When cultures meet peacefully, each one acquires something from the other. Both of them grow, combining new and old elements. They become more energetic and varied.
Breaking down barriers
Consider American music. It’s been enriched by the techniques and styles of spirituals, ragtime, and jazz from black musicians. Without it, rock music wouldn’t exist, and other styles wouldn’t be as rich. We might still be stuck with nothing more than gavottes and minuets from Europe.
There have always been people who don’t like this kind of mixing. They want to protect the purity of their culture from foreign influences. The recording industry once treated “race records” as a separate marketing category. Sometimes the white mainstream allowed African-American influences but toned them down, as in swing music.
Rock & roll grew out of the “race” genre called rhythm and blues. It incorporated folk and other elements. In the fifties, it brought young white and black people together in audiences, at a time when open racial segregation was still common. In the South, police sometimes interrupted performances to order whites and blacks to separate.
The people who demanded cultural segregation lost, step by step. Music gave people a common ground they didn’t have before. It tore down walls.
But that’s “cultural appropriation”!
We still see attempts to rebuild those walls. Some of them are from the same old cultural-purity reactionaries, trying to put un-American cultural elements in their place. But there’s another, much stranger group demanding the same thing. They denounce what they see as “cultural appropriation.”
The New York Times quotes this definition of cultural appropriation by Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University:
“Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the ‘unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
This is bizarre. Who are the people who give or deny permission on behalf of a culture? Who authorized them to be gatekeepers? It sounds like copyright trolling on steroids. Looking at a few examples may make it more comprehensible, if anything can help.
My non sequitur is not your lo mein
The New York Times article is titled, “Is a Chinese-Style Prom Dress Cultural Appropriation?” It discusses what happened to a high school student who wore a Chinese-style dress to a prom. Someone named Jeremy Lam tweeted, “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.”
Taken at face value, that’s obvious but incoherent. A culture is not a dress. A cat is not a weather condition. Someone made a dumb tweet; that should be the end of it. But, according to the Times, this random firing of synapses was retweeted 42,000 times.
Why this particular person or dress? I’m sure it wasn’t the only time in 2018 someone wore clothing from a different culture. But to some people, it’s cross-dressing and it’s a horrible outrage.
Another example also concerns clothing related to eastern Asia. In 2015, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibit relating to Monet’s “La Japonaise.” Visitors were allowed to try on a kimono that was a replica of the one in the painting, and they could be photographed in it. Some protesters denounced it as “cultural appropriation,” and others called it “racist.” The MFA eventually changed the exhibit so people couldn’t try the garment on, and it issued a statement to “apologize for offending any visitors.”
Again, the idea was that people are not allowed to wear clothing from a different culture without the permission of its authorities. No one is explaining where you apply for permission.
The selectiveness is weird. Searching for “kimono” on DuckDuckGo, I see on the first page that Amazon and Macy’s offer them for sale. Is anyone conducting protest campaigns against them?
What’s going on seems to fall under the psychology of mass bullying. People see someone being piled on, and they decide it would be fun to join in the pile. I’ll leave further analysis to those who understand mob psychology better.
Appreciating and partaking of other cultures is a good thing. Putting garments into a ghetto as “race clothes” would set us back a century.
At the same time, we have to recognize that cultural appropriation can be done well or badly. Good appropriation looks for the best and acknowledges the source. Bad appropriation mocks and distorts. The worst cultural appropriation in American history may have been the minstrel shows that were popular in the nineteenth century and died out in the twentieth. They caricatured slaves and mocked the pain they felt. “Dixie” was a minstrel-show song, written by a Northerner. “Jim Crow” is a phrase from a minstrel song. These shows helped to bring black people’s music to white audiences, but what a horrible way to do it!
But on the whole, using elements from other cultures helps to build bridges between them. In any case, it can’t be stopped. You don’t need anyone’s permission (let’s forget copyright for the moment) to sing a Latin American song, prepare an African meal, wear a Chinese dress, or enrich your vocabulary with a “bon mot.” Just try to know what you’re doing.