Lipika Pelham
Author of Jerusalem on the Amstel

Tales of identity from a mixed world

In the past few years, the media and public have paid a lot of attention to the topic of cultural appropriation, which means adopting a culture, usually of a minority community, by members of another mainstream or more technologically advanced society. Some choose to call it cultural export. The main argument against those accused of cultural appropriation is that they mimic other people’s customs without understanding their historical context. They hold for example Mexican parties, eat fajita, and wear sombreros; they think that’s being open-armed to the migrant culture. The objectors to such public demonstration of the symbols of someone else’s heritage say, it’s not possible to experience the blackness or Mexican-ness or Indian-ness, unless one is born into it. Which goes to show that those who try to “appropriate” the experience of another culture or tradition, do so because they can. Because they’re privileged.

The footnote to the historical context of the Tex-Mex fajita is that traditionally it was the off cuts, the throw away trimmings of the beef that were given to Mexican Cowboys in the ranches of Texas. It may be mentioned here that in a similar argument Jamie Oliver was recently accused of “appropriating” jerk rice. The context is complex here too, given Britain’s colonial past.

So, what needs to be done, to make it right to adopt, to internalise cultures that are not one’s own but one is fascinated by?

Lionel Shriver, the American author who caused controversy for saying no one owns their experience, told me in a recent interview that she would advocate for breaking the boundaries of personal experience. Because this is what a novelist, a historian, an explorer, a traveller, does instinctively. One must be open-armed to the history of migration and transfer of cultures, the marriage between the former ruler and the historically oppressed, the sharing of knowledge and fashion and other cultural symbols.

The advocates for cultural borrowing such as Shriver say that it is also about adapting to the more appealing social trends of the time. Bringing these into one’s birth culture is not appropriation, although it has questioned naïve cultural imitation, for example in a fancy dress party. Amid the current atmosphere of cultural sensitivity, fancy dress parties have become a taboo subject. If you’re from a privileged background, which basically means you’re of white European origin or you belong to a social class that enjoys similar advantages generally available to the white population, pretending to be someone whose forebears had once been dominated, persecuted or looked down on by your biological or cultural ancestors – is not acceptable.

So if you’re white American, will the sombrero wearing Mexican parties only show cultural callousness? Shriver says it is nonsense, because as a novelist, it is her job to create characters that can emulate convincingly whatever culture they’re designed to represent. How about the others who do not create fictitious characters, who just want to enter the fiction of a different identity – for an evening in a fancy dress show or even for life?

I asked Shriver if moonwalking in a Michael Jackson party might be allowed, and if blackening the face is taking it too far. She agreed with both. The latter got the Virginia governor Ralph Northam in serious trouble. That is because the blackface, or adopting the African American look and elements of the African heritage – the Afro, the cornrows, bring to mind a painful chapter in European history. People who export these playfully without understanding the context, are not respecting the history of slavery.

Many celebrities and non-celebrities alike in recent years have been subjected to frenzied media attention for the offence of “cultural appropriation”. They include a white Rachel Dolezal with her black curls and assumed identity as a black rights activist, Kim Kardashian and even Padma Lakshmi who’s of Indian origin – with cornrows, Northam with blackface scandal, Ali G with his pseudo black vernacular, Jamie Oliver with jerk rice recipe. These are not our typical faces of the representatives of an oppressor class, they have nothing to do with race politics. But the cultural hyper sensitivity around how one looks and how the privileged can determine at their leisure how they want to look, has become a much talked about subject in today’s identity politics.

I’ve always felt disorientated by these debates for and against cultural lending and borrowing when one fancied a little fancy dress party. There’s a much broader argument here, if Ali G is accused of appropriating a certain street black lingo, should I not then write in English? We’ve come a long way from Shakespeare’s Caliban’s “You taught me language, and my profit on’t, Is I know How to Curse.” For so many of us around the world this is the language in which not only do we curse but also write and dream, shop, run social media accounts and tell our children off. We’ve appropriated it so well that it is an established reality that English belongs to not one particular race or nation or group or creed. So Ali G and Sir Derek Walcott can both claim to own the variation of the language. And no one has put this cultural synthesis more poetically than the St Lucian poet Sir Derek Walcott in one of his early poems:

I who am poisoned with the blood of both
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?

When breaking the racial barrier was impossible in order to reach his beloved, the black lover could still write a love song in his acquired language:

In the room the clock thunders on the mantel

The brittle china shepherdess holds

Her crook like a question sign, asks

Why your complexion should have held you from me

You in the castle of your skin, I the swineherd.

