Cultural appropriation as an antenna
January 2, 2020 3:04 PM   Subscribe

How To Change Your Conversations About Cultural Appropriation: What you’re saying and who you’re saying it to change the meaning of an expression. You should get in the habit of looking up the original context of an expression: what did it mean to the people who created it, who were around at the time? Now, in what other contexts is it likely to appear? What are the similarities and differences? What are the demographics? What are the differences in power and privilege?

"I refer to most cultural appropriations as stealth aggressions. If a microaggression is an oppressive act that takes minimal time or effort to perpetrate, then a stealth aggression is an oppressive act which is not so widely understood or obvious that mainstream society recognizes it as such.... I’m paying close attention to this conversation because experience has taught me that if someone leaps in to defend those white Swedish dreadlocks adamantly, that someone probably harbors some other opinions about race and identity which are more directly harmful to me and mine. The cultural appropriation discussion is the antenna that tells me whether something more dire might be out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if individuals whose views are the opposite of my own use the same topics for the opposite ends."

Precautionary note: This space is for nuanced discussions of cultural appropriation, centering the experiences and ideas of people of color. Please avoid using the topic as a soapbox to rail against the idea of cultural appropriation in general without engaging with the nuanced thinking the author is bringing to the table. Similarly, the author provides thorough definitions and examples if you need a primer on the topic. Especially if you are white, think about if your comment will make the site a less comfortable place for people of color to share their lived experience going forward, before you comment. You are strongly encouraged to read the linked article before commenting: the author already does a good job of addressing many typical talking points that regress healthy discussion on cultural appropriation, such as "where do you draw the line?"
posted by Conspire (39 comments total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great article. I think the insistence on ambiguity and context is really important. It reminds me a little of how in the boyzone days here a lot of people wanted bright-line rules about when a man can talk to or approach a woman, and how in reality no such rules exist, you just have to use your empathy and judgment and be ready to accept the occasional discomfort of getting it wrong and vow to do better next time.

The context piece, especially, is why I recently put together a megapost about Japanese American history and culture. A lot of the links in that post were just things that I've gotten frustrated at other MeFites for not knowing over the years as they mused on whether a kimono is an important symbol or why Japanese Americans didn't just preserve the art of bladework. I finally realized that I was in a better position than most to teach about these things, and I'm really happy to have gotten the chance to share them with MetaFilter. But I also wanted to have something to point to when people start doing thought experiments about cultural appropriation that are not in line with reality.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:32 PM on January 2 [35 favorites]


This is just fantastic, a toolbox I'm going to save and share.
posted by mittens at 3:36 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


YES thank you cultural appropriation isn't a set of rules, it's a dialogue
posted by airmail at 3:41 PM on January 2 [12 favorites]


*insert slow clap gif*
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:53 PM on January 2


[One comment deleted. Threads on Mefi about cultural appropriation have a long difficult history and have caused a lot of conflict and pain. Don't comment in here if you're going to just offer a generic skeptical take. Don't comment if you're going to begin with "i'm pretty woke on racial issues but". Please just don't. Check out the new Metafilter Community Guidelines for more, and the linked page on how members of dominant groups -- such as white people -- should take extra care to avoid harmful commenting behavior.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 4:15 PM on January 2 [37 favorites]


Thanks for doing the work to post this.
posted by PMdixon at 4:43 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


“ You’ve probably heard this question echo in previous discussions of cultural appropriation. “Drawing the line,” here, means setting a standard by which to judge one or (more commonly) more instances of cultural exchange as appropriation or not. “White rappers are always appropriating culture”—that’s a drawn line, then, because of the “always.” Discourse using the language of ownership has similar force.

Like many broad generalizations, drawn lines are comforting. They afford us surety and freedom from the responsibility to judge cultural exchanges on a case-by-case basis. But I think that responsibility is crucial. Every expression’s distinctive context changes its meaning. When we draw lines, we risk crossing out context.“

👏👏👏👏
posted by stoneweaver at 4:45 PM on January 2 [9 favorites]


I love his writing style -- the combination of deep points and humor. Thanks! Off to read more of his blog.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:01 PM on January 2


Did anyone else relate to the part where he talks about using cultural appropriation as an "antenna" so badly? I feel like this is almost a cycle for me - ten or twenty years from now, when cultural appropriation probably becomes more accepted, I'll have ditched that, and have moved onto the next subtle aggression topic that seems to inspire rage and paternalism from most white people. I don't do this with just race alone - plastic straws (and ableism fueled by environmental concerns in general) is my "antenna" for disability currently, now that I think about it.

