Search This Blog

Monday, 4 April 2016

Letter to America: In Defence of Cultural Appropriation

Two heads may be better than one, but a committee definitely isn’t. Take a group of reasonably intelligent and apparently normal people, put them in a committee and after considerable delay there will emerge, by way of what is laughingly called “decision”, the banal and the ridiculous. Likewise, you can lose all faith in humanity on simple sight of a group of males who have turned themselves into a Stag Party to vomit on the streets of Bratislava or females bobbling pink antennae on a Hen Do in Brighton. Last but not least, look at people heading to a Fancy Dress Party and you will definitely have a crisis of faith: “reasonably intelligent” and “apparently normal” are nowhere to be seen and it is impossible to believe that there is anyone there capable of fixing your computer or saving your life in Emergency. All these things give the Crowd a bad name.

I write this to give a bit of perspective and a bit of hope to those, especially in America, who encounter fancy dress parties as a Hieronymus Bosch world of cultural appropriation, an appalling procession of  hula hoops, straw skirts, feathered headdresses, tricolour face painting, sombreros, Afro wigs …. It’s not so awful as it does indeed look, it’s just evidence of two things: that selfies do not always work as an art form and that once in a crowd Americans lose whatever intelligence they may have, unlike we Brits who stick to Toga parties, Vicars & Tarts, and Nazis – though it’s true that the last comes with the suspicion that it’s not fancy dress at all but the real deal for exponents like Prince Harry or the now-former Conservative MP, Aidan Burley.

It was an American who told us that Death and Taxes were the two inevitables of life. I want to add three more, but three which are inter-linked: migration, language change and cultural appropriation. Like the waves, all three are things you cannot turn back. Like the waves, sometimes they are destructive and sometimes they provide us with some of life’s great pleasures and rewards.

From a distance, human migration must make us look very much part of the animal natural world. Humans traverse great distances, occasionally alone but usually in groups and they have done so throughout all of history. Like animals, they migrate for very different reasons. Broadly speaking there are two motives, two kinds of migration.

First come those who are well-resourced, armed and intent on looting or settling or both. Success depends merely on selecting the right destinations, those where there are desirable resources and where any existing inhabitants – who may themselves be previous migrants - can't resist your weapons, your deceit or your diseases. For Europeans, from the Conquest of the Incas onwards, it has always worked. There have been very few failures – the only one which comes to my mind is the British failure in the 19th century (and subsequently repeated) to take over Afghanistan.

Second, there is the migration of the desperate and the ambitious, seeking a chance in a new place where at first they will be at the very bottom of some existing society. Some perish on the journey there, some get turned away, some always get through. Even modern countries are unable to seal their borders, whether to stop people getting out or getting in. Maybe you think North Korea achieves it, but it doesn't. In a country like that, some border guards will be bribeable and some too hungry or lazy to look very far for those intent on escape. British politicians, and increasingly British people, think they can stop people getting in. Enough poor and desperate and clever and ambitious people want to get into the UK for some of them to succeed. Some people are going to come here, whether we like it or not.

In the recent past - no more than a few centuries – migration, combined with  a vast and cruel industry of people trafficking, has transformed the face of the Americas and Australasia. Its consequences are still being played out. In the very recent past - no more than a century - migration has changed the face of many European countries, of Palestine and - as a result of new migration from Mexico and Cuba - the USA. And these are only cases where everyone will know what I am talking about. There are dozens of other cultures and societies which have been transformed by migration in the recent past. If you think you can call a halt to it all, think again.

Migration brings with it language contact, language mixing and language change. Language purists try to circle the wagons, but it’s hopeless. There is too much talking in the world for anyone to police it successfully and prevent it from doing its subtle work of bringing about change that we don’t even notice until it has happened. Useless languages are discarded, flightless pidgins and fully-fledged creoles are created – some of them like Papua New Guinea’s Tok Pisin now national languages. Dominant languages soak up new vocabulary from everything going on around them, often enough regardless of race class or gender or any other barrier you can think of. If you think of ants as always busy, try looking at words. For words, getting into another language is a cakewalk – a reality which the Academie Française has spent futile centuries trying to resist. If King Canute had not existed, it would be the French Academy we would point to as the paradigm of futile resistance to change.

For the poet, the novelist, and indeed everyone else, the results of language contact provide additional resources for creating depth and resonance. In one word, you can allude to a whole other culture. With one word, you can move between high and low cultures. A deft allusion can evoke a whole world of domination and exploitation. Misusing a word picked up from somewhere - you only half know where - you can force a whole new perspective onto things. If, in contrast, you are trying to work in an isolated language or a language kept pure of contamination, well, you are pretty much in the same position as someone working in a dead language. At Oxford and Cambridge Universities - places which are really stuck - there are Prizes (still) for writing poems in Latin or Ancient Greek. The Prizes are won but who now reads the poems?

