How I Discovered What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation

cultural-appropriation

I was on Facebook when my friend, Razib, posted a video of a black woman at SF State calling out a white guy with dreadlocks and accusing him of cultural appropriation. Maybe this video is fake, maybe it’s real, it’s hard to say. It seems sort of staged. Of course Razib and his fellow academics got all worked up about it. They are all sort of shell shocked by these social justice warriors turning academia into a politically correct police state. Nevermind that conservatives are the ones to blame for letting the far left gain the upper hand there.

Don’t get me wrong, I came into this thread ready to stick up for cultural appropriation. After all, what would America be if we didn’t appropriate the cultures of other nations? … But then I noticed another friend of mine trying to explain why cultural appropriation was actually bad. … But people were deriding him and it made me sort of annoyed. So I made an attempt to come up with a model that explains why cultural appropriation is harmful.

Don’t get me wrong, I came into this thread ready to stick up for cultural appropriation. After all, what would America be if we didn’t appropriate the cultures of other nations? I’m a mutt myself, I don’t even have my own culture. What the hell music would I be allowed to listen to? Polka and beer hall, oom-pah-pah music? (Shudder.) So I was rolling up my sleeves, ready to join in the self congratulatory derision of the latest social justice fad, but then I noticed another friend of mine in the thread trying to explain why cultural appropriation was actually bad. He’s no social justice warrior (SJW) himself, and he was not making a great case, but people were deriding him and making ad hominem attacks against him, and it made me sort of annoyed.

I go by virtue ethics, and I don’t stand by and let a pal get beaten up. So I had to stop myself and think about cultural appropriation in a new light. Why is it that SJWs brandish this idea of cultural appropriation? So I made an attempt to steelman the position that I had previously derided, and to come up with a model that explains why cultural appropriation is harmful. In doing so, I convinced myself that SJWs are partially correct, and that cultural appropriation is sometimes a bad thing.

So let’s start with some sort of definition of what cultural appropriation is.

Here’s a respectable snippet from Wikipedia:

“Cultural elements, which may have deep meaning to the original culture, can be reduced to ‘exotic’ fashion by those from the dominant culture. When this is done, the imitator, who does not experience that oppression, is able to ‘play,’ temporarily, an ‘exotic’ other, without experiencing any of the daily discriminations faced by other cultures.”

One small solace of black people in America might be that they get to be “cool” in some way and can be afforded status in their unique subculture. … And now this hipster dreadlocked boy gets to parade around in the modern equivalent of blackface, usurping the cool factor of being an outsider. But at any moment, he might cut his hair, put on a suit, and blend seamlessly into the dominant culture, while this black woman is left with her crappy internship, forever barred from many powerful inner circles due to her race and gender. What a bitter pill that must be to swallow.

Seems legit. One small solace of black people in America might be that they get to be “cool” in some way and can be afforded status in their unique subculture. How annoyed black rockers must have been when Elvis skyrocketed in popularity above them. How humiliating was blackface vaudeville to the contemporary black artists it was imitating? And now this hipster dreadlocked boy gets to parade around in the modern equivalent of blackface, usurping the cool factor of being an outsider. But at any moment, he might cut his hair, put on a suit, and blend seamlessly into the dominant culture, while this black woman is left with her crappy internship, forever barred from many powerful inner circles due to her race and gender. What a bitter pill that must be to swallow.

There was a time when (white though I am), I was treated as relatively low status for being a nerd with emotional problems. So I went and became a punk rocker and a goth, and I got some local subculture status and that felt good. I was pretty disgusted by all of the jock-core bands that came out and kind of ruined hardcore. I was annoyed by the suave popular kids who posed as new wavers. So I can understand where these SJWs are coming from.

It actually might help to think of this in terms of status hierarchies. This is a trick I learned from the rationalist community. Some rationalists have trouble understanding social interactions and have decided to model them all as status competitions. This is disturbingly accurate when you think about it. So let’s model cultural appropriation in terms of a status competition, shall we?

Conservatives don’t like to allow that minorities are “oppressed,” but we can probably all still agree that black Americans are generally treated as lower status than whites. So, of course, blacks built their own independent status hierarchies, and, back in the day, the minstrels achieved a certain status, putting on folksy comedic shows. Then whites came along, slapped on blackface, and stole the show, partially by virtue of their high status whiteness, without necessarily capturing the authentic down home humor. Boom. Status hierarchy hijacked.

