Friday, November 6, 2015

The Problem With The Problem of Cultural Appropriation

The Rachel Dolezal problem just won’t go away, mostly because Millennials won’t let it go away. Dolezal, the former NAACP leader discovered to be biologically white while she groomed herself to appear black – both figuratively and literally – said in an interview two days ago “I was biologically born white,” saying in effect that despite this fact she still doesn’t identify herself as a white person. This has Millennials – those kids always looking for something to be offended by – up in arms (again).

By now, we are already familiar with the glaring inconsistencies of the Millennial thought process as it is perfectly okay for Bruce Jenner to feel like he is actually a she and grooming himself to appear this way despite being biologically born a man. Now, perhaps this was okay for Jenner because he/she was a celebrity (celebrities get away with anything as long as an apology is issued when outrage is of a sufficient degree) or that the guardians of social justice feel like Dolezal disguised the fact she was ever white, but what you never find these supposed guardians doing is asking tough questions about their beliefs. For instance, what exactly constitutes a black person? According to African-America writer/director Justin Simien, “Being black in America involves a process of moving through and adopting from many different cultures. To define what's authentically black is virtually impossible, as there are as many ways to be black as there are black people.” Presumably, this would go for nearly every other ethnicity as well. But if one could define a black person within the confines of one singular culture, is a black person then restricted to only behaving as a black person?

If being a black person comes with a built in identity aside from their appearance, then so must every other ethnicity. So, if it is wrong to borrow from the black culture because that culture doesn’t belong to any other ethnicity, it is wrong for any ethnicity to borrow culture from any other ethnicity and the power dynamic that is often used as an accusatory device against, say, white people, has nothing to do with it. Accusers of cultural appropriation have long argued that minorities such as black people have adapted white culture as a matter of survival, but this is no longer a necessity in modern day America. So, this particular argument of theirs is no longer valid as to why black currently engage in any appropriation of any other culture.

Another question that comes to mind about whether it is appropriate to borrow from another culture is whether the culture being borrowed from is the originator of a given practice. In many instances this is simply impossible to know. Even if we were concede that black people invented rap music, they did it by borrowing English and recording technology from white people. As Simien noted earlier, black culture is not “authentic” but rather an amalgamation. (This goes for every culture, as well. There is no completely unique culture since human beings all generally behave the same; this manifests itself in our social practices. This is, for example, why some kind of spiritualism exists in all cultures.)

As a logical extension to the previous question, we might ask if a given practice was indeed invented by one ethnicity, does that ethnicity claim an exclusive right to use such that practice? Let’s take hair-braiding, for instance. According to various sources, this practice originated in Africa anywhere from 5,000-30,000 years ago, spread far and wide, and has undergone many changes depending on the culture that adapted it. One version of hair-braiding, known in black culture as ‘corn-rows’ traces its history back thousands of years and appears to have been a sign of social significance and wealth at some point. So, African Americans cannot claim a ‘right’ to the exclusive use of corn-rows (much to Kylie Jenner’s relief, I’m sure). Or maybe they can claim a right because one is allowed to borrow practices from the people in power, though in this instance I fail to see what adapting corn-rows would have to do with survival.

Furthermore, can one claim a right to the achievements of one’s ancestor? Doing so amounts to thinking ‘we’ won the Superbowl when in fact you, the spectator, had nothing to do with it. It’s basically riding the coattails of someone else. (Naturally, people who view themselves as victims often employ this kind of historical thinking to accuse those who are not a part of their group so that their own underachievements look benign in their own eyes. To be clear, I am NOT accusing any group in particular of this.) At any rate, at this point in evolution, no one is a pure-breed anymore, not that such a thing ever existed for human beings. So, we cannot accept historical usage of a practice as meaning that practice solely belonging to any single group.

Bizarrely, Millennials don’t seem to mind most of the things white people have culturally appropriated from black people as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with appearance.* If Dolezal had only acted black instead of trying to look black, sure, she may not have gotten a leadership job for the NAACP but she would simply have been mocked by black and white alike and forgotten. The fact that she tried to look black without acknowledging her ‘whiteness’ appeared as a mockery of black people. I get that. But the same people vilifying her are the same people on one hand want to think of everyone as special regardless of looks or even achievement, but on the other hand want to demonize whites for simply being white, something no white person ever born had a choice in being. Dolezal took her identity in her own hands – something usually applauded – but because she is really white, this is villainous. And thus, the racism of Millennials is exposed.

[*Nor do Millenials care if the Chinese, currently the most powerful group of people in the world, all things considered, borrow cultural practices from the U.S. As a matter of social justice, shouldn’t the guardians of social justice berate the Chinese for wearing blue jeans? Americans invented blue jeans so it belongs to us! Right?]

As I often tell conspiracy theorists, if you don’t like it, leave. But they never do that because despite how horrible it is to live in the U.S. these days, no matter how horrible white people unintentionally contribute to white supremacy (? You hear this line often in these kinds of discussion), living in the U.S. it’s still remarkably better than most other places, places where people cannot even begin to have this kind of discussion.

It is certainly one thing to appropriate a look or practice to intentionally mock a culture. Dolezal didn’t do that; if anything she could be considered to be mocking white people, if white people cared about these things. Black people certainly should feel a little angry that they are under- or misrepresented in the workplace and the media and are generally made to feel they need to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards. Of this there is no doubt. But the only person that can make you feel like your (natural) identity is being stolen from you is you. Even if white people all started growing afros tomorrow, an afro on a black person wouldn’t make that person any less black. I know minorities feel otherwise, which makes it hard to understand why they don’t invent some other new look or practice and patent it for use by their own group. Remember that it is okay to borrow cultural practices from the group in power, so why not try using the power group’s practices against them. Oh, wait, what? You can’t patent a look or cultural practice? Gee, I wonder why that is…

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