchange seems to me to lead to some absurd results. By that metric, when Chuck Berry' adapted the Western swing version of "Ida Red" and basically invented rock and roll is a pretty clear example of cultural appropriation.
posted by layceepee at 6:37 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


That's the question I always ask myself. What's the endgame? We spend all this time arguing about these things but could either side articulate how they would define a victory?

I don't think framing this as having a "victory" or an "endgame" really makes a lot of sense? I think the goal is to move, even incrementally, towards white people not being celebrated for doing things that were originally done by PoC and for which they are denigrated, and also to stop those in the dominant culture from using symbols, including religious ones, that have deep significance for someone else who would be hurt by their use in a context that didn't demonstrate respect and understanding.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:42 AM on July 27 [23 favorites]


It's not in "bad taste," it's straight up disrespectful [...] education is the answer, not throwing our hands up and saying "Well they don't know any better!"

I know, and I agree. No hand-throwing here. But what they got was yelling as if they were Americans who you could expect to know better, not "education" in any reasonable sense of the word (even though they undoubtedly were "educated" by the process, in the end).

Intent should matter a bit, IMO. "Disrespectful" implies you know that there is something to respect there, and choose to ignore it. Referring to the idea of second-hand appropriation I mentioned: to them, the bonnet was just a cool-looking headdress from imported popular culture, not a sacred item they should refrain from wearing, and nobody in their lives has been there to educate them otherwise.
posted by jklaiho at 6:48 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


First response on seeing thread: Maybe things have changed!

Second response: Sorta?

Third response: Not really? Christ, I recognize some of these names.

Fourth response: Here's a bingo card!
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:50 AM on July 27 [40 favorites]


All of this for me also gets into the thorny issue of who is allowed to claim that something is appropriation, which is something that the article also delves into. I really think it's an important issue, because I do feel that people lose sight of the fact that cultures are not monolithic, and allowing those who speak the loudest to drive the conversation often leads to the belief that all of a particular cultural group feel the same way, when it may only be a small minority.

For example, in India, the Muslim artist M. F. Husain was enmeshed in controversy because of his nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses. He received death threats from right-wing Hindu organizations and spent the rest of his life in exile, dying in London without having been able to go back to India. Now I think most of us would agree that what happened to him was a bad thing. But was his act an act of cultural appropriation? After all, he was not of a Hindu culture and had no claim to Hindu gods and goddesses. How is this different from wearing a war bonnet? Would your answer be different if it was a white person who painted nude portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses? Why or why not?
posted by peacheater at 6:52 AM on July 27 [7 favorites]


But what they got was yelling as if they were Americans who you could expect to know better, not "education" in any reasonable sense of the word

I mean I get this but boy it must be exhausting, if you are Native, to have to explain calmly and patiently to white people who are being unbelievably hurtful, in terms to which they (we, in my case) will listen and probably at great length with many questions and explanations, that they are being hurtful when you're the one who's being hurt. My God that sounds tiring.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:54 AM on July 27 [12 favorites]


I mean I get this but boy it must be exhausting, if you are Native, to have to explain calmly and patiently to white people

Very true. Though in this case, the YT comments I remember seeing were not from Natives, as far as I can tell by the wording (e.g. not referring to "our", but "their" or "Native American").
posted by jklaiho at 6:57 AM on July 27


For those who want to hear POC takes on the food appropriation issue, I recommend the podcast Racist Sandwich and the Sporkful's series on 'Who is This Restaurant For?' and 'Other People's Food'.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:00 AM on July 27 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the actual solution is to stop penalizing people of color for wearing/using elements of their own culture, not shaming the white people who get cool points for wearing/using the same things. Weird how that keeps not happening.

This seems like it's intended as an accusation of hypocrisy--but if so, it's not fair, as people who are critical of cultural appropriation are generally also very critical of POC being penalized for not assimilating enough, and also work against it. This is especially true of of activists of color.

I mean, sometimes I think activists of color get lost in conversations about cultural appropriation. It's really important to keep their voices central to the debate. For example, one of the central critics of Rowling's use of skin walkers* in her work was Adrienne Keene. Some of the loudest voices critical of white people being given credit for making "new" hairstyles "trendy" are Black women on Twitter. They are also fighting against racist dress codes that prevent Black girls from wearing completely normal hairstyles at school.

But when I read some of the comments here, it seems like they're getting lost.

I mean, there are white people who have (ahem) appropriated the appropriation debate--e.g. I recall a terrible Tumblr thread, when a white woman called out another white woman for wearing a yukata--one that was given to her by Japanese friends, in Japan, so that she could be appropriately attired for a Japanese festival. It seemed like an attempt at point-scoring. But we probably should not help this kind of co-option along by talking about the appropriation debate as if activists of color are not a major part of it--or as if it is not part of a larger discussion about their right to their culture.

* Which apparently involved "rewriting" them in a ways she wouldn't have dared if she was drawing from Christianity
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:08 AM on July 27 [16 favorites]


Peacheater - the difference is that there is no recent history of genocide or threat of cultural erasure of Hindus in India.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:16 AM on July 27


Intent should matter a bit, IMO. "Disrespectful" implies you know that there is something to respect there, and choose to ignore it.

How about if we start by assuming that other people's cultures are things that we don't understand and should be respectful towards by default, and then if we do some investigation before just doing a thing because it looks cool? It seems to be a fundamental feature of whiteness to assume that it doesn't matter and that it's someone else's job to tell you if it's important.
posted by Sequence at 7:20 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


Peacheater - the difference is that there is no recent history of genocide or threat of cultural erasure of Hindus in India.

Start reading about the Partition and what happened to the Hindus living in what came to be Pakistan (and decades later Bangladesh) and the Muslims in what came to be independent India.
posted by sukeban at 7:21 AM on July 27 [15 favorites]


That's the question I always ask myself. What's the endgame? We spend all this time arguing about these things but could either side articulate how they would define a victory?

I think it'd be a mistake to speak in terms of "endgames" here. Feminism and anti-racism, for example, recognize that we're not going to "solve" racism and misogyny; new challenges are always going to arise as the times and conditions change. Rather, I think where cultural appropriation is concerned the motivation here is to consider reality: that "cultural exchange" is by no means a level playing field; that PoC are regularly marginalized and penalized for using their cultural markers while white people are merely "celebrating" or "honoring" these things; that colonialism is a thing that is still going on today and isn't just a 16th century phenomenon; that there is a world of difference between having a genuine understanding and appreciation of someone else's cultural marker and merely blithely lifting it because you think it's cool.

So I think if we're able to move the conversation forward to where we're more mindful of how cultural colonialism functions, which includes being mindful of the difference between understanding/appreciation and lifting something wholesale out of all context, we'll be making progress.

To me, the conversation is more about how we do that rather than whether we should, and in that area things get trickier. The same people who have a problem with White People Getting Called Out are never going to budge on this, because no matter how politely and patiently one can hold someone's hand and explain why X is appropriative, they're going to trot out the same, tired, defensive justifications. They're not going to understand the problem with Miley Cyrus lifting Black culture for fun and profit and then dropping it again when it's no longer fun for her. They're not going to understand what the big deal is about white people in box braids or dreads while actual Black people are barred from some schools and workplaces for having these exact same hair styles. Rather, my hope is that just having this conversation will be educational for those new to the discussion, and will advance our understanding of cultural colonialism, hopefully leading the way to a more mindful approach, and something more resembling actual "cultural exchange" than what we have now.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 7:23 AM on July 27 [12 favorites]


Hi Guys,
Several people have called out my language on "end games". They're correct and that was poorly written on my part. Thanks. I think my comment could lead to a derail if we focus on that language and that wasn't my intent. Feel free to comment on my wording if you want to, but just assume I agree with you and I won't counter your valid issues with that phrasing.
posted by Telf at 7:27 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Start reading about the Partition and what happened to the Hindus living in what came to be Pakistan (and decades later Bangladesh) and the Muslims in what came to be independent India.

That's why I specified "in India" though obviously that's still eliding a lot of history and violence and enmity. If he'd been doing the same thing in Pakistan, I doubt he would have had to flee the country for denigrating Hinduism, and there would be more reason to think the work a little more questionable.

And really neither country in the India/Pakistan situation resembles the one sided destruction of American Indian culture.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:36 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


How about if we start by assuming that other people's cultures are things that we don't understand and should be respectful towards by default, and then if we do some investigation before just doing a thing because it looks cool? It seems to be a fundamental feature of whiteness to assume that it doesn't matter and that it's someone else's job to tell you if it's important.

A cautionary tale, one that I think I've told before:

I have this book, which actually makes a good argument in favor of exploring and adopting some of the beauty and grooming secrets of women in other cultures. But it's very much coming from a place of "women all over the world are united in a sisterhood let's all share" kind of thing, as opposed to "capture the exotic essence of these women for your own self" or whatever.

The author also very much encourages the reader to learn about the cultures themselves before just adopting things willy-nilly, and offers a story of her own: while visiting an African country (I unfortunately can't recall which one without consulting the book, which is at home right now) she was browsing in a craft market and saw strings of beads for sale, strung on a long elastic string. They were pretty and colorful and easy to put on, so she bought a few, and then wore them to a dinner a few days later. Everyone kept looking at her oddly for the first hour of the affair, though, and she didn't know why - until someone took her aside for a quiet chat. It seems that those beads had a bit more of an intimate purpose; they were usually worn under clothing as a sort of sexytimes dress-up thing. So basically, it was as if she'd turned up at the dinner with a few pairs of crotchless panties strung around her neck.

The moral of her story, she therefore declared, was - before you adopt another cultures' garment or jewelry or food into your life, do a little bit of legwork to see how they use it first!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:39 AM on July 27 [13 favorites]


That's why I specified "in India" though obviously that's still eliding a lot of history and violence and enmity. If he'd been doing the same thing in Pakistan, I doubt he would have had to flee the country for denigrating Hinduism, and there would be more reason to think the work a little more questionable.