It's such a critical survival tactic, honestly. Ten years from now, the people who were crying out against cultural appropriation are going to act as if they were always onboard, and saying, "well, I was onboard for cultural appropriation so I'm a good ally, but the next thing your communities are talking about goes way too far". People like this are never going to be allies, and in fact, they're out-right dangerous to me. They act and talk woke, but they will never show up for you: I need to differentiate them from the people I can truly trust to actually educate themselves and act compassionately, or else I'll get tossed under the bus in a critical moment.
posted by Conspire at 5:10 PM on January 2 [39 favorites]


In other words, beware the white people whose wokeness ends at exactly what other woke white people currently like and understand.
posted by Conspire at 5:22 PM on January 2 [24 favorites]


That was a fantastic read, and one that I will go back to for a re-read once I’ve digested it a bit. Thank you for doing the work to share it in this space.
posted by okayokayigive at 5:22 PM on January 2


Token conservative view here.

I refer to most cultural appropriations as stealth aggressions. If a microaggression is an oppressive act that takes minimal time or effort to perpetrate, then a stealth aggression is an oppressive act which is not so widely understood or obvious that mainstream society recognizes it as such

When I hear "stealth aggression," I tend to think about deliberate aggressive behavior designed to slip under the radar, typically in military or espionage terms, between two "moral actors." Not sure if Mr. Hodes directly intends to imply deliberate malicious intent by suggesting this terminology, though, or if the idea is more that cultural appropriation is more like a "nanoaggression."

“White rappers are always appropriating culture”—that’s a drawn line, then, because of the “always.”

I tend to think about drawing a line as something that makes something abstract instead very specific to a certain contextual circumstance. As in, it can (should?) only be done within a well-defined situation, and probably between two individual actors.

The "white rappers" reference, I think gains its insidiousness because it's simultaneously a "line drawn" about permissible behavior, and rooted in generalization. In some sense, I think this is what Mr. Hodes is getting at by warning against "crossing out context." He's urging consideration of the specific, and due diligence, so to speak.

Then an injunction not to generalize when considering the specific:
Like many broad generalizations, drawn lines are comforting. They afford us surety and freedom from the responsibility to judge cultural exchanges on a case-by-case basis.

To me, I don't think the root cause of the danger is drawing lines in the sense of specifying or articulating some sense of absolute; I believe the root danger is that some people will not automatically think critically about specific situations, gathering all the appropriate context, and acting prudently.

The core difference in viewpoints, and yes, conflict, here is epistemological, I think -- primacy of the object versus primacy of the subject. Within humanities scholarship over the last 50 years this divide has become particularly acute. Just to show we're thinking along the same lines, Mr. Hodes does cite a Clifford Geertz article from 1973, which is about when subjectivism began to really overrun objectivism in recent humanities scholarship, but it's not particularly difficult to trace these lines of thought back through several generations previous.

What's lost today, in some sense, is that the previous moral compass to help transcend these epistemological squabbles -- whether emotional states are real and valid, whether most social situations are best diagnosed in terms of power differentials, whether objectivity is possible, whether utilitarianism is a reasonable metric or built on sand, whether ends justify means, and other sorts of philosophical quandaries. That was religion, and the root of Nietzsche's lament, "God is dead."

What I'm fascinated by is that reality seems to be defined by both power *and* particles, if the former is construed as being somewhat akin to energy. Go Einstein, go.
posted by phenylphenol at 5:31 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Thank you for doing the work to share it in this space.

Since there's a lot of thank yous here, I just wanted to acknowledge that stoneweaver was originally the one who found it and brought it to my attention. We discussed it, and we decided that it would be best if I posted it. We've noticed that there tends to be a lot of respectability politics attached to users - even when she says the same things that I say, she often gets a lot more policing, sealioning, and aggression than I do. Because this was such a sensitive topic that has traditionally not been discussed well, I decided to take care of it.