So then jazz hierarchies emerged, oops, here came whites again to hijack the top of the hierarchy (Miles Davis got beaten out by some white guy named Chet Baker for trumpeter of the year?), then Elvis stole rock and roll, etc. Even dreadlocks probably afford blacks certain local status, and this is diminished by whites interjecting themselves into these hierarchies.

So yeah, that sucks. Now the conservatives and neo-reactionaries will howl about how bad social justice is and how it represses free speech and the true diversity of ideas and how it’s out of touch with reality and The Gods of the Copybook Headings and whatnot. And some may even cry that black Americans aren’t treated as low status and are ascendant right now. Mike J. pointed out to me that status is actually revealed in each discrete social interaction. And maybe when some blacks get into college via affirmative action, they push out some whites. This all seems preposterous and annoying to me. I hate it when strong people think of themselves as weak. Not to mention the fact that adopting victim narratives robs people of agency, so no one should really do it if they can avoid it.

Look at Kamau Bell’s incident at the Elmwood Cafe. Here we have a high status black man, a successful comedian who had a national show on FX and attended an ivy league school. But he dressed down one day and he was mistaken for a homeless person by a barista who tried to shoo him away from talking to HIS OWN WIFE on the patio of the Elmwood Cafe (in liberal Berkeley, no less). But instead of just making a joke about it, he angrily posted about it on social media, and the girl ended up getting fired.

When I first heard of this, I toyed with the idea that Bell was falling prey to his own victim narrative. He should have just laughed off this low wage counter prole and told her to relax herself and bring him a coffee while she was at it, no tip to be expected.

But the fact is that, in this world, even a rich, educated, fairly famous black comedian gets treated like a homeless person by a minimum wage earning white cafe lackey. The conservatives can deny it all they want, but blacks are treated as low status. So I am going to hold my tongue and not just tell this guy to buck up and adopt a narrative in which he has power and can afford to act generously towards those below him.

Out here in the real world, social justice doesn’t really have any power, and minorities and queers are getting crapped on. And it’s not cool for the relatively powerful to swoop in and steal the crumbs of subcultural status that outsiders have tried to amass for themselves. I understand why they get pissed off about it. … I know we need conservative impulses to keep society from flying off the rails, but we also need social justice and the progressives in order to progress as a civilization. Otherwise, we might still be burning cats or chaining children to factory floors.

I don’t approve of SJW tribunals sentencing dreadlocked whites to social ostracization. But I also don’t think that’s going to be a problem outside of academia. Out here in the real world, social justice doesn’t really have any power, and minorities and queers are getting crapped on. And it’s not cool for the relatively powerful to swoop in and steal the crumbs of subcultural status that outsiders have tried to amass for themselves. I understand why they get pissed off about it. It’s just not classy. I know we need conservative impulses to keep society from flying off the rails, but we also need social justice and the progressives in order to progress as a civilization. Otherwise, we might still be burning cats or chaining children to factory floors.

Social justice remains the pointy end of the spear driving western cultural progress. We shall not remain worms, but will evolve to something greater.

EDITS: 4/4/2016

First point: It was brought up to me privately, that cultural appropriation can muddle the waters and make authentic cultural exchange more difficult.  I need to think about this more, but the native american headdress makes a good example.  When this headdress is used as a costume, it is stripped of it’s deeper religious and social meaning.  We’ve missed the point of what each feather and token might actually represent.  It’s become just a pretty hat.  Or what if we had adopted arabic numerals strictly as decoration without regard to their use in mathematics?  Would the thinkers of Europe have scoffed at the idea that these scribbles worn as ornaments by the fashionable could have a deeper meaning?  I’m not entirely sure and of course this dreadlocks example doesn’t fall into this category, but it’s something worth considering.

Second point: I actually spent a huge segment of my day arguing about this on Facebook and I got sort of exhausted by it and by the absolutely uniform rejection of my defence of this SJW. And I wonder to myself, to what end have I done this to myself? What difference does it make in my life or what contribution am I offering to the greater good?

