The Accusation of ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Is Dangerous Because It Promotes Racist Thinking through the Back Door

Culture thrives on exchange, trade and openness. However, of all people, progressives are increasingly branding any mixing in art, literature, social sciences, film and even the kitchen as theft and exploitation. Anti-racism is tipping over into pigeonholing and ghettoization.

Having started in the U.S., an increasingly contentious debate exists over cultural appropriation. An example is the wearing of Native American costumes at Carnival time. It is said that such costumes convey a stereotypical image of Native Americans by ripping elements such as feathers or war paint from their cultural context and assembling them into a cliched image of “the American Indian.” Culture thrives on exchange, trade and openness. However, progressives, of all people, are increasingly branding any mixing in art, literature, social sciences, film and even the kitchen as theft and exploitation. Anti-racism is tipping over into pigeonholing and ghettoization.

The Line between Racism and Normal Dissemination of Expression

One could argue that this is harmless children’s fun and, as such, it should be kept in perspective. However, a look at examples from other cultures quickly shows how easy it is to fall into a double standard. In the case of Swiss traditional costumes, for example, club members make sure they are worn only on certain occasions and are not copied and commercialized for other purposes.

The same applies to military uniforms, insignia or medals. People tend not to treat these lightly. This applies even more to religious symbols, such as the cross or the yarmulke, which are associated with minorities. Those who transgress propriety in these areas may be accused of blasphemy or racism. Why then should we be less considerate of other cultures simply because they are further away?

The question is where we should draw the line between disrespect and a normal dissemination of culturally related expression. One debate at the moment concerns dreadlocks. Are whites who wear such braids committing cultural appropriation? On July 18, the Swiss band Lauwarm had to halt a concert in Bern. Apparently a few listeners felt uncomfortable due to the dreadlocks and the African clothing the white musicians were wearing. The organizers apologized for a lack of awareness and said the audience should have been protected from such cultural appropriation.

They therefore took the position that Rasta hairstyles and reggae music should be reserved for dark-skinned Jamaicans because of the exclusion and racism they experienced during colonization, issues which reggae addresses. Following this argument, it is thus inappropriate for “privileged whites” to play this music or to wear dreadlocks.

The Biologizing of Differences

You can look at it this way: The central issue in the appropriation debate is, after all, the power imbalance. It is said that the dominant culture adopts everything from minorities, except for discrimination. However, dreadlocks have been distinct from the Rastafarian movement for a long time. They were common in various cultures long before. No one can copyright them. Bob Marley, who popularized reggae and dreadlocks worldwide, had a dark-skinned mother and a white father. In general, a great deal of music has sprung from interactions between Blacks and whites: Blues, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, jazz and hip-hop come to mind.

There is a tendency, however, not only among racists but also among anti-racists, to see the world in black and white. This is all the more paradoxical given that the latter see themselves as modern and progressive, while ignoring the increasing mixing and blending of skin colors; for progressives there are only privileged whites and oppressed Blacks.

In the U.S., this tendency is particularly striking, as anyone with even a drop of Black blood is identified as African American. In contrast, in regard to gender, people pay obsessive attention to respecting rainbow diversity and not reducing anyone to being a man or a woman. Yet, when it comes to skin color, binary logic is absolute: The racist categories that people would like to bring to an end are reentering through the anti-racist back door, as culture becomes congruent with skin color.

Even To Address the Issue of Blackface is Dangerous

This brings us to the much frowned-upon blackface. In the past, in addition to donning Native American costumes, it was also common practice to paint one’s face black at Carnival time. The particular sensitivity of African Americans to this practice has to do with minstrel shows in the United States during the 19th century, when Black people were ridiculed as dimwitted but happy slaves who, despite everything, loved their owners. It is understandable if African Americans fail to see the humor.

However, an incident that occurred last fall at the University of Michigan gives one pause. Bright Sheng, a renowned composer who was teaching there, used Shakespeare’s “Othello” in his seminar to discuss how material can be transferred to different types of media; for example, from a play to opera and film. In this setting and after warning his students, he also showed clips from the famous 1965 film in which Othello is played by Laurence Olivier in blackface.

Some students were shocked by the blackface. They sent an open letter to the university administration, and the subsequent spread of this document on social networks did the rest. In the end, the allegedly racist Sheng dropped out of his seminar early, and his future at the university is now unclear. Blackface has become so taboo in the United States that it is no longer allowed to be shown, even in a historical context.

Not Allowed To Write about Latinas

Such guardians of order become particularly dangerous when they wield the purist mace, when not even literature is safe. For example, there was controversy in the U.S. over whether author Jeanine Cummings was justified in publishing her bestseller “American Dirt” in 2020. The book is about a Mexican woman who flees to the U.S. after a drug cartel kills her family. The accusation was that as a white woman, she could not presume to write about a Latina. She received death threats and had to cancel her reading tour.

Incidentally, there are definitely biographical reasons for her choice of material, even if this fact is not decisive: She is of Irish and Puerto Rican descent, her cousin was murdered and her husband lived illegally in the U.S. for years. However, the only identity applied to her is the label “white.”

Things get even more absurd when the question of who is entitled to write about something reaches the social sciences. Jennifer M. Buck recently published an academic paper titled “Bad and Boujee” on trap feminism, an African American variety of feminism related to hip-hop subculture. A controversy emerged because as a white woman, she had presumed to write about a Black issue. After massive pressure, her publisher withdrew the book.

Gallows as an Artistic Installation

There are similar tendencies in art. “Scaffold,” an installation of seven gallows by American artist Sam Durant, was shown in Minneapolis in 2017 on land traditionally owned by the Dakota people (who suffered the largest mass execution in American history in 1862 in which 38 died). After a storm of protest, the work was destroyed in a ritual burning.

One critic remarked that it would not occur to anyone to artistically recreate concentration camp gas chambers. That is true. But why in such cases must works always be immediately destroyed, books withdrawn, professors dismissed and performances canceled? Isn’t it enough to criticize the content? This type of behavior adds an archaic element to the argument, reminiscent of exorcism, witch hunts and scapegoating. Moreover, it is mostly progressives – artists, social scientists, writers, singers and professors – who are affected. Durant has spent a lifetime studying American history and violence. The real racists are something else entirely. This makes the attacks disproportionate, or even absurd.

The End of Acting

Even acting has been overtaken by political correctness. Tom Hanks recently declared that he would no longer play the gay lawyer from “Philadelphia” and that today, no heterosexual should play a homosexual. Helen Mirren, a non-Jew, has been reproached for portraying Israeli Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974 in a new film.

Acting, as we all know, consists of portraying another person. If, in the final analysis, everyone is allowed only to play themselves, it would no longer be film or theater, but self-promotion. Conversely, one also wonders whether a homosexual would then no longer be allowed to play a heterosexual, which would hardly be in the interest of gay actors. The same is true for literature. If one is no longer allowed to write about people from other walks of life, there will be only autobiographies.

The absolute prohibition of cultural appropriation would be the death of culture, which has to do with going beyond the individual self. This is true even within the kitchen. Recently, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was criticized because his jerk rice deviated from the original Jamaican recipe. After all, cooking is the prime example of a melting pot! Perhaps Rösti will soon be canceled for cultural appropriation as well. After all, the potato comes from South America.

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