But your thank yous should go as much if not more to her!
posted by Conspire at 5:33 PM on January 2 [33 favorites]


Thank you, Conspire (LOL eponysomething). I really appreciate both you tossing that my way, and also very much posting this article in a way that it can be read and appreciated for the nuanced and deep analysis.
posted by stoneweaver at 5:39 PM on January 2 [22 favorites]


I like the idea of first not judging but having a conversation about cultural appropriation in terms of power.

I remember during Trudeau's blackface, the white person I was speaking with essentially said they were concerned about how such controversial news would come to light at such a particular time during elections, i.e. manipulated or manufactured news. My reaction at the time was to avoid the further discussion, but to this day I have been curious to know how many actually progressive people could even imagine approaching a sensitive topic the way they did.
posted by polymodus at 5:40 PM on January 2


Quick self-correction; sorry.

The core difference in viewpoints, and yes, conflict, here is epistemological, I think -- primacy of the object versus primacy of the subject

Should have said "primacy of objective measurement versus primacy of subjective experience as a path to knowledge" or something to that effect.
posted by phenylphenol at 5:52 PM on January 2


I also think the "Nice Things We Can't Have" concept is really useful. People will frequently say things like "But it's not fair that I can't color my face to play a Dark Elf just because some racists a long time ago used blackface to demean African Americans."

The proper response to which, I think, is "Yes, it's not fair that racists created this hostile connotation with dark makeup. Not fair that African Americans have to be on edge when they see it, not knowing whether it represents a deliberate threat or merely self-centered indifference. And not fair that it inconveniences you in this small way. You are right that racism sucks and is not fair."
posted by straight at 5:57 PM on January 2 [63 favorites]


Oh, I'm so delighted to be sitting here having this conversation. Conspire, what you said about using the topic as a lighting rod to check for potential aggression--that rings very true to me about other axes, too.

I sometimes find people using the concept of cultural appropriation to engage in well-meaning protective behaviors that actively hinder the survival or appreciation of the people whose culture they originate from. For example, concerns about appropriation can convince white people not to purchase First Nations-made art that would support the nation where those artforms originated. Or I sometimes see people being very concerned about appropriating the practice of using fidget spinners, even though increased usage of them would make life better for neurodivergent people by normalizing the activity*. These forms of cultural exchange are being given willingly by most of the people in both cultures, but the fear of being (seen as) appropriative prevents white or neurotypical people from lending aid that directly and specifically benefits the people who originated the cultural item.

This piece is such a wonderful antidote to that kind of well-meaning over-prescriptivism, precisely because it refuses to lay out hard lines and insists instead that people use their critical thinking skills to understand the difference between gifts, trades, and thefts--and talk about that, too.

*autistic culture isn't race, of course, and has its own dynamics that are very different--but I see a lot of people, especially white people who want to be progressive, applying the language and concepts to other axes too.
posted by sciatrix at 6:11 PM on January 2 [22 favorites]


When I hear "stealth aggression," I tend to think about deliberate aggressive behavior designed to slip under the radar, typically in military or espionage terms, between two "moral actors."

What about appropriation makes it not an aggressive behavior that slips under the radar? It slips under so many white people's radars because, well, y'all don't want to ever think you did anything bad, because nobody wants to think of themselves as bad.

But when you have white-run companies appropriate non-white art or cultural forms and profit off them, without ever returning anything to the communities that spawned them, is that not an aggressive act meant to continue marginalizing the marginalized? When you have white-run magazines feature white chefs, ignoring Vietnamese chefs, cooks, and people, to tell other white people how to "properly" eat phở while describing it as the new "ramen", is that not an aggressive act meant to keep Asian cuisine as an exotic, one-size fits all melange and raise the profile of some Columbus who's "discovered" something that's already been known? It's not just phở, it's kimchi, it's kimonos, it's sleep bonnets, it's AAVE, it's dreads, it's so many forms of yoga.