But do you buy that Muslims in India are correct to object to Rushdie using the names of the prophet's wives as prostitute names? What about if a white person did the same thing?
posted by peacheater at 7:53 AM on July 27


For folks wading into this thread and wondering Hey, I wonder how this is going just honestly skip to the recent Why all the white people hate, lol comments for the most true indicator
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:01 AM on July 27 [4 favorites]


Whose comments are you referring to tapesonthefloor?
posted by peacheater at 8:11 AM on July 27 [4 favorites]


In re Rushdie: There is some daylight between "I object to this, you are trolling, I feel insulted" and "someone should assassinate you for this".

In terms of the "white people use this and it makes them cool, POC use it and it is mocked and punished" thing - those two things depend on each other. Something is cool when white people use it because it comes from an "exotic" people and is a rare/outsider thing that indicates how special and perceptive the white person is. If POC are also praised for wearlng/using the thing, then it's no longer special. White people getting praised as super artistic for, like, wearing a a qipao depends on the positioning of the qipoa as this 'naive' garment that is somehow pre-modern and worn without sophistication or modernity, so that it can be detourned by white people. If we were constantly seeing Chinese celebrities in Western media wearing qipao, if we were constantly seeing in Western media the work of Chinese fashion designers creating grunge qipao or cyber-qipao, if the qiapo ceased to represent a "naive" "authentic" "pre-modern" China in the Western imagination, it would not have the same kind of fashion allure. This is one reason that, although Western fashion sometimes flirts with the "traditional" (and tradition is always vexed) fashions of European peasantry or peripheral European regions, these simply don't have enough traction - they're not "other" enough.

This is one reason why I think cultural appropriation is a real and politically toxic thing - the force of desire for the exotic in cultural appropriation is always based on an Orientalist understanding of another race or culture. If you remove the exoticism - ie, the racism - the fashions will still have some intermittent and moderate allure because they're pretty/practical/interesting but the compulsion of the images will fade away.
posted by Frowner at 8:15 AM on July 27 [22 favorites]


In re Rushdie: There is some daylight between "I object to this, you are trolling, I feel insulted" and "someone should assassinate you for this".

Well, yes, and I would never argue that there isn't. But I do think that there is a tendency to export the American notions of cultural appropriation to the entire world in a way that is not really appropriate, and serves really to erase the lived experience of non-white people in other countries which are not the US. It's probably not a coincidence that it was mostly Asian-Americans (and white Americans) who were objecting to the kimono wearing at the Boston MFA - while it was introduced by the Japanese government themselves. I am an Indian who grew up in India and have zero objection to white people wearing a sari or any other traditionally Indian form of dress. Seriously, go ahead, knock yourself out. And I do realize that that's because I don't have the experience of growing up in a culture where my sub-culture was marginalized. But I don't think that means that Indian-American feelings of cultural appropriation (even assuming that's the case for all Indian-Americans, which is a large assumption) should take priority over my own feelings that saris and salwar-kameez are beautiful articles of clothing which I'd love to see more people wear. My own experience is that the people in Indian culture who were most ready to shout "cultural appropriation" and get offended over people from other cultures using images of gods and goddesses or "disrespecting" Hindu culture were precisely the sorts of right-wing reactionary elements who would be Trump supporters if they happened to live in the US.
posted by peacheater at 8:32 AM on July 27 [12 favorites]


Good grief. Cultural appropriation is a thing, it has actual meaning that isn't so generalized as to be useless, there is an awful lot of good writing on the subject that maybe people who are actually interested in the subject, rather than dismissive, might look into, and, no, it hasn't been rendered meaningless by the proposed but nonexistant swarms of extremists who misuse the term.
posted by maxsparber at 9:31 AM on July 27 [13 favorites]


I think a big part of what makes these things tricky is that so much of whether something comes across as exploitative depends on how third parties perceive it.

For example, we have lots of Mexican restaurants where I live, all different types, including fusions, and strongest correlation I've noticed is between price point and ethnicity. It's not consistent, but overall, regardless of the type of food served, the pricier places are run by non-Mexicans.

Mexican food is great, and everyone should make and eat it, especially where I live, which was Mexico a minute ago. But there's something really wrong about the fact that the people profiting the most off it are non-Hispanic white people and not the people from the culture the cuisine originated from.

I think of cooking as humanity's greatest open source project with most of its contributors uncredited and lost to time, and I kind of rankle sometimes at things like 'secret recipes' and other proprietary attitudes because of that. Everyone learned from people sharing with them, so they should be sharing too. Except that all too often, it results in the predictable demographic groups profiting disproportionately. I can't fault the "tortilla ladies" in Mexico for holding back some of their secret techniques, and I do fault the peeping Toms.

It's complicated and it's messed up, and there's almost never a clear rule or a perpetrator you can point your finger at with things like that.

Here is an exception, though: PF Chang's used to run a racist radio ad that I won't try to quote because I'm not confident that I accurately remember the specifics, but the gist was that it was a restaurant for people who like "Chinese food" but are scared of Chinese people. Of course, they didn't say that outright, but the implication was clear. I've never been able to find that ad or any mention of it online, but I know what I heard.

And I do know that one of the founders is Asian because I looked it up, but it was playing directly to the audience's xenophobia to the point of denigrating the culture they were exploiting. It was gross and everyone should boycott that place with me forever. (Just kidding. I don't expect people to take my word for it, especially since I can't cite specifics.)
posted by ernielundquist at 9:37 AM on July 27 [5 favorites]


I'm not even clear why this article was shared. So, yes, one person who demonstrates no real depth of research into the subject thinks it will not cure racism to yell at white people with dreads.

That's using one sample to discredit an entire complicated subject that never proposed itself as a solution to racism.

Instead, the concept of cultural appropriation recognizes one of the basic flaws of capitalism: That it does not apply concepts of ownership equally, and that entire groups of people have their unique creations classified as cultural expressions, and so are afforded no ownership and no protection. As a result, it is very easy for the dominant culture to seize these expressions, reproduce them, copyright them, and then claim all that is happening is cultural sharing.

One need go no further than Led Zepplin, who relentlessly stole from blues artists, insisted they were just making use folk melodies, but relentlessly protect their own creations as individual creators and private owners.

This happens again and again. We have closed off the public domain — almost all new work from the last 100 years is unavailable to us, and won't be any time soon. And so we have replaced the public domain with works created by people of color and other minority groups, whose work we refuse to recognize as having individual creators. Hey, here's a great recent example: The Dana Shutz painting of Emmett Till, which was literally painted from the photo of Emmett Till in his coffin. That photo was taken by actual people, with the explicit permission of Till's mother, for a purpose that was specific to the time and place.

But the original creators of the photos were not approached for permission, neither was Till's mother. Because all of this: The photos, the time, the place, the permission, all has been replaced with a sort of public domain of black experience, which white artists can dip into freely without permission or recompense, often abstracting or eliminating the original meaning.

This happens all the time. Until we white artists, and every artist from the dominant majority, starts to respect culture made by non-majority people as having the same rights and ownership that we insist for ourselves, cultural appropriation will continue apace.

But we're not going to. Because we can always argue, oh, the world was enriched by the blues turning into rock and roll, or there is a white owned Mexican restaurant that I like, or whatever.

Somehow, people of color, poor people, people from other nations, people from other cultures, are always expected to freely enrich the world, are always seen as anonymous creators, and always denied agency or ownership, which we would never tolerate with our own works. That sucks, and it sucks that this same discussion must happen every single time the subject comes up.
posted by maxsparber at 9:49 AM on July 27 [23 favorites]


I for one am glad that this article was shared, as it represents a perspective we don't hear from often on this issue - of a non-American of mixed heritage, who nonetheless presents as Asian. And honestly it's a bit disappointing to see Metafilter immediately try to recast all of what he shares in terms of American experiences and American definitions of words, as though no other perspective is even possible. Seriously, listen to this guy's background:
My dad was born in Tanzania of British and Austrian-Jewish parents (one of whom was born and grew up in India), spent his childhood and adolescence between South Africa and the UK, and is now a China expert who has spent at least half (probably much more) of his adult life in China. My mum was born in Beijing, of Cantonese and Hakka parents who were born and grew up in Singapore and Thailand, respectively. She has spent almost all of her adult life in the UK.
I think his perspective on what it means to be in between cultures and have people assume that you have special insight into one culture because of the way you look, while conversely not really representing another culture, again because of the way you look is very valuable.
posted by peacheater at 9:53 AM on July 27 [10 favorites]


It's valuable as part of a survey of viewpoints, but there will always be people from every culture that disagrees, and as the dominant culture we don't get to pick and choose which viewpoint we highlight because it supports our feelings about a subject. That's tokenism, and I have a really strong feeling that will be how this article will be used, and though one mixed culture person's viewpoint is more significant than the dozens, hundreds of viewpoints that say cultural appropriation is real, is significant, and must be addressed.
posted by maxsparber at 9:55 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry - I just love how when an actual POC shares their experiences and feelings about cultural appropriation we cannot listen to them because that would be tokenism. Why do you (as part of the dominant culture) get to decide which viewpoints of POC are worth listening to and which can be dismissed as pandering to tokenism?
posted by peacheater at 9:58 AM on July 27 [20 favorites]


hy do you (as part of the dominant culture) get to decide which viewpoints of POC are worth listening to and which can be dismissed as pandering to tokenism?

Not clear on why you assume I am part of the dominant culture. I am a Jew and have written on the subject of Jewish cultural expressions being subjected to cultural appropriation.

I am not dismissing the article, but asking that it be seen as part of a continuum, and that we not tokenize the author by making them the sole authority because they happen to be someone who is critical of the idea of cultural appropriation.
posted by maxsparber at 10:14 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


This piece showed up on my Facebook a few days ago. For me the takeaway line is:

Condemnation of dreadlocks on non-blacks, yoga practised or taught by non-Indians, Chinese food chefs who aren’t Chinese, can never reduce or end racism, because the reason for racism isn’t appreciation, adoption and interest towards other cultures, but ignorance, ostracisation and othering of them.

That is, if the goal is stop sweating the small stuff ... and actually make some progress here
posted by philip-random at 10:15 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


Not clear on why you assume I am part of the dominant culture.

It seemed from your statement below that you were including yourself as part of the dominant majority, but I can see how that could be a misreading.

Until we white artists, and every artist from the dominant majority, starts to respect culture made by non-majority people as having the same rights and ownership that we insist for ourselves, cultural appropriation will continue apace.

