Friday, 3 May 2019
Cultural Appropriation: A Hoax Waiting to Happen
This was a popular December 2015 post, later edited into a chapter of my book Silence Is So Accurate (degree zero 2017). I think I was wrong about the hoax, but I still think the main line of the argument is sound.
When I was a British teenager in the early 1960s, there was a campaign in the USA to make animals above a certain size but including both pets and farm animals wear diapers – that’s nappies to me. It attracted many supporters until - three years into the campaign - the movement’s founder was caught out and obliged to admit that it had been started as a hoax. Meanwhile, it gave me and my school friends another reason for thinking there was something wrong with America. The hoaxer thought so too and the point of the hoax, as he explained in a subsequent book, was to highlight the absurdities of American moral conservatism. (For details, start with Wikipedia’s “Society for Indecency to Naked Animals” – even the name of the organisation should have given the game away).
When I read news reports of the latest cry of “Cultural Appropriation!” I think to myself: This is a hoax waiting to happen (if it has not happened already). In fact, I predict that in 2016 we will be hoaxed.
I hope it’s an effective hoax which targets the fact that those who cry “Cultural Appropriation” most loudly often express themselves in terms which show a congruence with apartheid or segregationist doctrines. They are not flying the flag for liberty or equality or fairness; they are building walls to protect identity and exclusivity. The banner they raise often reads Each to Their Own Kind’s Hairstyles.
On the Internet, there are two main systems operating; these account for maybe 75% of Google Images for “Cultural Appropriation” :
First, people go to a Fancy Dress Party with an ill-judged theme, they take selfies of themselves in their hastily assembled (and dire) costumes and post them on their web page. In turn, those selfies are re-posted into someone’s “Hall of Shame” specialised to Native Indian headdress or sombreros or straw skirts or whatever. Of course, the people look ridiculous. That’s simply what happens when you freeze-frame your ill-chosen Fancy Dress.
In England, upper class fraternities like the Bullingdon Club have got wise and ban smartphones from their gatherings. That way the lower orders will never know how they once behaved. Unlike Prince Harry, they will never be outed for dressing up as Nazis. A simpler solution would be to conclude that Fancy Dress Parties are really not such a good idea anyway, whatever the theme. They are usually coy, inhibited attempts at transgression and they don't work.
Second, 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 and 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 we have ended up.
All cultures at all times everywhere have copied, borrowed, appropriated from their neighbours. The traffic is ceaseless and does not just go from oppressed to oppressor, from low to high, from poor to rich. It goes all ways. You do not need wealth or an army or control of a school system to copy the way those guys over there are whistling. You don’t even need those things to learn your neighbour’s language – and languages are the most appropriated cultures of all. We do it all the time.
A textbook of cultural anthropology is always going to be a textbook about cultural appropriation. The “isolated tribe” is a myth: it’s hard to find a tribe without a very lively interest in what their neighbours are or were up to, with frequent visits (friendly or hostile) to find out what’s going on and, sometimes, to copy it.
The History of Religion is a history of ripped-off ideas. That's probably the most important fact about it if you want to challenge your local religious police. But they won't like you for it.
No one (to my knowledge – and we have a Hoax upcoming in 2016 remember ) has ever said that you need permission to learn their language. No one claims copyright on languages. That’s partly to do with an understanding that languages are not things which can be stolen – they are not finite physical resources. That I speak French does not stop French people doing the same, only better. In the same way, if I copy your hair style, it leaves you with your hair to style. You will probably do it better just because you have been doing it for longer.
I don’t steal anything from you if I copy your hairstyle and you don’t steal from me if you copy from me. 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 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 white woman wearing a black hairstyle in the same way that she might be a white woman wearing 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 with a black woman and her children in the White House, it’s not now all one way history.
My question is this:
Does it help America become a better place to live - and it really does terrify me from this distance away - Does it really help to call out a 12 year old white girl on the Internet and tell her that, No, she has no right to have her hair done in box braids? And make her apologise for the offence? Is the Hair Police really helping things along to a fairer, more equal, more just society?
The question isn’t something which can be dealt with by some kind of computer app. which generate offending selfies, their categorisation and their place in a Hall of Shame. Each bit of history has to be thought about and weighed separately. There is no one size that fits all. Of course, some general principle might underly it all.
If it’s about defending chosen people, superior people, exclusivity, purity ... – well, I’m against it. I don’t believe in segregationist ideas. They lead to Alt Right places like Trumptown.
But if the principle is about moving forward to a fairer more equal society where people can live well, move about free of fear, feel respected, eat in other people’s restaurants … then, yes, I am on side.
I want to think more about one area where I have some sympathy with the people I am disagreeing with: very marginalised groups, very small groups who are always on the receiving end of discrimination and Fancy Dress Parties, may have a good claim on different kinds of advocacy and protection than big groups, more powerful groups who aren’t so threatened , who aren’t living with their backs to the wall all the time, who have a big say already in how things are done.