To you it might not feel "aggressive". But your understanding of "aggressive" and what "slips under radar" isn't universal.

So many of these things are invisible because you don't have antennae primed for it. Like how men often don't recognize sexism/harassment or the cis don't recognize transphobia or straights don't see homophobia/lesbophobia or how nobody ever sees biphobia. You don't see it because you never noticed it, you never had to notice it, and you don't want to notice it. It's "stealth" only in that the people doing the appropriation know that so many will do everything to try to avoid recognizing it because then they might have to consider, just for a moment, that maybe they're the baddies.
posted by anem0ne at 6:15 PM on January 2 [37 favorites]


phenylphenol, I think people's antenna might be going off about your "conservative" take simply because you refer to the author as "Hodes" when the author refers to himself as "Mendez." You might want to listen more and learn about the context of things, kind of like the linked article says.
posted by rikschell at 6:43 PM on January 2 [6 favorites]


I sometimes find people using the concept of cultural appropriation to engage in well-meaning protective behaviors that actively hinder the survival or appreciation of the people whose culture they originate from...This piece is such a wonderful antidote to that kind of well-meaning over-prescriptivism, precisely because it refuses to lay out hard lines and insists instead that people use their critical thinking skills to understand the difference between gifts, trades, and thefts--and talk about that, too.

Oh, this is something I've noticed and have never put into words, thank you! Mine is not a culture that currently needs to worry about survival, but really what I want when it comes to avoiding cultural appropriation is not for people to behave perfectly all the time, but for them to be willing to engage in a dialogue and to learn. Not just to learn "This is wrong and I shouldn't do it," but to be willing to listen, for example, to how Japanese people view religion and why it might actually be fine for them to make an offering at a shrine and not fine for them to simply map a Western view of religion onto Shinto customs and say "Nope, cultural appropriation, can't do that." Or to seek to understand how fourth-generation Japanese Americans relate to the Japanese language, how our grandparents might have struggled with it and cast it off during internment, how that might have made us feel when we started to see it on t-shirts and tattoos in the nineties, and how some of us have started to reclaim it with kana apps and college courses. Just what all of that feels like, what it means. What I mostly see is people policing each other according to what they think my community wants, and it shuts that kind of discussion and sharing down. And "all culture is appropriation and therefore this isn't even worth discussing" is just as bad. Nuance, always.
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:13 PM on January 2 [17 favorites]


In other words, beware the white people whose wokeness ends at exactly what other woke white people currently like and understand.

That's a great rule of thumb. And I think one reason it works so well is that it's a tell that those white people probably don't have POC friends. It often takes a bit of time for someone to become comfortable with a new idea, and if your social circle (or at least that part of it you are close enough to to be discussing difficult ideas with) is all white, any ideas that aren't coming from white people are going to be new and confronting for you, rather than something you've been hearing about for a while from a variety of different people you trust.
posted by lollusc at 7:24 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


And actually, now that I've typed all that out, it occurs to me that there's a third thing I want people to listen to, which is the actual words that are coming out of my mouth during a cultural appropriation discussion, instead of whatever boogeyman they've made up in their head. "Cultural appropriation" has come to mean a kind of shorthand for "telling white people they can't have something," and occasionally that is indeed what I mean when I say it, but more often I mean the kinds of things this article talks about - tread lightly, act respectfully, listen openly. Cultural symbols and practices mean a lot to people, and it's totally reasonable to want to talk about how they move through mainstream culture, how some people profit from them and others don't, how they can be used to mock or belittle or commodify. If you decide to just bypass all that nuance, flip a table and say that by God you're entitled to whatever you want and maybe Japanese Americans aren't entitled to their own culture because they're Americanized... well, then I've learned something valuable about you. And frankly, sometimes POC do title their cultural appropriation thinkpieces provocatively in hopes of flushing out exactly that reaction and forcing it to show its face. No one can really ban you from eating sushi, but a lot of people show their asses when they think someone might be suggesting it.
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:34 PM on January 2 [30 favorites]