In any case, I don't think that whether you consider yourself part of the dominant culture or not invalidates my point: people of color, people from other countries, people of different religious traditions are not monolithic entities and have varying opinions about what constitutes cultural appropriation. And it's not tokenism to consider a wide variety of those opinions, including those that the American liberal consensus disagrees with - I'd argue that it's the opposite of tokenism.
posted by peacheater at 10:22 AM on July 27 [5 favorites]


I'm sorry - I just love how when an actual POC shares their experiences and feelings about cultural appropriation we cannot listen to them because that would be tokenism.

We can listen to this author and still disagree. We can both listen to this author and then listen to the many, many, many POC who have said that cultural appropriation exists, is a valid term, and is hurtful, including POC who are members of this site. Several examples were provided in links above. This old Metatalk is especially useful since #2 on the list addresses this exact argument.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:23 AM on July 27 [6 favorites]


And it's not tokenism to consider a wide variety of those opinions

Yes. That is specifically what I asked.
posted by maxsparber at 10:24 AM on July 27


But I don't think that means that Indian-American feelings of cultural appropriation (even assuming that's the case for all Indian-Americans, which is a large assumption) should take priority over my own feelings that saris and salwar-kameez are beautiful articles of clothing which I'd love to see more people wear. My own experience is that the people in Indian culture who were most ready to shout "cultural appropriation" and get offended over people from other cultures using images of gods and goddesses or "disrespecting" Hindu culture were precisely the sorts of right-wing reactionary elements who would be Trump supporters if they happened to live in the US.

I mean, I think this is tough. I worked in coastal China for a couple of years and while, on the one hand, there were certain things where my friends and students would think it was hiLARious to see white people wearing, they also urged me, whenever the topic came up, to get some traditional clothes to take home to wear. "A qipao squishes you in so that your figure looks better, no matter what you look like," said several students. (At the time I had a somewhat different gender presentation.) And since I both wanted something I could use every day as a souvenir and thought they were pretty, I did get a couple of padded jackets. (And now I am old, and Too Fat to wear them, and I will probably never go back again, and it's sad.) I felt like I wouldn't really have an occasion to wear a qipao, and honestly I think I look pretty silly in them because I have a really un-qipao build and stubby legs.

And then occasionally I will mention to people in the US that I got these jackets, and their faces will just freeze up, because we are all left-wing, and that is Culturally Appropriative, and that is very wrong. I mean, I think that's a kind of dumb reaction, since I worked in China, bought from local artisans, did not buy the wedding kind with double happiness on them, etc, and was after all strongly urged to do this by my friends and students. I even feel weird now about the paintings that I got when I was there, all of which were painted by locals - some art students, some professional "paint pretties for the tourists" people, but they're all, like, nice and not schlocky, and I even have an a cynical realist oil that I got from an art student. And again, I feel like that's dumb. I went there, and I miss being there.

But then, I feel like I can't get a "Legitimate Use" exception without strengthening the perception that Chinese stuff is exotic and confers status on me because I'm a white person with "foreign" experience. (Despite actually being, now, a career pink collar worker.) Like, it feels impossible to separate out the "I like these things because they remind me of a happy time in my life and a place that I really liked" and "look at me, I have cool rare stuff that you can only get if you do cool exotic travel". Also I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

I think one reason we argue this back and forth is that it's actually a really hard problem with good points that go in many directions, and we make the mistake of feeling like there's one tidy answer that is definitely for sure right.

If we take the "white people, stay pretty clear of things that derive strongly from POC traditions" line, then there are losers - people whose experience puts them in both POC and white social worlds, for instance. And it requires us to use as heuristics some definitions that don't make tons of sense or are not easy to interpret, or are based on misinformation, because there really aren't bright lines between cultures in a lot of cases. And yet, when we go "all bets are off except for things that are literally sacred", we get some pretty bad and creepy situations. (And even with the sacred, while I don't think that white people should go around satirizing or engaging in transgressive depictions of, eg, Hindu deities, there might be a very good reason for someone in India to do so as a philosophical or political gesture, and as you point out, peacheater, it's not like Hindu nationalism seems like a really fantastic movement.)

So I don't really know what to do a lot of the time.
posted by Frowner at 10:25 AM on July 27 [20 favorites]


We can listen to this author and still disagree. We can both listen to this author and then listen to the many, many, many POC who have said that cultural appropriation exists, is a valid term, and is hurtful, including POC who are members of this site.

Of course, and I'm not arguing that cultural appropriation doesn't exist. Just that there are many things that are called cultural appropriation which I feel are not, and that there needs to be room for more than just American perspectives on what constitutes cultural appropriation and what does not.
posted by peacheater at 10:27 AM on July 27 [2 favorites]


Frowner, that's fair and I understand that's a tough spot to be in. I guess that's kind of what I'm arguing for too though - that cultural appropriation is a nuanced and nebulous thing. I think there are definitely things we can all agree are unacceptable, and then there's a lot of grey.
posted by peacheater at 10:30 AM on July 27 [1 favorite]


more than just American perspectives

You'll be glad to know a lot of writing on the subject are by people other than Americans. Some suggestions: Henrietta Marrie, Richard A. Rogers, Eden Caceda, Kamila Shamsie.
posted by maxsparber at 10:36 AM on July 27


So much of this is related to intent. If you participate freely and give as much as you take, you can become part of (perhaps a novelty but still a part) of a culture different from your own. If you swoop in, cherry pick the stuff you like, don't engage, and then profit, you are just a vulture, a thief. It is theft. People who are used to having their culture stolen are very good about understanding the difference even with a casual glance.
posted by chaz at 10:44 AM on July 27 [4 favorites]


The last time I spoke about cultural appropriation here (as it relates to the fast-developing and wealthy 'third world') was earlier this month in fact, in MeTa thread, that premised on a misunderstanding because of the non-american context. truthfully, i find many of the conversation, both from those in the 'first world' (considered traditionally privileged) and the (usually elites of) the 'third world' or non-West OR non-American countries to be comparatively tiresome. and I speak as somebody from the outside the US, a Malaysian right? One of those countries constantly cited, like Singapore, where this author's parents from, as melting pot. For me, the key thing to understand is economic power and sociocultural influence, which switches an act from appreciative to appropriative, which is covered by many already above. It's when the premise is only from identifying cultural markers independent of those two things, you get into stupid fights like the aforementioned Boston kimono idiocy. If the item is produced by the originating culture for its own members, and it has enough economic clout to service only its members with foreigners coming in as a bonus and a coincidence, without having to chase for their dollars, meaning having to sacrifice any element to make it more palatable, then it's fine. The foreigners wanting to take elements for their use, that's fine, because it didn't take away anything economically from the original practice or artifact. Malays adapting potatoes have no impact on the potato availability in the Western market, the same way Westerners take to tempeh. So go ahead, we'll just mutually judge each other's versions of cooking it. Taking it out of its immediate context might lead to initial awkward questions, but a simple explanation has to suffice. Anyone taking further issue is being both a concern troll and an asshole.

But the thing is, I'm not giving people like me a pass, like in the example of wearing Native American war bonnets. I will allow for ignorance, and I will allow that you've got to establish if they realised the mistake, without going aggro at them from the outset. But the ignorance is a result OF american/western hegemony that is operating from a place of white privilege. There are plenty of dreamcatchers being sold where I am, because they're a cool both as a Western thing, but also as a Western indigenous thing. People here love Black American culture while being simultaneously specifically anti-black racist. But their exposure to black culture comes from the appropriative actions, normalised into merchandising and distribution, of white privilege that has access to american cultural hegemony. for me, understanding that, means I do judge ignorant Americans who act as moral arbiters in conversation, going after non-americans who genuinely had no idea, but at the same time, it does mean, we who are not Americans who repeat the sin, should also do what we can to correct it.
posted by cendawanita at 10:45 AM on July 27 [14 favorites]


I worry that the cultural appropriation movement is just an easy way for young white liberals to feel good about themselves. "I don't appropriate other people's culture. I am helping and being active in a liberal cause. I am a good person" Who doesn't want to feel that way?

Contrast this with the activities of young white liberals in the 1950's who were murdered for helping with voter registration in the Southern United States. That was activism for a powerful cause with a dangerous opponent (KKK) and had lethal consequences for being involved with.

I worry that cultural appropriation siphons the attention and energy which young liberals would otherwise be devoting to the old liberal causes and the old causes still need attention. Since Obama's election changes have occurred in the Southern United States which deliberately make it harder for minority voters to register.
posted by Gwynarra at 11:02 AM on July 27 [3 favorites]


I worry that cultural appropriation siphons the attention and energy which young liberals would otherwise be devoting to the old liberal causes and the old causes still need attention.

Yeah, well, don't worry. We can do more than one thing at a time, and I guess I worry when people start claiming that something that many people have brought up as being a serious issue that needs to be addressed is minimized because there are other, more important, somehow more real things to worry about.
posted by maxsparber at 11:06 AM on July 27 [7 favorites]


I've said this before but if anyone couches an objection in terms of taking offense then they are likely attempting to use a position of power to silence legitimate criticism. It's slave owners who take offense at the suggestion that they do not love their slaves. It's religious crusaders who take offense at people disrespecting their religion. etc. All the monotheistic evangelical Religions of conquerors should be mocked relentlessly.

There are increasingly people who lazily criticize something as "offensive" or "cultural appropriation" when they should actually level the much stronger criticism of it being genocide apologetics. Examples :

(1) Disney's Pocahontas story is pure genocide apologetics, and wearing a "Pocahontas" outfit endorses that, but merely wearing some feathers attached to leather does not. There is plenty of genocide apologetics in old westerns, and children playing cowboys and Indians is genocide apologetics, so avoid modern activities reminiscent of children playing cowboys and Indians.

(2) Yoga is an intentional cultural export of India. India's government encouraged and financially backed early practitioners who adapted it to westerners. And yoga still serves to bring tourist money and increases India's "soft power".

