I thought it would be long time before I wrote about cultural appropriation again, but an opinion piece titled "Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation" by Bari Weiss, published last week in the New York Times, is such a perfect example of how not to talk about the issue, that this week I decided to end my unofficial moratorium on this sticky, messy topic.
So let's begin.
What's important to understand about cultural appropriation is that it's about the power imbalance between dominant and oppressed groups. It involves a dominant group using aspects of an oppressed group's culture for personal and financial gain. It has roots in economic and racial exploitation, and is often a symptom or reflection of these two forms of dominance.
This dynamic is usually ignored in criticisms of the subject, which often follow a similar template: a checklist of assorted critiques on cultural appropriation, some measured, some reactionary, an increasingly absurd rundown of things that have been borrowed from other things like "da Vinci was inspired by birds in flight, are you saying his inventions appropriate bird culture?!?!?!" and ending with the conclusion that people who call out cultural appropriation are actually helping the fascists.
The piece in The New York Times follows this template, even using Portland's now-legendary burrito controversy not once, not twice, but three separate times as an example of the hysteria surrounding cultural appropriation.
The problem with this framing is that ticking off a decontextualized list of cultural appropriation allegations or examples of cultural borrowing flattens the complicated history and power dynamics that lie behind each instance. This in turn obscures the lines between cultural appropriation, appreciation and exchange.
Some of those cases Weiss includes might have good arguments for cultural appropriation, but countering them with obvious facts, like pointing out that the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speeches in English, a language borrowed from Latin, as some sort of bizarre "Gotcha!" to the previously mentioned grievances, is just really fucking silly.
Another problem with this approach is that it connects leftist infighting about cultural appropriation to the rising tide of white nationalism by saying it provides fuel for their movement. This is a bit of a stretch because the far right, neo-Nazis, and other white nationalists have shown that they're not above creating whatever shit they need in order to fit their narrative. These people made up a whole mosque and said it was denying shelter to Hurricane Harvey refugees, for fuck's sake, I really don't think any amount of decorum on the political spectrum is going to prevent them from continuing to do evil stuff like that.
So while I can't say to what extent cultural appropriation conversation is helping the white supremacist movement, or if that's something we can even measure, I can say I'm more concerned about the white supremacists and their increasing influence in politics, media and other parts of our daily lives, which is something I'm seeing happen all around.
And I'm speaking from experience, as someone who's been dealing with racism my whole life, and as someone who has also been on the receiving end of leftist ire, at least for me, the emboldened white supremacy is way more alarming.
In her article, Weiss mentions the now-unavailable list of white-owned appropriative restaurants in Portland that was widely circulated on social media after the Kooks story blew up.
After my take on the situation was published, I too was singled out and added to the restaurant list, where a section in the FAQs called me out by name, claiming one of my arguments was "a thinly veiled defense of white supremacy" and employing a questionable editorial choice in the spelling of my last name. There were passive aggressive jabs at me on social media posts. My cultural heritage was written off and I was determined to be too light-skinned to legitimately participate in the conversation. I even had some people get mad because they felt the color of emojis I used didn't accurately represent the color of my skin, something I can't even write without laughing because of how asinine it sounds.
In spite of all of it, never once did I think, "This is fascism" because white supremacists, fascists and anyone else who embraces white supremacy and anti-semitism as an ideology want people like me dead or gone. The people angry with me for not falling in line with their opinion on burritos were probably just looking for social capital and ally points.
Those two sides are pretty far apart from each other in my mind, and it's careless to conflate the two, no matter how frustrating and self-righteous those on the left can sometimes be. Believe me, I would know.
Well, that's about all of the cultural appropriation conversation I can handle for now. Maybe next time I'll go longer than four months without talking about it, but then again, we can't be sure of anything anymore.