Personally, I felt very similar to most of the people on this thread just last week. But after taking the time to try to steelman this SJW idea of cultural appropriation, I actually found a way to understand it. For me, this was an excellent exercise in updating beliefs.

What disappoints me is that so many of my intelligent and sensitive friends don’t seem to be trying to steelman this position AT ALL. I see little effort to understand the motives of the SJWs who prattle on about cultural appropriation. I don’t see anyone trying to give this black woman the benefit of the doubt. My god, if anyone doubts that blacks have a hard time in America, they would need to look no further than that very thread or even the other comment threads discussing this topic. Who has made the slightest effort to understand this woman’s pain? Who has looked past her boorish but basically harmless behavior to the underlying causes?

I really wish more people would make an attempt to steelman the positions of their opponents in more cases. It’s hard to do but it would yield much better arguments.

24 thoughts on “How I Discovered What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation

  1. “Somebody called Chet Baker”. Seriously?

    Chet Baker was every bit equal to Miles Davis in trumpet playing, possibly only less than Charlie Parker. It was Parker himself that said “there is a little white cat who’s gonna eat you up” to Davis and Gillespie. If he had not become the junkie who got all his teeth broken up, he would have had the same recognition as Davis or Parker.

    You quickly lose credibility when you make up statements like this.

    • Sure, I lose credibility as a Jazz expert. I don’t know much about Chet Baker. But it sort of doesn’t matter how good Chet Baker was. My point is that blacks built a jazz subculture so that they can achieve local status not afforded to them by the mainstream culture. Then this white guy comes in and hijacks the top of the status hierarchy. If they got miffed about this, I wouldn’t blame them. The mainstream culture wasn’t very welcoming of them. The places they could go and be top of the heap were really restricted.

      • Chet Baker was good enough for Charlie Parker to bring Chet into his band. Chet was IN the jazz subculture, not appropriating it. Cultural segregation is not good for the culture as a whole.

        • Sure, Charlie was secure enough to let a white guy into his band based on merit. But my theory is really that the reason subcultures exist in the first place is to give marginalized groups a chance to gain status. Baker was walking around with white status all day long. He didn’t NEED the status of being a top jazz man the way a lot of black people did.

          • Basing a dedication to an art form on status is not a recipe for success. I’ll grant that part of the motivation for Modern jazz (from my reading) was racial pride, but a good part of it was generational change also (in both cases a revolution from the then dominant swing styles). Who declared Chet Baker trumpeter of what year anyway? How seriously was that taken at the time anyway? Who takes the Grammy awards seriously?

          • The art form is one thing, the need for status is another. We all need to achieve a certain social status, it’s probably an innate urge. So based on my theory, the reason people get mad about cultural appropriation is that their needs for status aren’t getting met and are in fact getting interfered with by higher status whites.

      • Cher Baker “hijacked the top if the jazz hierarchy”, as you say, because HE was the better jazz trumpeter. I prefer to think of this as color blindness, which is the ideal we should strive for. Women still struggle to compete w/white men, but i do not react w/immediate indignation when a man wears skinny jeans, makeup, or paints his nails. And I would never verbally attack him. EVERYONE needs to be kinder to others. And … if the black girl was secure in her status as a black woman, she would see that the white guy’s dreadlocks only diminish her if she allows it.

        • My point is precisely that the black woman WAS NOT secure in her status and that blacks are generally treated as low status which is why they try to cling to ownership of some subculture. It’s easier to choose an empowering narrative about the world when your needs are already getting met. So I don’t blame her for failing.

          • How can you not blame her for failing though? Does she lack agency as a human being? Is she not responsible for how she feels and how she acts on those feelings of inadequacy?

            This person acted violently towards another human being because of a hair-style. Now imagine if a white girl verbally abused a black girl for having straight hair, for basically white-washing their style? I reiterate, her opprobrium was caused by a hairstyle. Her attempt to shame another human being because of this is deplorable. She is completely responsible for her actions. For all she knew the guy could have been a rastafarian, for whom dreadlocks hold deep religious significance. But her blinders failed to acknowledge that possibility. I’d say her failure is one of conscientiousness, or lack there-of

          • As far as I’m concerned, there are plenty of people lining up to chastise this woman. No one needs me to do that. White women have plenty of ways to get status, and are assigned higher status by default, so it’s not comparable. If this kid were in fact a rasta, he could have told her that and the conversation would have been different. Is she responsible for her own actions? Sure. Does she lack agency due to bad narratives? Maybe, but it’s narrow minded to think that the way our culture and media treat blacks had nothing to do with it. I’m just trying to understand WHY she might feel that way, and I came up with a model that makes sense to me. I don’t like poseurs on a scene, so I am sympathetic. The cops will be deciding if she committed a crime or not and basically everyone on the internet has already called her an asshole.