Don't even pussy foot around with "cultural appropriation". It just weakens serious efforts toward social justice. If there is some linkage to a genocide, occupation, mass rapes, etc., then you should trace out that history, and if necessary that silencing genocide apologetics is necessary to help recognize recent genocides, like the Armenian genocide, and to draw a harder line against modern genocides. If it's more about prejudice, then say that instead.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:08 AM on July 27 [13 favorites]


"We can do more than one thing at a time,.."
I would hope so but the media attention given to cultural appropriation makes it seem like the new most important cause. Bright, shiny, look over here not over there.
posted by Gwynarra at 12:03 PM on July 27 [2 favorites]


Are you sure that there's significant, new media attention given to the concept of cultural appropriation? Compared to what baseline? What other topics do you think are actually being shut out of discussion by this perceived new focus on cultural appropriation?

Or, in other words, is this a specific problem that you think needs to be specifically addressed, or are you just generally kind of concerned?
posted by tobascodagama at 12:17 PM on July 27 [6 favorites]


it is not ok to put ketchup on fried dumplings wtf
posted by numaner at 1:08 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


jumping in late here, so sorry if this has been said but it seems like the article's author is confusing cultural appropriation for cultural exchange.

and I get this feeling that she really just wants it to be ok for her to have dreadlocks.
posted by numaner at 1:13 PM on July 27


[A few comments removed. Way better ways to voice concerns about the complicated territory of culture and cultural appropriation than to be dismissive about it as just a bunch of posturing by anti-whites or whatever the heck that was supposed to be. Cool it.]
posted by cortex at 2:30 PM on July 27 [4 favorites]


Frowner's example of the qipao is interesting, because the qipao is originally not Chinese but Manchu. The qí 旗 is ‘banner’, from the standards of the Manchu bannermen. In the 19th century, the qipao was itself exotic and barbarian to the Chinese— with of course the complication that the Manchus were then ruling China.

The modern qipao developed in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai in the 1920s, subject to Western influence, which itself was subject at the time to Japanese influence. So it's kind of weird that the qipao has become the prototypical Chinese dress to Western eyes.

Anyway, when does all this cultural exchange become problematic? Mostly, I think, as the power imbalance grows. Borrowing from Japan is not very different from borrowing from France— Japan is not a developing country, and was an imperialist power. Native Americans have got the short end of the stick in so many ways that the least we can do is let them decide how or whether any of their culture is shared.
posted by zompist at 2:32 PM on July 27 [8 favorites]


My very favorite story is this:

The leading legend about the origins of Chicken Tikka Masala is that somewhere in England, a chap ordered some chicken tikka and was like, "Oi, where's the sauce!" So the chef opened a tin of tomato sauce, threw in some spices, and poured it on the chicken.

It was, as I recall, at one time, one of the leading exports from the UK to India.
posted by gsh at 2:57 PM on July 27


I'm curious why you think that's a story about cultural appropriation?
posted by maxsparber at 2:58 PM on July 27 [2 favorites]


It makes tremendous sense that the qipao is the Western idea of a very traditional Chinese garment, because it becomes a big deal in the twenties in Shanghai, a city that had a large Western population, and appears in a bunch of movies and images that made it to the West. Often images, actually, of "modern" Chinese young women. And it's also something that fits with Western ideas about how women should dress (no one shows pictures of the loose kind of qipao, of course). So it's simultaneously something you can position as pre-modern and something that meets Western standards about gender and clothes.

The attraction of "foreign" clothes isn't about authenticity, even if it's occasionally about "authenticity" - the people who are interested in actual material history are a different crowd with different problems.

The whole positioning of most things as "national garments" is ahistorical, since national garments don't really come into being until there's a nation - a lot of the "traditional dress" of Europe, for instance, was invented in the 19th century, and the whole thing of clan tartans was invented, IIRC, in the 18th. Which is part of what's at work with orientalism - you position Chinese clothes as ancient, naive, exotic and quaint, rather than modern and sophisticated, precisely so that you can think of yourself as wearing a naive garment in a sophisticated way. If you position qipao as sophisticated and modern, then when you wear them you risk making a fool of yourself, because there's rules and knowledge involved. If you position them as ancient and quaint, then they're up for grabs and you can think of yourself as sophisticated in contrast to all those naive natives. Consider the fashion shoot staple of a white/Western model in a crowd of women Somewhere Else, all of them wearing a traditional garment and the model wearing a riff on the traditional garment by a Western designer. The other women are all similar to each other, the model will be taller, thinner and made up, and the whole implication of the shoot is that the women are just this sea of peasant nature against which the model's brilliant individuality stands out. There's a great one - for some values of great - in a book I have, where it's a late seventies YSL shoot in either the Russian periphery or maybe Xinjiang.
posted by Frowner at 3:09 PM on July 27 [7 favorites]


Also jumping in late, but I wanted to share anyway.

I feel for the author. Like her, I'm mixed race. Like her, I don't really belong anywhere - I bounced around a lot growing up, so I don't even especially have one take on white culture, and I have virtually no connection to my Middle Eastern roots. I don't speak the language, cook the food or belong to the religion. I'm sure I know less about it than a diligent white scholar of those traditions. (Like, I've read the Koran and know a little about hadith, I guess? Amateur hour.)

Being culturally unmoored that way forces people like us to adopt other cultures, so... well, speaking just for myself, I feel like it's my personal right to just pick and choose what I want from the people and places I've known because what else am I going to do? None of it is 'mine' in the same sense that a white person or black person or whomever could lay claim to it. Personally, I have come to view this as a strength: because I don't feel an obligation to be one way, I feel like I have an advantage over people who are mired in tradition. I do things my way, and if I don't like the results, I'm beholden to no one if I change up. I wouldn't be white if I could.

So I think I get her in a way that might be difficult for people who belong somewhere, anywhere, because I think that's where she's coming from. She talks about being pushed toward a box she doesn't fit in, and all of that, and this is basically the only way people like us can get by.

The thing is, that's an entirely separate issue from cultural appropriation, and I don't think she gets that at all. The discussion there ignores a lot of the negative effects of a dominant culture exploiting a marginalized one, as have been discussed a lot upthread. Just to pile one more thing on the list, and get concrete: we're doing reviews of Star Trek Voyager in Fanfare, and a recurring theme is racist garbage about Native Americans surrounding the character Chakotay. Turns out the Voyager people hired a cultural consultant for their depictions of Native Americans. Very thoughtful in principle...

Except that they hired Jamake Highwater, a white guy pretending to be Native American, who made up a bunch of lies from his half-remembered appropriation of genuine ideas and artifacts. He took a job from an actual PoC. He told lies that made it onto a beloved franchise seen by millions. Instead of people actually learning about what real Native Americans are like, we got scenes of tribes still hunting with spears while white guys were out in the stars, helping to cement the idea that Native American == noble savage in one of the most influential SF franchises ever.

Taken as a single incident, maybe it doesn't look like much to clueless people who don't have to worry about this, but you have to remember that this isn't the exception, it's the norm: white people enriching themselves off of other people without bothering to give credit or even learn what they're talking about.

Cultural exchange is wonderful. A dominant culture just stealing from marginalized people, misrepresenting them and generally being clueless asshats? I don't think it's out of line to call them out on that.

posted by mordax at 3:09 PM on July 27 [19 favorites]


I can't easily describe how to differentiate "appropriation" from things like "exchange" and "interpretation", but I think it comes down to respect and a maybe lack of stereotyping, or not using it as an engine of stereotyping or something?
posted by rmd1023 at 3:20 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Upon a few more minutes' thought, I came up with what I think might be a good analogy about this for people who don't buy into it being a problem:

Imagine someone else - your cousin or schoolteacher or someone - told me all about your life, and I decided to make a movie about it. Except that I didn't consult with you, and I proceeded to get all the details wrong: added family members, removed them. I gave the person playing you inane catchphrases, (like in that episode of The Simpsons where someone made a movie about Homer or something). I give your character a subplot about your heroic battle against addiction to chewing tobacco, (that you've never touched in your life).

A year later, the movie comes out. I make millions, and I don't pay you one thin dime. Even better, people on the street are now shouting the catchphrase at you. People are always offering you nicotene gum and spitoons as a courtesy.

No one cares that the movie is wrong. They liked the movie. When you complain, they tell you to get a thicker skin and defend me for not paying you for the rights to your own story.

I go on to talk shows, sequels and stay rich and famous and completely unapologetic.

That's what pushback against cultural appropriation is about, IMO: people owning the rights to their own stories, more than anything. Both to have them told correctly, and to benefit from them.

I'm not sure if that leads to a better way to bright-line it. Indeed, I'm not sure it can be pinned down as simply as a single golden rule - this is somewhat subjective. But in general, if anybody expresses confusion to me about this in the future, that's the analogy I'm probably going with.

I'm glad this thread encouraged me to think about this more.
posted by mordax at 3:45 PM on July 27 [10 favorites]


I thought of an example of exploitative cultural appropriation that might work for Europe, historically—from the Wikipedia entry for beret:
The Basque style beret was the traditional headgear of Aragonese and Navarrian shepherds from the Ansó and Roncal valleys of the Pyrenees, a mountain range that divides Southern France from northern Spain. The commercial production of Basque-style berets began in the 17th century in the Oloron-Sainte-Marie area of Southern France. Originally a local craft, beret-making became industrialised in the 19th century. The first factory, Beatex-Laulhere, claims production records dating back to 1810. By the 1920s, berets were associated with the working classes in a part of France and Spain and by 1928 more than 20 French factories and some Spanish and Italian factories produced millions of berets.
I don't know how unique to the Basque the beret was in the 17th century but I'm going to bet that it wasn't Basque shepherds who made the profits from commercial mass production or, in later centuries, enormous government contracts to supply militaries.

Do Gallic capitalist villains twirl their moustaches? I'm imagining a moustache-twirling Gallic capitalist villain making all the profits. Moustache-twirling probably also belonged to a French national minority.

In any case, the establishment of protected designations of origin and other such measures would seem to necessitate an awareness that proprietorship over unique cultural creations has been unjustly removed from the originators, and those originators completely cut out of the loop, in the past.
posted by XMLicious at 3:57 PM on July 27 [2 favorites]


Treating this like IP is apparently not a new idea. When I was googling around about Highwater in case I wanted to share any specific horrible details, I came across a proposal to ban Native American cultural appropriation worldwide.

