Here’s the thing. If ‘cultural appropriation’ were actually something worth debating, it would be because it would be difficult and highly remunerative. But this is something anybody can do. Hey, I can eat curry! Hey I can wear a blue hat backwards! Hey I can do this dance thing with my butt!
Real ‘cultural appropriation’ is called plagiarism. It’s when you take poetry written in Russian, translate it into Greek and win a prize in Athens. That’s difficult. Serious ‘cultural appropriation’ is called theft.
It’s also not ‘cultural appreciation’ either. Just because I like to eat burritos doesn’t mean I appreciate the culture of Mexico. Just because I wear sandals doesn’t mean I appreciate the work ethic of leather working cobblers who first invented the sandal in 350 BC. Just because I breathe air doesn’t mean I appreciate the scientist who first described oxygenation of the blood.
So here’s the rule:
If you can buy it, it’s not cultural appropriation. It’s shopping.
If you can learn how to do it, it’s not cultural appropriation. It’s education.
If you can’t take it to a judge and win a civil suit. It’s whining.
These are things, shopping, education and whining, that middle-class people do all the time. Realizing that they are middle-class and mediocre, they have invented a fancy term called ‘cultural appropriation’ to try and show off. Nobody is fooled. Well, college undergrads are fooled.
Those are middle class privileges, including college and the right to sue in court. We’re all supposed to have them. Unless of course there is a sinister plot to make us all dirt poor and devoid of middle class privilege. Think about it.
This is a continuation of my ranting against the artificial categories of our current dark age in which we seem to have forgotten what humanity is. If you recall, I want no communities, no ethnicities, no races, none of that, but I like temporary autonomous tribal affiliations. I like to hang with the Mustang fanboys and the Kali Linux devotees, every once a while. And I have to tell you, I’m starting to think a bit more about prime rib and less about ribeye. I know right?
But seriously I am thinking about how the promise of multiculturalism has been completely swamped and overcome by the neo-racialism that I described back here. I need you to keep that in mind whenever you hear intimations and accusations of cultural appropriation and certain ideas about ‘civilization’. But let’s really prick up our ears when we hear about ‘white privilege’.
I am convinced at this particular moment that the neo-racialists of today feel rather confident that they can talk about ‘black culture’, ‘black politics’ and ‘black authenticity’ without raising an eyebrow or a sweat. There’s a lot of inertia in the conventional wisdom about the so-called ‘black community’ and basically Hollywood and a bunch of others assume that they have it pretty much worked out. We’re clearly not talking about John Bonham’s drumming. But for those who understand, respect and otherwise fall into the category of the autonomous tribal affiliation of said music, aka the so-called ‘white boys’, the neo-racialists have their work cut out for them. So they are working.
It was often said that James Baldwin and William Styron understood the soul of black and white American manhood. Both understood you couldn’t have one without the other, there was a kind of co-dependent dysfunction that seemed as natural as the fights between fraternal twins. I think they would both see very clearly how words are being smithed to suggest how one American twin has got what the other can’t get. Either through backhanded compliments about the patriarchy or guilt inducing browbeating about the very existence of testosterone, every possible ding against what manhood is supposed to be in America is being flung at high speed. There now exist sad reactionary groups who must declare that “It’s OK to be a white man.” It is likely that sadder still folks are taking cue from writers far less nuanced. This sadness and despair makes us all vulnerable to the relentless re-racialization of American life. All of us suffer in a culture war. We are held at swordpoint and asked pointed questions for disingenuous reasons.
“What business do you have, as a white man, taking advantage of the presumption of civil liberty?”, might be such a question. “What are you doing, as a black man to resist?”, is another. This axis of interrogation has been taken up by the masses. It takes many forms but are mostly around the phony subject of ‘equity’, as if the fraternal twins were not created equal. As if the very idea of American equality deserves ridicule.
I don’t know if it serves me well to presume that I am as free as any man in America. Nevertheless, I choose to behave as if my rights are actually guaranteed. That is when I bother to think about it at all. It is a deeply ingrained habit for me to simply presume I am free in body, mind and soul. When I bump against a limit, I have 359 other compass points. I am not fenced in. That’s my privilege. It’s yours too if you have developed a 360 degree vision.
As we muddle our way through these dark days of re-racialization of American life, I think it will serve us well to remember how many different sorts of ideas got us through to where we are. We won’t remember a fraction of those ideas when we play games of authority and authenticity. Nevertheless I wanted to put Styron out there in order to prepare us for a cascade of real contributions in contradistinction to the all or nothing attitudes we are certain to see.
As Americans, we inherit all of the sunshine and the darkness. All of the literature, music and the poetry that we make ourselves responsive to. We bring the legacy to our houses when we bring them into our hearts and minds. For whom and what do you open your door?
Looking at the etymology of the word "appropriate," it appears to apply to the notion of taking private property and making it one's own. In this sense, the idea of literally stealing someone else's hair style, for example, and wearing it as their own is absurd. Maybe I like the look of dreadlocks and decide that particular tonsorial style is just the thing for me. In this case, it would be more accurate and honest to say that I **adopted** someone else's hair style. It was not an appropriation in that no one's personal property was diminished in this transaction.
But his is too nuanced for woke culture. Absurd passes as rationality. If a culturally appropriate dreadlockian were to self-righteously confront me for my "cultural appropriation" of dreadlocks and I were to claim offense at their complaining to me in English...well, I don't know what two absurds make, but it can't be good. At the very least, it clogs and clouds thinking and prevents moving toward something positive and beneficial for all mankind. My read of history and current events is that the way through "these dark days of re-racialization" involves a significant implosion. Something that perhaps Plato's remnants may only survive.
In the wider view, humans cannot not learn from, mimic, or otherwise adopt ideas and behaviors from other humans. It's what got us here.
Also, the idea of me sporting dreadlocks is absurd.
I absolutely loved this, Michael. So well said! I recently wrote something on the same topic in case you'd like to check it out. https://criticalsoundbites.substack.com/p/the-moral-panic-of-cultural-appropriation