Appreciation or Appropriation?

This was the title of a panel presentation I attended recently at our local Community College.

The panelists represented a view associated with the political left in the U.S. The presentation was built around the idea that society is neatly divided into oppressed groups and powerful groups. The former include Blacks, Latinos, gays, immigrants and the poor, and the latter, whites, men, heterosexuals, and the economically successful. The cultural enforcers consider Jews, despite their small numbers, to be oppressors.

According to the leader of the panel, cultural appropriation has two key elements. Cultural appropriators use or borrow cultural elements. In addition, there must be a power differential for any act of borrowing to be deemed cultural appropriation. In the words of the panelists, cultural appropriation is “the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.”

In this narrative, only members of the dominant culture can be guilty. Presumably, when members of a minority culture borrow cultural elements from groups they do not represent, this is no offense. This, in itself, is ethically equivocal.

Examples

The panelists cycled through a number of situations that illustrate unfair cultural appropriation.

-A white artist, Dana Schutz, painted a sympathetic portrait of the funeral of Emmett Till, a young black man who was killed by white racists in the 1960s in the Deep South.

The offense: A white artist has no right to advance her career based on the suffering of a minority group. She has no right to benefit economically from suffering she can never understand.

-Two Anglo women opened a Mexican food wagon in Portland, Oregon. They had traveled to Mexico where they interviewed indigenous women and collected their recipes. They used those recipes in their food wagon.

The offense: They profited by stealing from a culture not their own. According to one panelist, this act was egregious.

The panelists wanted to know, “How did these women get the capital for their business? Do these women support the Mexican community? Do they support immigrants? Why haven’t they asked themselves, ‘How can I support businesses owned by people of color and immigrants?’ ” A panelist made a disparaging comment about capitalism.

The meaning was clear: Financial profit is suspect. One panelist voiced a wry comment about Anglos who enjoy Mexican food: “They love the culture, but hate the people.”

-Museums. This is a problem area in general. Museums have a long history of taking stuff from foreigners. A panelist asked, “Did the museum folks go to places where these artifacts are from and ask if they could take them?”

-Halloween. This is a source of much offense. According to the panelists, in our racist society, white people are permitted to dress in any way they want without fear of criticism. But minorities cannot. White people should not don costumes that depict non-white groups. “Wear an inoffensive costume,” advised one panelist. “For example, dress as a butterfly or a peanut and butter sandwich. Be creative.”

-Hawaii Day at school. When one panelist learned her child was asked to wear Hawaiian garb for the occasion, she was compelled to visit the principal to object. After all, “Whites stole the land of the Hawaiian people.”

-Hair styles. This discussion was heated and lengthy. White people should not wear hair styles associated with minorities. Again, in our racist society, white people can try on various hairstyles and not face consequences. Not so for minorities. (I wasn’t clear as to what the consequences were.) No, Black women treating their hair to resemble hair of white people is not the same as a white person styling her hair in an Afro. It is not the same, because Black women are shamed for their hair, while white women are not. One of the panelists was greatly offended when a white colleague wore an Afro wig to a costume party.

What is Going on Here?

There is no getting around the observation that resentment is at work here. It was obvious in the tone of voice and facial expressions of the panelists and in their over-simplified division of people into victims and persecutors.

As one panelist said, presumably speaking to the objects of her anger, “You take from us but you never pay for what you take.” She even suggested she wouldn’t mind appropriation of her culture if she received reparations for what was stolen from her people.

One concept repeated several times by the panelists is “calling out.” This is a form of the game “Gotcha” in which culprits are named and shamed. Fair enough.

But who gets to determine the rules?

And isn’t it troubling that the rules are different for the “powerless” versus the “powerful,” for people from the “majority” culture versus those from the “minority” culture? The cultural enforcers say they modify the rules based on the intent of the violator: Is the intent to truly understand a minority culture or to exploit it?

The Cultural Appropriation enforcers follow a narrative that is inherently racist. That is because the single most important factor in judging offense is “What group does this person belong to?” The particulars of the individual’s history, knowledge, attitudes and behavior are irrelevant. It assumes that all Blacks—-or White people, or fill-in-the-group—-are the same.

Who Has the Power?

In comments after the presentation, audience members voiced confusion. One person felt discomfited by what the panelists had said. A panel member explained: “That is because you are not used to having your white privilege challenged. That’s why you are uncomfortable.”