Interesting detail:
A specialized committee within the U.N.'s World Intellectual Property Organization has been considering several draft documents on indigenous appropriation for the past two decades, CBC News reported Tuesday. If passed, international intellectual property regulations would expand to protect "indigenous designs, dances, words, and traditional medicines."
So that lines up with your notion.
posted by mordax at 4:05 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


In the 19th century, the qipao was itself exotic and barbarian to the Chinese— with of course the complication that the Manchus were then ruling China.

I recently ran across the Wikipedia entry for Chuang Guandong (simplified Chinese: 闯关东; traditional Chinese: 闖關東; pinyin: Chuǎng Guāndōng, literally "Crashing into Guandong" with Guandong being an older name for Manchuria), which occurred late in the Qing Dynasty after laws were changed to allow Han Chinese to emigrate to Manchuria. Since it's contemporary to "The West" being "won" in the U.S. and similar events like the conquest and European settlement of Russian Central Asia and the Russian Far East, it makes for an interesting parallel.
posted by XMLicious at 4:06 PM on July 27


Of course there’s a problem with the fact that the media so often serves up the products of other cultures through white vessels in the belief that it makes them more palatable or desirable, but we should challenge that through calling for more diverse representation, rather than calling out Justin Bieber from having dreadlocks or Miley Cyrus for twerking.

Some people called out Miley for even twerking at all. Some people called her out for twerking reallyreallyreally badly and giving her audience the impression that what she was doing was twerking, when twerking is SO much more than Miley's version of twerking. So many of the other examples the author lists are similarly complex, but the author spends so much time focusing on whether or not people should be allowed to do things without ever stopping to ask "Hmmmm, maybe it's the way in which people are borrowing from other cultures that makes people start talking about cultural appropriation."
posted by 23skidoo at 4:09 PM on July 27 [2 favorites]


It's probably not a coincidence that it was mostly Asian-Americans (and white Americans) who were objecting to the kimono wearing at the Boston MFA - while it was introduced by the Japanese government themselves.

I'm super late to this discussion, but my feeling on this is maybe Americans (of whatever ethnicity) know something the Japanese government doesn't. In particular, they know what images kimonos conjure up in the American context, and their symbolism, and the way Americans are likely to engage with all that pre-existing baggage. They know that wearing a kimono doesn't have the same meaning in America as in Japan. They know that kimonos are associated with stereotypes that Japanese people in Japan are generally not aware of, or even if they're aware of them, are not aware of their full implications and myriad manifestations.

The Japanese government is almost certainly clueless about this, and clueless about the possibility that they might be clueless. They were trying to promote Japanese culture, and that's a worthy goal. But to do that successfully in America, they'd have to be knowledgeable about American culture, which the entirely predictable controversy surrounding the exhibition amply demonstrates that they are not.

The MFA framing an exhibition around Monet with the title "Flirting with the Exotic" was never going to result in anything other than a garbage fire. Americans criticizing that doesn't force anybody outside America to accept American notions of cultural appropriation, because the whole thing was fully situated in the American context in the first place. Without that context, of course the controversy's going to seem strange from the outside looking in, but it's not because there's something wrong with the concept of cultural appropriation, or that it's all just political correctness gone mad or something.
posted by hyperbolic at 6:12 PM on July 27 [9 favorites]


Some people called out Miley for even twerking at all. Some people called her out for twerking reallyreallyreally badly and giving her audience the impression that what she was doing was twerking, when twerking is SO much more than Miley's version of twerking. So many of the other examples the author lists are similarly complex

Is that really complex? The first reason is dumb and wrong (do you really think none but the originators of a dance move should be allowed to do it? Or should it be walled in to an ethnicity? Or maybe just pop stars shouldn't do it? Where is the authenticity? It doesn't exist). The second is not about cultural appropriation at all--it's just a criticism of her being a shitty twerker, like you might criticize anyone who sucks at something or is still a novice at it. Where's the nuance? Where are the complications? The author of the link has a much more complex and nuanced view.

the author spends so much time focusing on whether or not people should be allowed to do things without ever stopping to ask "Hmmmm, maybe it's the way in which people are borrowing from other cultures that makes people start talking about cultural appropriation."
posted by 23skidoo at 8:09 AM on July 28 [2 favorites +] [!]


Sowhat way is okay and what way isn't? It seems to me that the ways that are clearly bad--mocking, desecrating, profiteering, exploiting--are bad for their own built in reasons and not because of cultural appropriation. Mocking, desecrating, profiteering, and exploiting are bad and we should fight them ferociously. Another thing that's bad is a dominant culture benefiting from something that is not celebrated or accepted from the culture that birthed it--again, I don't really see how "cultural appropriation" helps us identify and work on the problem (inequality and oppression)--it just seems to muddy the waters and gets you to the point that even (the great and wise and thoughtful and nuanced and I learn so so much from them!) Frowner doesn't "really know what to do a lot of the time."
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:32 PM on July 27 [4 favorites]


The criticisms I read of Cyrus weren't that she was twerking. It was that twerking was part of a larger issue of her making a bid for being authentic and dangerous by wrapping herself in black culture and bodies (she literally surrounded herself with anonymous black dancers) who she then sexualized. Aside from the fact that she was essentially using blackness as a problematic costume, there was little evidence she respected or understood what she was borrowing, demonstrated by the fact that she now acts as though she has somehow outgrown it and badmouths hip hop.
posted by maxsparber at 7:56 PM on July 27 [13 favorites]


Just for the Miley twerking example, yeah, some of the complaints focused just on the dancing, but the more nuanced discussion wasn't just about the fact that she was twerking, it was also about having a white women be front and center with black women as her backup dancers while performing a dance that originates in the black community. So I do think it's a more complex issue than just a famous celebrity doing a particular dance move. And the backlash against Miley Cyrus also included the context of some of her music videos, interviews, etc at the time where she was also seen as appropriating black culture. (Here's one essay about this as well as her more recent turn around and distancing from hip hop culture.) Also see this music video from that Miley Cyrus era.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:01 PM on July 27 [4 favorites]


And on non preview, I see maxsparber already commented on the Miley issue much more eloquently than I could manage to do.

I actually hesitated to comment on this at all, because I don't feel particularly qualified to weigh in on this issue (as a white person in the US, so very much dominant culture, although I am Jewish). But one thing that I feel this essay didn't really get into, although has been discussed in earlier comments, is the ways cultural appropriation are used to make other cultures seem exotic, and that's something that's not necessarily encompassed by "mocking, desecrating, profiteering, exploiting" of cultures. It's also not outright racism, necessarily.

What comes to my mind is how in the late 90s/early 2000s when I was in middle/high school, a lot of my (affluent, white) friends and peers would go off on Caribbean cruises or similar vacations and inevitably would come back with their hair in cornrows, which of course they would never wear again at other times. And I also feel like it's worth mentioning that my school was incredibly white, and this was in the Southern US, so it's probably not surprising that there was a fair amount of implicit and explicit racism. (My AP US history teacher always used "we/us" when talking about the Confederacy in the Civil War, just to give you an idea.)

I think that's cultural appropriation that's problematic in a way that some random white person wearing their hair in dreadlocks isn't, just as a celebrity appropriating cultures is different than some random white person. Context is so, so important to these discussions.

Another thing I try to consider when asking myself whether it seems like something is cultural appropriation is whether it involves a white person taking away opportunities from someone from another culture, like in mordax's Star Trek example. It's both taking away some of the rare opportunities for someone from a non-dominant culture and also often takes away a dimension that you would get if someone from that culture had been allowed to participate instead.

Of course, there's a lot of grey area here, as the author of the article in the FPP points out with the example of her father and his expertise on Chinese history/language/culture.

Anyway, I do think there's value to the concept of cultural appropriation, even if we can't always agree on the exact definition and whether a specific thing qualifies. I personally have found it super helpful in becoming more aware of these kinds of things and understanding why they can be so problematic and damaging.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:17 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


it was also about having a white women be front and center with black women as her backup dancers while performing a dance that originates in the black community.

That's a much better criticism--but isn't it at its root a criticism of inequality and oppression? And does criticizing the music video choices of a pop star (almost all pop stars' music videos are problematic in some ways, after all) aid in the fight against inequality and oppression? I mean, I can imagine a principled argument that it does, but I'm not coming up with it on my own.

I mean, I've mocked white folks with dreads or didjeridoos, and as an ex-pat in Asia I'm constantly cringing at the orientalism and exoticization of the Asian "other" (not to mention the racism and occidentalism performed here in Asia--and the constant aping of African-American styles in Asian hip-hop and pop), but the more I think about it the more I think my responses are misdirected and divert my outrage from the problems that produce these symptoms, like colonialism, racism, oppression, kyriarchy writ large, economic inequality, and genocide.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:32 PM on July 27


Is that really complex? The first reason is dumb and wrong (do you really think none but the originators of a dance move should be allowed to do it? Or should it be walled in to an ethnicity? Or maybe just pop stars shouldn't do it? Where is the authenticity? It doesn't exist). The second is not about cultural appropriation at all--it's just a criticism of her being a shitty twerker, like you might criticize anyone who sucks at something or is still a novice at it. Where's the nuance? Where are the complications? The author of the link has a much more complex and nuanced view.

Hahahahah, bullshit. The author of the piece doesn't have a complex and nuanced view of Miley Cyrus's twerking and how it relates to cultural appropriation - they mention Miley Cyrus's twerking in passing as something not worth calling out and that's about all they have to say about it. As the previous three comments show, calling out Miley Cyrus's twerking is more complicated than just "Should Miley be allowed to twerk?"

I don't really see how "cultural appropriation" helps us identify and work on the problem (inequality and oppression)--it just seems to muddy the waters and gets you to the point that even (the great and wise and thoughtful and nuanced and I learn so so much from them!) Frowner doesn't "really know what to do a lot of the time."

Yeah, I interpreted that to mean they spending a lot of time thinking about it and they understand that it's a complex subject that can't be simplified to a list of things to do and things to not do, or a one sentence rule-of-thumb that is perfect for every single person.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:33 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


(And my point of bringing up Miley Cyrus's twerking was not to focus on it, but to use it as an example of how the author is looking at cultural appropriation through a narrow lens.)
posted by 23skidoo at 8:35 PM on July 27


Hahahahah, bullshit. The author of the piece doesn't have a complex and nuanced view of Miley Cyrus's twerking and how it relates to cultural appropriation

I'm sorry, I see that I was unclear--I meant a more complex and nuanced view of cultural appropriation in general (than you demonstrated in your simple twerking example).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:51 PM on July 27


the author is looking at cultural appropriation through a narrow lens.