It is not so simple to state that all cultures belong to us and we can just partake in whatever we like whenever we fancy. Cultural appropriation is a new weapon in the battle between multiple narratives of identity. So when Rachel Dolezal, a long-time activist for African-American rights, let everyone believe she was black because she really believed in the black cause, she even felt black, and when the story got out that she was just a regular white American woman whose only introduction to black culture was through her black foster siblings, the outcry from all directions was deafening. African-Americans accused her of unlawfully appropriating African cultural heritage, including the curls that she’d been wearing since she started passing herself off as black, somewhat naively, though genuine passion was there in her love of black culture.

The attack against Dolezal – mostly by African Americans, is about claiming back black heritage by the descendants of former slaves from a white imposter. The reclaimers, say it is not appropriate for a privileged person to pose as member of a historically oppressed culture. We live in an age of rage, and it is payback time. That before exporting the minority culture, the majority must first look back on history and see whether or not they came from the ruling class, and their ancestors were guilty of slave trade, colonisation, invasion of or encroachment on the New World, the Indies, Asia, the Middle East. And if that had been the case, then there must first be an admission of that historical guilt.

In recent years the media has also been reporting an awful lot of sighs and sentimentality not just from white supremacists, but also from ordinary members of society in the West nostalgic about the past, over the loss of white Christian Europe. The loss had been incurred to make room for the “bloody foreigners”. So the counter narrative is being shouted out loud by the descendants of the “foreigners” who are laying claim to and guarding what they consider as their heritage.

This is race politics thrown back in the face of its creator. Once how tight a black person’s curl was, determined the dose of racial contempt toward him or her, imposed upon by white rulers by a number of degrading markers – one being the pencil test in apartheid South Africa. The African hair is now being fantasised by the self-proclaimed lovers of the black culture such as Rachel Dolezal, and the likes of prominent social media influencers. This would have been a much welcomed gesture, had there not been so much talk of despair in populist media over the loss of Western culture, open and covert hostility toward immigrants for messing up the previously unadulterated white Christian Europe with minarets, synagogues, jerk, masala, rap, hijab, barmitzva celebration, Shabbat songs, sound of azan in Western neighbourhoods.

Amid the talk of cultural chauvinism on the one hand and repossession campaign on the other, a third argument is gaining approval from various sections of society: artists, activists, third generation migrants. It goes as follows: if we believe that the universe is ours and its cultures belong to all of us, the politically and racially charged ideas such as cultural adulteration, mixed-race, half this and half that, are superfluous. In this great age of synergy and intermingling between cultures, it is only plausible that after a few beers the inebriated football fans head for a masala zone – curry houses are preferred to kiosks of hot dogs. And if that is allowed, then why not stretch this fusion further, celebrate the Hanukkah lights, say hello to the men in long robes coming out of the neighbourhood mosque after Friday prayers? And stop accusing Jamie Oliver’s jerk rice of cultural appropriation! Give-and-take is what happens in the age of mixing, exchanging and travel.

Though, this doesn’t explain Dolezal pretending to be a race she is not. “She is not a bad person, she meant no harm,” I kept hearing when the story broke. The question remains, if there’s room for such naivety when the battle of civilisations is often the talking point in the news, social media threads, influential tweets.

Still, what I’m seeing is that the old world is somewhat broken or bent. In the wasteland of a post-colonial world, a remarkable history of moving on is also taking place. The possibility of starting afresh is there, and it is not about purity of identity. We’re experiencing a fertile season of unpredictable births – out of the dismantled borders – of previously unknown social classes and personal identities. We don’t really need any cultural guardians to tell us the modern world has lost its identity. The migrants who try to fit in by claiming belonging in their new home, by perfecting the language, etiquette and humour of the majority culture, and those Westerners who’re hungry for other values and beliefs that are not their own, are just addressing a new fact of the modern life: it is about moving away from the insularity of experience inherited by birth and laying claim to different ones. I agree, many adopt other cultures impulsively without a proper knowledge of the history of oppression. Whether or not they should be reminded of some collective historical guilt, is also an important question for today.

About the Author
Lipika Pelham worked in the BBC newsroom for over a decade and also reported from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. In 2005-13, she lived in Jerusalem, where she learnt Hebrew, made award-winning films and wrote a memoir. Her latest book, "Jerusalem on the Amstel:The Quest for Zion in the Dutch Republic", was launched at Jewish Book Week, London, 2019.
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