      • You don’t know much about Chet Baker and you don’t know much about jazz, so please don’t make a point using jazz as an example if you don’t know what you’re talking about. Two of the greatest jazz composers who ever lived were Cole Porter and George Gershwin, both white dudes. Many black jazz singers and musicians in the history of jazz profited from songs these two white dudes wrote. Jazz queen Ella Fitzgerald released a Cole Porter songbook and an Ira and George Gershwin songbook. Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and…oh yeah, MILES DAVIS performed George Gershwin’s and Cole Porter’s songs. So what the hell are you even talking about? It’s not like Chet Baker just showed up one day and hijacked black culture! By the way, Chet Baker’s most famous songs were composed by whites. My Funny Valentine, Let’s Get Lost, But Not For me, Almost Blue…I could go on. And trust me, enough black jazz artist made enough money by covering music written by whites that I really don’t believe they were “miffed.” Black and whites cooperated A LOT in the music scene back then, regardless of genera. Blacks would perform music written by whites, whites would perform music written by blacks. Just think of the song “Mr. Bojangles.” It was made famous by Sammy Davis Jr. who is black, it was written by Jerry Jeff Walker who is white. It’s about Bill Robinson who was a black tap dancer. In life Bill Robinson was incredibly close to white composers Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, so much that they carried his coffin at his funeral (together with black composer Duke Ellington.) Please don’t make up divisions where there are none. The history of culture is made of exchange, adaptation, and cooperation.

        • Um, wow, you really like jazz. And you really like WHITE jazz. Good for you. That’s awesome. I’m not making up divisions, I just heard the guys making the Chet Baker movie on the radio talking about how pissed off Miles Davis was that Baker beat him out. And how he was resentful because Baker was white. I guess many black artists were resentful. Of course black artists worked with white artists. White status was probably pretty hard to compete against, especially in those early segregated days. Blacks wanted to make money too. But did you even read my post besides the TWO LINES about jazz? I’m talking about status and why people need it. If ALL the best damn jazz players in the world were white, that would actually make my point even better. The whites would be stealing all the spotlight. Then black artists would need to go and do NEW forms that were exclusively their own, so that they could recapture some of that status. Rinse and repeat.

          Some minorities are pissed off because of the way this plays out. Should we ask native americans to come up with a whole new funky version of the chieftain headdress now that we have turned it into a burning man fashion accessory? Seriously, there is more to this question than jazz.

  2. Why do we think that THAT particular black woman was a spokesperson for anybody else but herself? Am I represented by any woman? Any straight? Any right-handed? etc etc

    • Well, she didn’t create the idea of cultural appropriation, nor did she handle herself very well. But it still make sense to see where these impulses might come from.

  3. Interesting and positive cultural changes come from cultural mixing, and American music of the 2nd half of the 20th century is the perfect example: the RnR — RnB continuum was(is?) BY FAR the most influential in the world at the time. So while I understand how the woman in the video might claim “cultural appropriation”, I don’t think that’s a productive stance, better to classify it as (to use the vernacular) “cool” or “lame”, as appropriate.

    • Whites will take whatever they want from minority cultures and will surely benefit from it to varying degrees. We can be cool about it or uncool. It’s up to us.

  4. As a (black) friend said to me recently, “if you want to talk about cultural appropriation in respect of dreadlocks, please build a time machine and go back to apologise to the Egyptians and the Vikings…”

    • That’s fine. Historical precedent has nothing to do with my point. My point is that here and now, some blacks want to protect a subcultural status hierarchy that includes dreadlocks. It could just as well include any arbitrary cultural artifact loosely associated with Africans. The purpose seems to be to capture some status for themselves which is denied them by the mainstream cultures. This is a different question from the native american headdress being used as a costume. It seems to be about getting status in a place protected from white intrusion.