I don't think that was ever in doubt, and the author even says so explicitly.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:52 PM on July 27


And does criticizing the music video choices of a pop star ... aid in the fight against inequality and oppression?

Well, just using that example, yeah I do think it helps, cause representation matters and is important. And that particular representation is pretty problematic on multiple axes. I don't think this means all white people twerking is problematic, which is why when it comes to appropriation stuff, I tend to shy away from rules, and try to look at each case it occurs, cause I think the nuances and details are very important with this stuff.

In the same vein, I find comparison can obscure as much as illuminate. It's worth asking the question but different things are different and we shouldn't demand consistency I think.

And also, people are allowed to be offended by different things in different ways. I think "the left" does strongly with this, favouring a kind of good/bad dualism that can get hectic real fast with this kind of ambiguous territory.
posted by smoke at 9:17 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


representation matters and is important. And that particular representation is pretty problematic on multiple axes.

Yes, I get that, but do any of them rely on cultural appropriation? Are any of them not really about racism, inequality, oppression, kyriarchy, sexism, etc?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:23 PM on July 27


people are allowed to be offended by different things in different ways

Totally--feel what you feel, but also think about it, interrogate it, and target the real enemies whenever possible.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:24 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Yes, I get that, but do any of them rely on cultural appropriation? Are any of them not really about racism, inequality, oppression, kyriarchy, sexism, etc?

Ohhh right, I understand now. I honestly don't know. I'm not sure you can separate it to be honest, I think it's all mixed up together.
posted by smoke at 9:34 PM on July 27 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that's my problem with focusing on the super nebulous and very confusing (and easily misunderstood and misapplied!) concept of cultural appropriation. It makes that "mixed up" even worse and it's not as meaningful a target (imo, of course) as what pretty much always seems to underlie it.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:43 PM on July 27


My rule of thumb is that if the person affected by something says it's meaningful, I believe them.
posted by maxsparber at 9:59 PM on July 27 [5 favorites]


That's a good rule of thumb, but people disagree a lot. For example, was the outrage over Miley Cyrus' twerking driven by the POC dancers in her video? And what do you do if the person affected by something says it's not meaningful to them (like the author of the link)?

May also be worth noting that rules of thumb are by definition loose.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:03 PM on July 27


I tell you what. If you think the dancers had something to say, go ahead and do the research and report back, but at the moment that sort of "what iffing" sounds like dismissal.
posted by maxsparber at 10:25 PM on July 27 [4 favorites]


Do you believe the author of the article linked in the FPP? Do you believe Zadie Smith? Do you believe Kenan Malik? I wasn't doing a "what if," max--not by a long shot, and I think you know that. My only "if" is not really an "if" at all: as I specifically wrote, it's about the actual article written by an actual person, and it's linked in the FPP under which we're commenting.

Zadie Smith:
Art is a traffic in symbols and images, it has never been politically or historically neutral, and I do not find discussions on appropriation and representation to be in any way trivial. Each individual example has to be thought through, and we have every right to include such considerations in our evaluations of art (and also to point out the often dubious neutrality of supposedly pure aesthetic criteria). But when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an “octoroon” still count?
Kenan Malik:
"The question people ask themselves is not so much 'In what kind of society do I want to live?' as 'Who are we?'. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question 'In what kind of society do I want to live?' has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to 'Who are we?' has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as 'liberal' or 'conservative' or 'socialist' than as 'Muslim' or 'white' or 'English' or 'European'."
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:31 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


I just did your research for you but lost it because the web crashed, but if you want to dig you'll find one of the dancers, a little person, who said she felt degraded and a prop, and another, a person of color, who asked if she was in a minstrel show and later had a mental breakdown.

Do you believe them? Because you seem to be working overtime to make a case that this is both too complicated and not important enough to be really worth paying attention to. And if that's the case, maybe you shouldn't post FPPs on the topic.
posted by maxsparber at 10:44 PM on July 27 [5 favorites]


That's a good rule of thumb, but people disagree a lot. For example, was the outrage over Miley Cyrus' twerking driven by the POC dancers in her video? And what do you do if the person affected by something says it's not meaningful to them (like the author of the link)?

I know your heart's in the right place here, but this is a lot simpler than you're making it out to be:

A lot of things don't hurt every single member of a marginalized population. For instance, I'm PoC in the US. That comes with a lot of baggage, but I would, (obviously from my earlier posts), argue that cultural appropriation doesn't apply to me.

However, that doesn't mean I get to decide it doesn't hurt anybody else for them, nor does the author of the piece.

If a marginalized population complained about this, it is worth considering, and that's what happened: Native Americans are upset enough about cultural appropriation that they requested the United Nations take action to help them. Cultural appropriation is a pretty good term for what they're unhappy about, and I believe I offered a pretty good talk about why, both specifically and hypothetically. I will also note that the author of the original blog post carefully recused herself from that discussion before launching into her argument.

tl;dr: if someone was hurt and they have an opinion about why, it's our job to listen and not get mired in 'your complaint is phrased wrong.' That gets into the very unpleasant area of policing PoC about the particulars of our complaints instead of helping us. Maybe Hypothetical Dreadlocks White Boy or Twerking White Girl don't need to be called out, but I'd rather a few people like that get some overzealous attention than that we start ignoring PoC with problems because the deck is already stacked so far in favor of white people already. I don't think PoC should have to file a perfect complaint to be heard.

Just because we can get into it about 'should Miley Cyrus twerk' does not invalidate the concept. There are nuanced arguments to be had about a lot of kinds of difficult and intangible concepts. For example, microaggressions get similar pushback, and I'd fight tooth and nail in defense of that idea because wow, have I seen those.

That is why I think this is a useful term despite not being in the target group myself. Golden rule: I'd want them to listen to me, so I am listening to them.
posted by mordax at 11:27 PM on July 27 [7 favorites]


Do you believe them?

Of course I believe them--that's super shitty! Hollis Jane felt degraded as a little person because she was dressed in a bear suit and used as a prop. Where's the cultural appropriation there? Are pink teddy bears being appropriated? Is dressing as a pink teddy bear part of little person culture? Hell no. Here's what happened and why Jane is righteously pissed about it: A little person was once again exploited by entertainment. That's terrible and should be fucking stopped. Your claim Hollis Jane's experience has anything to do with cultural appropriation is either disingenuous or so opaque I'm misunderstanding it.

Yusuf Nasir's story is a bit harder to pin down, but what's clear is that he had a full-fledged psychotic break (he was hospitalized and then found wandering around, with no memory of how he got there). I guess you might be ascribing that to cultural appropriation, but I can't, as I'm neither a psychiatrist nor his psychiatrist.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:50 PM on July 27 [3 favorites]


that doesn't mean I get to decide it doesn't hurt anybody else for them, nor does the author of the piece.

I definitely agree that we everyone's pain is real and nobody else can tell them it's not. I don't agree that we're all the best at diagnosing the causes of our pain (just ask any doctor! Or psychologist!). I know I'm not, for one.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 11:54 PM on July 27


I'm sorry, I see that I was unclear--I meant a more complex and nuanced view of cultural appropriation in general

Yeah, I disagree with that, too. The author's view of cultural appropriation doesn't seem at all complex or nuanced to me- they just use a lot of words to support the position "I don't think cultural appropriation should be called out ever, because cultural appropriation is not a problem". That's as complex and nuanced as using a lot of words to come to support the position "OMG CULTURAL EXCHANGE IS ALWAYS BAD AND SHOULD ALWAYS BE CALLED OUT."

I think the author's worldview of what cultural exchange should be has been shaped by spending so much time not living in the USA, which makes her less likely to understand that the history of the USA plays a big part in the way the people in the USA understand and feel about cultural exchange. If people in other countries have different ideas about cultural exchange, cool, but that doesn't mean that they have any clue about the ways in which the USA should deal with the negative things that happen because of cultural appropriation in the USA.

I think cultural appropriation (specifically in the USA) is WAAAAY more complex than "People of one race shouldn't do things that originate from another race", but the piece seems really focused on that view of cultural appropriation, and I think such a simplification of the whole thing hurts more than it helps. Sure, push back against such a simplistic view of cultural appropriation, but acting like that's all there is to cultural appropriation? Yeah, no.

Plus, I think "cultural appropriation" is one of those words like "homophobic", where if you get too bogged down with the literal Webster's dictionary, you end up saying things like "I can't be homophobic because I am not afraid of gay people, QED I just PROVED that I am not homophobic". I think you're doing the same thing with cultural appropriation - you're sticking too close to a definition and not trying to understand the negative things that can happen (in places like the USA) because of cultural appropriation.

You seem really invested in pushing back against anyone who disagrees with you in the thread you started instead of trying to understand their point of view, so I'll just bounce out the thread now.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:07 AM on July 28 [6 favorites]


the negative things that can happen (in places like the USA) because of cultural appropriation.

In the interest of understanding your point of view, care to elaborate? Are there instances where cultural appropriation is a problem and the problem isn't really about racism, exploitation, sexism, kyriarchy writ large, oppression, inequality, or colonialism?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:16 AM on July 28


You'll sometimes see stories in the news about a person scratching their hand, picking up some bacteria, and then within days getting a horrible infection that seriously hurts them. The story often ends with the reporter mentioning that such bacteria are everywhere.

What's really happening is that the bacteria are normal, and usually harmless or even useful, but the poor victim had a weakened immune system, or was already ill.

Human cultures are constantly taking ideas from each other, renaming them, changing them, taking or being given credit - it's how they came into existence. It's amazing and wonderful. When this becomes a problem is when there are other, serious problems with the social and economic context, and the effects that usually get termed cultural appropriation are a symptom if this.

Nobody in Europe has a problem with the reuse and redefinition of our "culture" by the USA or Japan (beyond some tutting or bewilderment) because we're not being systematically oppressed.