I have a different view. I think audience members felt discomfort because they perceived the disparity between the panelists’ stated goal and their real goal. The cultural enforcers stated goal is social justice, that is, correcting past oppression and creating a society that is fair to minorities. But I believe their real goal is to wrest power from the hands of white people and deliver it to minorities. That, in itself, is not entirely unfair. Minorities have certainly suffered at the hands of white society.

But I don’t think the panelists were honest about their purpose. Their purpose is not only to shift power from whites to minorities. It is also to gain emotional satisfaction from the pay back against their “oppressors.” That explains the resentment that was never explicitly acknowledged, but was betrayed by the facial contortions and barely concealed rage of some of the panelists.

This is about emotion as much as it is about rational analysis. These emotions of resentment may be legitimate. But the panelists would be more credible if they were to recognize that. They can’t, because in their narrative, only the motives of oppressors are reprehensible. Those of victims are laudable.

Much of the confusion expressed in the questions of audience members was due to lack of clarity about rules that govern what does and does not constitute cultural misappropriation.

For example, the panelists cautioned against the moral perils of adopting cultural elements from groups not one’s own; at the same time, one of the panelists, a dancer, talked about the benefits of teaching dances not only from her own group (Arabs) but also other groups. Huh?

Rules

According to the panelists, the appropriateness of cultural borrowing always depends on “context.” It also depends on a dizzying array of additional qualifications: whether the borrower’s motives are “appropriate”, whether the cultural borrower had steeped himself in the borrowed culture, whether he had asked permission from members of the culture, whether he had worked on behalf of members of the culture, whether he extracted financial gain, personal prestige or career advantage. One panelist, describing the women who had used indigenous recipes in their food cart business, asked with suspicion, “Where did they get the money?” Several panelists tossed in “capitalism” as an offense.

Of course, the earnest virtue signalers in the audience were bewildered by this morass of rules. The rules are logically incoherent.  But most of all, they are vague. This vagueness serves a purpose not acknowledged by the panelists: The only way to avoid offense is to rely on the cultural enforcers—like the members of the panel—to judge who is just and who is sinful. This places the enforcers in a position of power, which is their ultimate goal.

A New Crusade?

There is an unmistakable religious quality to the panelists’ crusade to “call out” cultural appropriation and to monitor and quash it. I was tipped off to this by the panelists’ fervor. That fervor is fueled by the notion of original sin that underlies their narrative.

In this narrative, white people are inherently tainted with racism and oppression. Rather than being mutable characteristics, they are permanent. The original sin of racism cannot be expiated. So, for example, white guilt accrues even to the great-grandchildren of white people alive during the slavery era.

In line with this, there is also perpetual debt. The crimes of previous generations of whites were so great that government is obliged to transfer wealth from whites to Blacks, in the form of reparations to Blacks. This means that compensation for past wrongs will be paid not only to the actual victims, but also to their distant descendants. It is unclear if even this will erase the debt, for oppression continues into today and the future due to institutional racism.

If there were a patron saint for this religion it would be the patron saint of perpetual guilt.

Identity is Everything

The cultural appropriation panelists fall squarely in the identity politics camp. In this camp, individuals are judged and rewarded by their group membership, rather than their individual characteristics such as smarts, skill, hard work and achievement. This is the basis for reparations and also for affirmative action.

The cultural enforcers are unable to distinguish between the individual and the group. Every member of a race is like every other member. This used to be a hallmark of racism (“They all look alike to me.”) but it has become a truism among the cultural enforcers. So all whites are suspect when they borrow from minority cultures, all are imbued with original sin for racism, and all owe a debt to persecuted minorities. This debt accrues from their membership in the group of people called whites, regardless of individual histories. That is why people who deny the justice of reparations by saying, “My ancestors weren’t even here when your people were enslaved” are generally “called out” by the cultural enforcers for being racist.

Conclusion

The political left has fashioned a new tool to demonize what they see as a morally deficient majority culture. That tool is the Cultural Appropriation narrative.

The ultimate goal of the narrative is to empower minorities—at least those favored by the left—-at the expense of the traditional majority. Cultural Appropriation enforcers are not upfront about this goal. That renders their narrative morally and intellectually deficient.

The enforcers use a confusing maze of implied motives, complex rules, and social context to enforce their power. Their barely-hidden resentments, often mean-spirited campaigns, over-reliance on identity politics, and their religious-like zeal—-all belie their false claim to be social justice advocates.

Their core activity—-“calling out” those who offend them—- is a strategy that the sane majority should aim squarely at the enforcers themselves.