One of the things that makes it so hard to figure out how to be a marginalized person in the year 2019 is that the war to associate racism with shame has made it so that everything, everything, conscious or not, is cloaked under a heavy layer of plausible deniability. So if you're a POC trying to figure out how to navigate the world, now you have an additional layer of uncertainty and gaslighting slathered over the inequality, and the white people you're dealing with may actually be lying to themselves really heavily about what they're doing and why. It's such an exhausting thing to work out, yeah?
posted by sciatrix at 7:50 PM on January 2 [7 favorites]


I appreciate the pseudonymous nature of Mefi because I value my privacy, but unfortunately that also means that you, the reader, have no idea what I look like or where I'm from. I could use anodyne descriptors like "PoC" or "mixed race", but that still leaves a gap where you would want to have some tangible notion of my appearance or background. So let me try to address that for you by saying that generally people seem to think I'm from north Africa. Others might say India. Still others Polynesia. Yet others Latin America. It depends a little on what they're familiar / comfortable with, really, so you can do the same.

In any case, I regularly experience something like the opposite of cultural appropriation. A kind of cultural accosting. Which makes sense, given I don't feel like much of a proprietor for any of the cultures that are supposed to make up my heritage. If, say, white women find expression through "African dance" or "yoga" classes, or white guys find solace in "native American" paraphernalia, I may find that to be a little naff, but otherwise it's not really my concern. Plus, I also understand that a lot of white people get encouraged to display an "interest in other cultures". Personally I think it's almost always a bit daft: it almost always reeks of a kind of consumerist repurposing of curiosity as desire, or -- worse -- as an indulgence to shed excess guilt. But I can see why this type "exploration of cultures" gets encouraged and ultimately I think it does more good than bad.

So as far as cultural appropriation goes, I think it's generally sad, but not generally bad. What I do think is bad is the aggressive enthusiasm with which some of these people (& truthfully they're not actually all of them white; I just think it's just easier to speak about them that way considering the audience) accost people like me with their intense interest in dances, foods, musics, literatures, & traditions that I have absolutely no awareness of, familiarity with, or interest in. Sometimes they become so excited by their ignorance that their eyes get all wide & the whole thing becomes a bit spooky. It's like they're trying to suck out your ethnicity, or something. But I'm like, hold up, it's not my fault you're such a moorless husk of a human being.

It's quite annoying when people project all kinds of mystical / ancient / "natural" bullshit onto you, when what you're really trying to do is take their jobs & buy their companies. I would certainly appreciate if they "explored" their need to wallow in the ways of (whatever it is they take me for) with some other moorless husk and stopped accosting me. Which, I guess, is what a lot of them end up doing.
posted by dmh at 8:55 PM on January 2 [13 favorites]


Wow so like, a thing to consider for the future. When you are recounting how malice isn’t necessary, you don’t need to recount in excruciating detail the racist red face you did. You can just say “I naively participated in some red face as part of a scouting thing” and not make people read descriptions of racism. It is harmful to read those things. I, frankly, couldn’t finish the last third of your comment because it was so painful to read.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:13 PM on January 2 [21 favorites]


Also, for anyone reading along, the Boy Scouts still hold fake powwows, wear our regalia and play Indian. In 2020. This is still happening.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:15 PM on January 2 [22 favorites]


Yes, yes, yes. What I hate most about the cultural appropriation debate is that complex questions of power, history and oppression get flattened into "what is or isn't tacky for a white person to do." A conversation that was originally about making sure that people respected the cultures they were interacting with, about making sure that POC got at least some of the benefits and the credit and the accolades for their own damn work, somehow turned into white people worrying about whether it's uncool to have a brush painting in their house or whatever.
posted by storytam at 9:22 PM on January 2 [18 favorites]


Sciatrix this is so on the money: “ I sometimes find people using the concept of cultural appropriation to engage in well-meaning protective behaviors that actively hinder the survival or appreciation of the people whose culture they originate from. For example, concerns about appropriation can convince white people not to purchase First Nations-made art that would support the nation where those artforms originated. Or I sometimes see people being very concerned about appropriating the practice of using fidget spinners, even though increased usage of them would make life better for neurodivergent people by normalizing the activity*. These forms of cultural exchange are being given willingly by most of the people in both cultures, but the fear of being (seen as) appropriative prevents white or neurotypical people from lending aid that directly and specifically benefits the people who originated the cultural item.“
posted by stoneweaver at 9:24 PM on January 2 [11 favorites]


Wow so like, a thing to consider for the future. When you are recounting how malice isn’t necessary, you don’t need to recount in excruciating detail the racist red face you did. You can just say “I naively participated in some red face as part of a scouting thing” and not make people read descriptions of racism. It is harmful to read those things. I, frankly, couldn’t finish the last third of your comment because it was so painful to read.