The worst problems occur when there are institutionalised, deep rooted social and economic inequalities within one state. Tibet, native Americans, Australian aborigines, and so on of course, but also when government organisations or media oligopolies set themselves up as gatekeepers of public culture.

Exploitation of knowledge without compensation (particularly traditional medicine) is a different issue but also about asymmetry, and also about fairness. We would not allow this behaviour or consider it acceptable within our own cultures but allow our businesses to do it to "other" people elsewhere.

If you've got homeless people dying because of exposure to the rain you don't help them by being obsessed with the weather, you get them shelter, money, jobs, justice.
posted by BinaryApe at 12:57 AM on July 28 [6 favorites]


Also: there is a cult around the concept of cultural appropriation that is uniquely American, born from internal social problems and with a strong tendency to see the rest of the world as an extension of American subcultures, which means well but is often very paternalistic and colonial in its wider world view. It's fascinating but very frustrating.

The idea that the population of Japan doesn't understand the world and needs angry American college kids with Chinese grandparents to defend them is up there with evangelical missionary movements and Kipling's White Man's Burden.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:32 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


Japan is a nearly-homogenous society in a way that Hitler's Germany could only dream of being. No, I actually don't expect the Japanese government, or even most Japanese people in Japan, to understand how cultural appropriation affects people of Japanese and other East Asian ancestries who live outside of Japan.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:38 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


My rule of thumb is that if the person affected by something says it's meaningful, I believe them.

Even if it's a Christian baker complaining about requests from gay couples for wedding cakes insisting there's a meaningful difference providing services for same-gender and mix-gender nuptials? Or women at a dyke march taking offense at other women carrying a rainbow flag with a star of david?

There generally seems to be some question begging in this formulation, where the a assumption that the person claiming to be affected has a valid complaint, or has genuinely been affected, has to come before agreeing that their complaint has meaning. And at that point, it's almost a tautology.

But perhaps you have a more universal application of the principal. Or maybe identifying it as a rule of thumb allows you the freedom to deviate from it whenever following the rule would produce a result that doesn't comport with your own evaluation of the situation.

Yeah, I disagree with that, too. The author's view of cultural appropriation doesn't seem at all complex or nuanced to me- they just use a lot of words to support the position "I don't think cultural appropriation should be called out ever, because cultural appropriation is not a problem".

That's an odd way to paraphrase a discussion about cultural appropriation that opens with examples of the phenomenon which are troublesome: Dressing up as ‘default Indian woman’ or ‘stock Chinese man’ almost always has the unwholesome whiff of racist cartoons about them, often only serving to promote absurd stereotypes, disrespectful by nature. If I had a penny for every time a kid in school or in the park pulled the corners of their eyes up and shouted “ching chong chang” at me, for instance, or for every “oh but what about maths?” comment I received when I said that my favourite subjects were art and literature… Even as a kid I wanted this stuff challenged.
posted by layceepee at 6:12 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


Even if it's a Christian baker complaining about requests from gay couples for wedding cakes insisting there's a meaningful difference providing services for same-gender and mix-gender nuptials? Or women at a dyke march taking offense at other women carrying a rainbow flag with a star of david?

Yes, I believe it effects and is meaningful to them. I also believe that fuck those guys, I believe that has nothing to do with cultural appropriation, I believe that was a deliberately shitty and unrelated parallel, and I believe I am done with this thread.
posted by maxsparber at 6:21 AM on July 28 [11 favorites]


In that case, the fact that it's meaningful to them doesn't seem to have much importance, so I'm not sure what the point of the rule of thumb is. And "meaningful to them" and "meaningful" seem significantly different to me.
posted by layceepee at 6:25 AM on July 28


Even if it's a Christian baker complaining about requests from gay couples for wedding cakes insisting there's a meaningful difference providing services for same-gender and mix-gender nuptials? Or women at a dyke march taking offense at other women carrying a rainbow flag with a star of david?


? On the topic of cultural appropriation, how are these relevant examples? Whose cultures are being approriated exactly? What are we refereeing here? How is the ability to be homophobic and antisemitic being curtailed in public space is at all a fair counterexample to the point maxsparber made?
posted by cendawanita at 7:19 AM on July 28 [8 favorites]


Adding Lionel Shriver to the bibliography at the end really discredits the other writers that she cites. Ugh.

Responses to Zadie Smith by:
Candace McDuffie ("by making herself the focal point in a discussion about who is truly subjected to black suffering, she fails to take into account the valid experiences of other black folk that fall outside of her realm both personally and historically")
Morgan Jenkins ("Black pain is not an intellectual exercise.")

More on food, since that's where my interests lie:
Dakota Kim ("Let’s not pretend this is just about cooking food. It’s about money, power, agency and advancement. It’s about the blatant usage of intellectual and emotional labor sourced from developing nations in order to create capitalist profit in highly-industrialized nations.")
Soleil Ho: A Guide to Avoid Cultural Appropriation
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:25 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


In that case, the fact that it's meaningful to them doesn't seem to have much importance, so I'm not sure what the point of the rule of thumb is

"Rule of thumb" doesn't mean cast-iron no-exceptions rule, and the particular tactic of attempting to rules-lawyer it is pretty hard to discern from sealioning.
posted by Dysk at 8:03 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


? On the topic of cultural appropriation, how are these relevant examples? Whose cultures are being approriated exactly? What are we refereeing here? How is the ability to be homophobic and antisemitic being curtailed in public space is at all a fair counterexample to the point maxsparber made?

I understood maxsparber's proposed rule of thumb to be used not to determine whether particular examples of cultural appropriation were meaningful, but more generally to evaluate whether a complaining party was identifying a meaninful grievance. Joseph Gurl had suggested that in many instances where people complained about cultural appropriation, there were elements of racism, inequality, oppression, kyriarchy, sexism, etc. and suggested cultural appropriation was not as meaningful a target as those other concerns.

Instead of engaging with that argument, maxsparber suggested a rule of thumb that if an affected party identified something as meaningful, it was a good idea to treat it as meaningful. That suggests it wouldn't be useful to pursue Joseph Gurl's line of inquiry.

I didn't agree, as I think that applying the proposed rule of thumb would lead you to the conclusion, for example, that there are meaningful differences in same- and mixed-gender couples in regards to the purchase of a wedding cake if the baker asked to provide it found it a meaningful distinction. In light of what to me is this absurd result, I think we should discard the rule of thumb.

We can then engage Joseph Gurl's argument (that other considerations than "cultural appropriation" might be more meaningful in evaluating instances of offensive behavior.

You could apply it, for example, to maxparber's own complaint about Led Zeppelin relentlessly stealing from blues artists. The problem here doesn't seem to me to be one of cultural appropriation; it would be wrong if Led Zeppelin stole the work of white artists or if the work of blues artists were stolen by other African-Americans. There are issues of race and class that illustrate why it's easier for white artists like Led Zeppelin to get away with that sort of thing when they are plundering the work of people of color, but I don't think cultural appropriation is a particularly helpful lens to evaluate it.

If, in fact, Led Zeppelin engages with the work of African-American blues artists and properly credits the antecedents for their work, I think everyone benefits. There are some readings of cultural appropriation that would dispute that claim. So the idea of cultural appropriation has potential negative effects. What does it accomplish that an analysis based on racism and exploitation don't yield without it?
posted by layceepee at 8:22 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


perhaps the whole point of 'cultural appropriation' as a term is because it captures the dimensions of racism, colonialism, exploitation, profiteering tht turns a behaviour that is appreciative into appropriative.

the concern is thus noted.

(I did say i found conversations about this tiresome!)
posted by cendawanita at 8:32 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]


If, in fact, Led Zeppelin engages with the work of African-American blues artists and properly credits the antecedents for their work, I think everyone benefits.

indeed. if they did it.
posted by cendawanita at 8:33 AM on July 28 [5 favorites]


well, led zeppelin didn't engage with african american blues artists until they were called out on it and later taken to court for it

for an interesting contrast, look at how the rolling stones interacted with blues artists - they gave them credit, they promoted them and many found themselves having much better careers because of it
posted by pyramid termite at 8:48 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]


RE: Led Zep's stealing from original blues artists. One aspect of this that I read about years ago but can't find a reference for now is that the first artist to take them to court was Willie Dixon. And the dig against him (at the time -- like I said, I can't find any corroboration now in five minutes of googling) was that he was guilty of the same sort of stuff himself (ie: grabbing uncopywrited standards that were just sort of floating around and sticking his name on them). So Led Zep thought, well, fair game. Which, to their credit, the Stones did not do.

And finally, because I do think it's relevant. Though you can clearly call what Led Zep did with the blues stealing, I have issues with calling it cultural appropriation. Because I think it's hard to argue that they didn't genuinely take that music places it had never been (effectively, "making it their own"). Unless you want to bring Jimi Hendrix into the discussion, but then he was hardly a blues original. My overall take on it all (after much thought over the years) is that the psychedelicization of the culture that erupted through the mid-1960s blew all manner of gaskets, culturally speaking ... and we're still trying to make sense of all the convoluted debris.
posted by philip-random at 9:09 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


I understood maxsparber's proposed rule of thumb

Lemme stop you right there: no, you aren't understanding this at all, and the examples you cited are horrifying whether you intended them to be or not.

>My rule of thumb is that if the person affected by something says it's meaningful, I believe them.

Even if it's a Christian baker complaining about requests from gay couples for wedding cakes insisting there's a meaningful difference providing services for same-gender and mix-gender nuptials? Or women at a dyke march taking offense at other women carrying a rainbow flag with a star of david?


Of course I believe them. I also believe, as maxsparber said, in 'fuck those guys.' I offered an explanation of why already, but since you didn't read most of what I wrote, one more try:

* Just because someone takes offense doesn't mean that we need to take action.

When a member of a dominant culture takes offense at the actions of a marginalized person, the power dynamics are different. If you had actually read and understood this thread, you would see that this point has been made many times. If a straight person doesn't like a gay person doing something, they are operating from a position of great power, and certainly don't need our help with their claim. I don't think I need to tell you what happens when a member of a majority group gets upset about Jewish symbols.

* I said that my position was rooted in a desire for solidarity.