And so we come to cultural appropriation. Everybody does it, everybody is interested in doing it, and it goes every which way. It’s not the preserve of those who dominate and exploit, though this is how it is sometimes made to seem. Truth is, you can be exploited, dirt poor and uneducated and still manage to copy the way those guys over there are whistling and even, with a bit of luck and some persistence, do it better than they do. So just do it and stop stamping your feet because you think those guys over there are playing with your own toys. (As an only child, I am a stranger to sibling rivalry but that is how I imagine it).

It’s not as if culture is a physical object which can be stolen; copying, reproducing, distorting, does not destroy the original. All the re-creative energy applied to existing culture usually makes the world a more interesting place. And you are simply not joining in if you think that something very obviously alive – I don’t know, let’s say, something like Rap - ought to be grouped with those dead poems in Latin and Classical Greek, guarded against contamination by those who are outside and don’t understand, don’t understand that it’s Heritage or whatever it is this week you think up to patent it and copyright it. Damn it, you eat Apple Pie don’t you, supposedly American but obviously appropriated from the British who had it as far back as 1381 and should really be demanding reparations from all you over there in the US of A for stealing the recipe.

It’s not like land theft; it’s not like slavery; it’s not like capitalist exploitation; it’s not a zero sum game. And the really great thing about cultural appropriation is that it never leaves anything unchanged. Even in the case of apple pie, the first thing that happens when the recipe is appropriated is that it gets changed. Every culture has its own version, every Mom has her own version and though it’s true that my Mom’s is better than your Mom’s - we could start in on the Dozens with this - the recipe is just like language; it never stands still.

Am I exaggerating or being unfair?

Young women get their hair done and of course post a selfie. In America, this alerts the Hair Police and if you are a white girl showing off a black hairstyle - and the Police, remarkably, know what makes someone White and what makes a hairstyle Black - then you are hauled off to the neighbourhood  Hall of Shame ( the creators of Twitter / Tumblr / Facebook / never actually intended those but - there you go - everyone appropriates in their own way) and shocked Discussions will occur – I read one in which a mature black woman (ten years a college counsellor and now enrolled as a Ph D student) solemnly discusses a 12 year old white girl’s box braids and concludes that there was no malicious intent but, nonetheless, she has no right … Something has gone badly wrong if that is where America has ended up. Each to their own hairstyles? That just sounds like segregation on speed.

I don’t steal anything from you if I copy your hairstyle and you don’t steal from me if you copy mine. There is no reason for you to scratch my eyes out. I don’t demean you nor you me. If we want to, we can compare notes. If we want to, we can be friends. When a white woman (or 12 year old girl) has her hair done in corn rows or plaits or locks or whatever she is not doing anything like what is done in “blacking up”. She isn’t going to talk differently, move her hands differently, because of her hair style. She is not pretending. She is a  woman who has chosen a hairstyle in the same way that she might be a  woman who has selected a (Kashmiri) pashmina.  She’s not on her way to some Fancy Dress Party themed “Passing For Black”.

In England, not so long ago, there was an advertising campaign on the sides of London buses: “Some People are Gay. Get over it”. Maybe in America they need “Some People want to try out  hairstyles. Get over It”. I know there has been a very bad history but it’s never been all one way history and with a black woman and her children in the White House - which must be one of the best things to happen to America since Eleanor Roosevelt - that’s now obviously the case.

Do I want to qualify this rant in any way?  Yes. I do actually think there is an issue about Fancy Dress. In general, fancy dress parties are coy and inhibited and generally doomed attempts at transgression which is a main reason why the selfies are so awful. In addition, they do sometimes take as themes things which for one reason or another can’t be taken quite so lightly. In England, it is insensitive to give a Nazi theme to a spoilt brat party. There are still victims of the Nazis alive and people still alive who sacrificed a lot fighting them – or who are people who were small children when their parents died in the fight. So your theme isn’t funny and Prince Harry was rightly called to account for putting on the swastika armband. It doesn’t actually mean that all non-serious ways of coming at Nazism are off limits; there remains scope for satire and mockery and just plain humour.

In the USA, there are very marginal groups for which there is no real equivalent in England, most obviiously the remaining small populations of native Indians – descendants of those who were living in America before the Europeans descended and killed their way to supremacy. Like the aboriginal population of Australia, their situation (as I understand it) is typically unhappy, marked by high levels of unemployment, alcoholism, drug use, mental illness …. In that context, the Fancy Dress themes so often selected by illiterate college freshers and others are just ignorant and insensitive. It’s no worse than that, but I wouldn’t want to join in the party. If you asked me, I would advise against those themes. On the other hand, I can really see nothing wrong with choosing to wear clothes in everyday life or styling your hair or painting your face in ways which reference styles associated with a marginal community.  It's probably  a positive thing for people to do that: people usually only wear things they think make them look cool. Certainly, on the main Black and White (and now, Latino) axis of American life, no harm at all is done by the endless - and in reality, unpoliceable - cycling and recycling of cultural materials between the major groups. It’s one of life’s inevitables anyway, so we should make the best of it. It provides so many possibilities to make life better, for everyone.

1 comment:

  1. 'Small populations of native Indians' - that's if you call 5 million a small number.