100% this.

Please consider the harm that these kinds of confessionals bring into a space. First, you're showing that you aren't really considering that there are PoC in the room who will be harmed by your graphic descriptions of racism - this is in itself a microaggression, that you're reinforcing the message that we don't really belong here in the all-white audience you're presuming to be speaking to. Second, to the extent we are present, you're implicitly placing us in the role of your therapist and confessional priests. We are not being paid to do that. But third, these stories are more about you. I think a lot of white people feel compelled to recount all of the gory details because they feel like it lifts guilt off their shoulders, as they tell a story of absolution (see how much better I've gotten) and then seek reassurance from other (usually white) people. Bluntly, stop doing this in public spaces at the expense of PoC. You will just have to live with that guilt, or better yet, find a therapist to work you through that.

Some resources:
Please keep your #MyWhitePrivilege confessions to yourself, thanks
Ralph Northam, Liam Neeson, and when confession causes more harm than good.
posted by Conspire at 9:41 PM on January 2 [25 favorites]


> I feel like that might be what cultural appropriation is like. Apologies for the long comment.

jsnlxndrlv, it's not the quantity of words I'd suggest you'd apologize for, but the sheer detail in recounting and repeating numerous dehumanizing descriptions and perspectives of Native Americans in the process of attempting to illustrate why you are currently aware that what your younger self did was wrong. My understanding is that you're making a good faith effort to clarify matters for another MeFite here, but you can do so without getting into quite so many hurtful specifics. The additional details may feel like they help ground the anecdote in edifying concrete data points, but they're primarily serving to deal collateral damage to your fellow MeFites. Whatever's the opposite of a nat20, as it were. A critical fail, perhaps?
posted by rather be jorting at 9:48 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


[One deleted and a 24-hr ban. Again, this topic has a lot of history on Metafilter that means you're stepping into a much more fraught ongoing discussion than you may realize. Go find a thread on something you find more interesting/positive/etc and read that instead.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:32 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


(I apologize, and I have flagged my post for removal as noise/derail.)
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 10:49 PM on January 2


[Ok, I've deleted that comment to head off additional harm to readers. But as people have asked in recent Metatalk discussion I'm leaving the responses -- so if any readers are confused, there was a comment just after dmh's, and it contained a fairly detailed description of boy scout "Indian" activities that the commenter as an adult retrospectively understood as disrespectful. That's what stoneweaver was replying to here.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:55 PM on January 2 [14 favorites]


I like this a lot, because troublingly, many of my fellow Malaysians and Singaporeans have a reflexive support for how white westerners appropriate whenever the subject comes up. A lot of that is because of mistakenly assuming similar dynamics and the fact our entire domestic culture is a result of continual cultural exchanges eg food, fashion, cultural practices. But for all of our own cultural intermingling and exchanges, as the piece rightly points out, the power differential matters. And that counts a lot in our diverse social fabric too. This nicely problematizes the whole argument, and good for me to keep in my pocket. Thank you!
posted by cendawanita at 11:07 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


This is great, thank you.
posted by frumiousb at 12:00 AM on January 3


I particularly liked the point about discussions of cultural appropriation functioning as “antenna.” So true.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:49 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


This is a great article.

Sometimes they become so excited by their ignorance that their eyes get all wide & the whole thing becomes a bit spooky. It's like they're trying to suck out your ethnicity, or something.

I am white but my partner is not, and this is a perfect description of one kind of interaction that I have seen repeatedly over the years.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:43 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


Outstanding article, thanks so much for posting!
posted by Jesse the K at 11:26 AM on January 16


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