Bigots like the cake shop fuckers and your general Antisemites? Those people are never going to help me. I do not feel an impetus to worry about their hurt feelings, because they have demonstrated a desire to kill me via stochastic terrorism, loss of health care and general shittiness. Their feelings are real, but they have actively and preemptively chosen to position themselves as my enemies. That isn't true of black people or Native Americans or Asians who want their cultures to be treated with respect. They are fellow citizens in marginalized groups, and we all stand to gain by standing together.

* Citing those examples was inappropriate in a cultural appropriation thread.

Gay people can be Christian and want wedding cakes, and Jews can be dykes. Worse, it was inappropriate because any instance of 'what about the bigots?' calls your own motivations or capacity for understanding deeply into question.

That's the problem with this whole thread: it's a big case of 'what about the bigots? Don't the bigots have a point?'

I mean, look at this:

There are some readings of cultural appropriation that would dispute that claim. So the idea of cultural appropriation has potential negative effects. What does it accomplish that an analysis based on racism and exploitation don't yield without it?

So there are 'some readings' of cultural appropriation that have 'potential negative effects,' so we should police PoC about the verbiage of their complaints so they don't get out of hand?

No. Whenever someone says something like that, they're not being helpful. You are not being helpful, regardless of intention. I've talked about this before, but if a marginalized population have a complaint, the impetus on us is to work on that, not waste time and energy nitpicking the specific terminology used.

As for the big question up above:
What does it accomplish that an analysis based on racism and exploitation don't yield without it?

cendawanita got it right here:
perhaps the whole point of 'cultural appropriation' as a term is because it captures the dimensions of racism, colonialism, exploitation, profiteering tht turns a behaviour that is appreciative into appropriative.

This is spot on. Cultural appropriation describes a specific expression of colonialism, racism, profiteering and so on all blended together. The insistence that it must be a separate phenomenon rather than terminology for a particular behavior that stems from all that was Joseph Gurl's idea, not something posited by people generally, and it misses the point entirely.

Anyway, I have expended enough energy on people who are super interested in defending white boys with dreadlocks so the rest of us don't step out of our place.
posted by mordax at 9:19 AM on July 28 [12 favorites]


When a member of a dominant culture takes offense at the actions of a marginalized person, the power dynamics are different.

maxsparber's rule of thumb didn't distinguish between members of a dominant culture and marginalized people. It was simply when affected people say something is meaningful, we should believe them. If you want to paraphrase my question as "What about the bigots?" it's a reminder that bigots can make claims about the meaningfulness of phenomenon as easily as anyone else, and hence a rule that says we should always credit those claims produces results that you yourself characterize as horrifying. So I don't feel the rule is helpful.

So there are 'some readings' of cultural appropriation that have 'potential negative effects,' so we should police PoC about the verbiage of their complaints so they don't get out of hand?

No, I'm not suggesting we should do any policing. I do think it's worth thinking about which particular terms, concepts and methods of analysis produce useful results, but I'm not suggesting people should be precluded from using cultural appropriation as a way to investigate instances of oppression.

cendawanita got it right here:
I agree that cendawanita's argument that cultural appropriation was a useful concept because it comprised a number of different objectionable behaviors that often work in concert has merit. I'm not totally convinced it rescue's the term completely, because I don't know if the merits outweigh the negative effects, but it's worth thinking about.
posted by layceepee at 10:28 AM on July 28


You've already had maxsparber and several others explain both his position and the basic concept of what a "rule of thumb" is. It's not their problem that you can't accept that, and nitpicking that single comment isn't helping your argument, either.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:39 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]


Thanks to maxspbarber, mordax and others for getting me this far without doing myself an injury. I had not understood what a blindspot Metafilter has on this topic. I also greatly appreciated the link to a not so old Metatalk thread that let me know this has happened before.

A few off the cuff responses:

If race is a construct/continuum then cultural appropriation can't really, really exist.

You've just confused race and culture: they are distinct ideas and the dependancy of one on the other is not clear cut.

There's no clear, obvious bright line separating "exchange" and "appropriation" which is why we see "cultural appropriation" applied in all sorts of situations

So give me all your money.

Applying this definition with the expectation that it will clearly distinguish instances of exploitative cultural appropriation...

As with pornography: just because it is sometimes difficult to define does not mean it does not exist,

And that linked story about bibimbap is hateful noise.

Even in the main article contains lines like: "Dreadlocks have emerged and belonged to a number of different cultural traditions, in Africa, India, the Americas, Australia, Asia and Europe, with people of all hues." I'm pretty sure I could find some Rastafarians who would disagree with this oversimplification.

Back to the calming reassurance of the Trump thread.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 7:27 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]


not_that_epiphanius,

I think this thread has sort of run its course. Obviously after listening to the calm arguments from both sides people's' minds have been changed and new opinions have been formed based on carefully considered rhetoric. I think it's safe to say that this is the last conversation we will have about cultural appropriation on Metafilter.

I think your above points are valid; we're not going to agree on everything, but that's fine. I'm glad we have communities like Metafilter where these ideas can be talked about. I know many members feel exhausted by having the same conversation over and over again. I taught for about 5 years and it is annoying communicating the same ideas to new students over and over again. Luckily, participating in threads is optional.

When one member with a certain opinion gets tired, there are always others to take up the banner. Just rolling one's eyes at people new to your position doesn't really help. To be clear I am not accusing anyone of this, but it's a common response to these sorts of conversations. Yes, it's not anyone's job to have these conversations, if it's emotionally laborious that is the cost of sharing one's views. On Metafilter we often assume that our opinions are universally self-evident. If only people would read the right sources, we'd all come to the same conclusions. As the site becomes less USA-centric, I think these assumptions will become less and less true. So much of the framing of these conversations is based on American constructs of race and identity that are not universally true and do not make sense outside of specific American pockets. Maybe the world will progress in a direction that embraces these worldviews, maybe not.

The one point I will specifically address is when you wrote,

'"If race is a construct/continuum then cultural appropriation can't really, really exist."

You've just confused race and culture: they are distinct ideas and the dependancy of one on the other is not clear cut.
'

As you stated correctly, they are distinct ideas and the dependency of one one the other is not clear cut.

What I meant, and I see that it was poorly written, was that culture is also on a continuum. It's quite hard to really say where one culture begins or ends and I think that's my major issue with the framing of this conversation.

Regarding the synopsis of Dan Pashman and Bipimbap, that link was not very good. It was the first google search result that summarized the event. Village Voice has a better framed article that still hits the major points.

I'm glad that MetaFilter exists as a place where we can have these talks. They're not always perfect but they're a good deal better than other corners of the internet. We complain that Metafilter doesn't do these conversations well; actually we do. The issue is that we don't and won't all agree, but that's how the world works.
posted by Telf at 8:30 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


Thanks for the thoughtful and encouraging response, Telf.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:28 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Thanks for interpretating it positively. Was afraid you might feel as though I was being preachy.
posted by Telf at 9:41 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


On Metafilter we often assume that our opinions are universally self-evident. If only people would read the right sources, we'd all come to the same conclusions. As the site becomes less USA-centric, I think these assumptions will become less and less true. So much of the framing of these conversations is based on American constructs of race and identity that are not universally true and do not make sense outside of specific American pockets. Maybe the world will progress in a direction that embraces these worldviews, maybe not.

*shrug* It's worth pointing out that the flip-side is true as well - the way that cultural exchange is viewed in [place that is not the USA] is not universal and probably won't be applicable inside the USA, because the USA has a specific history that shapes the way its people react to cultural exchange. So much of the framing of these conversations is based on USA ideas about race and identity because (historically) the examples used in a post/article are about specific examples of cultural exchange in the USA. It's certainly good to remind Americans that other viewpoints exist, but the fact that people in other countries view cultural exchange differently than in the USA doesn't really have anything to do with how people in the USA view cultural exchange. I think a non-place-specific conversation about cultural exchange in general is going to end up with just a bunch of what-about-isms, because ideas about cultural exchange are formed by how cultures in a particular place are valued throughout the history of that place. If the USA changes its ideas about cultural exchange, it won't be because Americans reached some sort of tipping point with regards to listening to people from other places - it'll be because the USA changes the way it treats different cultures in the USA.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:23 AM on July 30 [5 favorites]


It's certainly good to remind Americans that other viewpoints exist, but the fact that people in other countries view cultural exchange differently than in the USA doesn't really have anything to do with how people in the USA view cultural exchange. I think a non-place-specific conversation about cultural exchange in general is going to end up with just a bunch of what-about-isms, because ideas about cultural exchange are formed by how cultures in a particular place are valued throughout the history of that place. If the USA changes its ideas about cultural exchange, it won't be because Americans reached some sort of tipping point with regards to listening to people from other places - it'll be because the USA changes the way it treats different cultures in the USA.

Sure, but this is not solely a conversation about how Americans view cultural exchange. In fact, the article posted that is the whole reason for this thread is specifically from a non-American point of view. There is some privileging of American viewpoints over others on this site (hardly unique to Metafilter), mostly because of the demographic makeup of participants: to a certain degree this is inevitable, but I would hope that Americans would be a bit more aware of that phenomenon specifically in a thread about a non-American point of view on cultural exchange vis-a-vis appropriation.
posted by peacheater at 11:34 AM on July 30 [4 favorites]


Correct, which is why I wasn't talking about this conversation at all, but about how "these conversations" have been framed in the past. If conversations about cultural exchange in the past have been American-centric, it's because the examples used in the past have been examples that happened in the USA, so those conversations SHOULD have been American-centric.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:44 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]


Right. Like, if people keep wanting to bring up white kids with dreads and the Boston MFA kimono thing, then guess what? The conversation is gonna steer over to the US, because one is explicitly about a US institution and the other is something that is extremely common in the US even if it's not unique to that country.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:09 PM on July 30


[A couple deleted. I don't think we need to entertain the ever-popular argument of "you may not criticize expressions of inequality and oppression unless you can eliminate inequality and oppression!" Joseph Gurl, it looks like you posted this thread in order to have an argument with other members about cultural appropriation, and that's not okay. Nobody in the conversation has more comments than you, and you need to step back now and let people discuss without dominating the thread and making it all about you.]
posted by taz at 12:25 AM on July 31 [5 favorites]


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