  5. Cultural exchange is what makes the world go round. If that woman were an educated American, she would know that dreadlocks isn’t an African thing. Besides, has she been to Africa, ever plan on going, or just want to thinks she’s all that! Fashion is not appropriating anything. If so, every black woman should not be able to get their nails done, or hair straightened. Who’s zooming who!

    • Cultural exchange is awesome. Whites going around crushing other people and casually swiping whatever we like is inevitable. We should just do it with a little bit of style. Of course dreads are part of african american culture. That kid isn’t wearing dreads because he studied ancient egypt. Even his dialect when talking to her shows he is biting on black american culture. And I can’t blame the woman for wanting to claim ownership of african culture. Black americans had all the culture scrubbed from them during slavery. Everybody is scrambling for status, and fashion is part of that. Blacks in american get fewer opportunities for status, so I feel for them.

  6. I find Scott’s theory and stance compelling and worth seriously considering. Too many commenters simply seem to be trying to make moral judgements about the woman and her behavior. What Scott is pointing out is where her head might be coming form, why she might be angry — and should not I think simply be seen as trying to justify her behavior. I’m an anthropologist and one of the things anthropologists do is figure out what makes people think, by trying to put themselves in the other’s shoes. That’s what Scott is doing – that’s all, and I think it’s a worthy exercise for all of us to do, “IF WE ARE ALL GOING TO GET ALONG!” Note, in stating this I’m not taking any particular stand on the issue of “cultural appropriation” or on the behavior of the woman (I have not even seen the video). I think it is just too interesting that all the responders so far to Scott’s article seem to be blind to the point he is trying to make, and want to critique him, as opposed to build on it. He’s looking at one single component or dynamic of the situation and saying, “let’s recognize this”. But no one even wants to do that before they try to crush the point with a completely different point that actually does no bear on his point at all. It is true that dominated sub-cultures who have are not completely assimilated and do not advance based on their ethnicity or color, etc, do form sub-cultures and part of the sub-culture are cultural elements that may be used to signify status that gives people esteem and special recognition, etc. so when those status markers are used for other purposes, such as simply fashion or whatever by others, it mixes up messages a little – people need to sort out what the meaning of this guy wearing dread locks actually is, if he’s not black, he’s probably wearing them for the same reasons and motivations as the black person, yet every person has their own rights and their own motivations, and meanings are never absolutely uniformly shared in culture or subculture, — culture is culture by definition by the sharing of ideas, knowledge, values, etc. yet, it’s also negotiated, reproduced and transformed through social processes, such as the exchange between the african american woman and the white guy with the dreadlocks. So, I’m sure both sides got some lessons from it, or at least they should have. Amen?

    • My god, thank you. I have been getting beaten over the head for two days (mostly on facebook) and literally not one of my friends has actually acknowledged what I am trying to do as you have. I really appreciate your input. Thanks for posting.

  7. Well, I did get your point, and glad if my point came across, though in reviewing it now, I can see I fumbled in my sentence construction somewhat. I think the topic of cultural appropriation(s) is a very interesting one. Another related term to status is identity. When a marker of a shared cultural and historical identity becomes appropriated by others who for all intensive purposes do not seem could share in that cultural identity it might, or can, be experienced as a “taking away from”, which is what the word “appropriation” signifies, as opposed to more mutual kind of cultural exchange, sharing, blending, or incorporation. How people perceive and experience it really ends up being all about the symbolic value and use of the “cultural object” within a particular cultural or sub-cultural group (whether it be dreadlocks in one group, bagels to another, or a traditional cultural tattoo in another) and how they view it as a marker of their identity, history, or difference from others. I believe that at the same time people of different ethnic backgrounds do and can share, build and experience across and between groups without this experience of one’s marker of identity being “appropriated” by others, as other commentators on your blog did rightly point out. It’s just that those different views do not negate what you were pointing out … it just shows the variability in cultural processes when it comes to ethnically identified subject/objects (dreadlocks, jazz, bagels, etc).

    • The relative dominance of the cultures definitely matters. And I also think this status based model help predict where conflicts are likely. For example, no one derives status from eating bagels or burritos. So that’s not an issue. But if a white person opens a burrito shop that puts a Mexican owned place across the street out of business, well, we can see how resentments arise.

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