Tag Archives: cultural appropriation

Reconsidering “Cultural Appropriation”

Speaking of tribalism, as I was yesterday….

As the discussions on this blog amply reveal, the United States is currently experiencing wrenching–even existential–social and governance problems. Most of those problems can be seen as a result of the transformation of the GOP from a traditional political party to an extremist organization I’ve likened to a cult, but you will forgive me if I find some of the preoccupations of the left equally “unnuanced” (aka rabid) and unhelpful.

I recently read about a controversy in Utah over–wait for it–a prom dress.

The high-school student in question had posted a photo modeling her choice of a prom dress–a Chinese cheongsam– to social media. A storm of criticism erupted, with accusations of “cultural appropriation.”

Keziah Daum said she won’t give in to pressure and delete an April 22 Twitter post showing her posing with her prom date in the red cheongsam, or qipao.

“To everyone causing so much negativity,” she tweeted. “I mean no disrespect to the Chinese culture. I’m simply showing my appreciation to their culture. I’m not deleting my post because I’ve done nothing but show my love for the culture. It’s a f***ing dress. And it’s beautiful.”

Daum told the Washington Post she found the dress in a vintage store in Salt Lake City and found it “absolutely beautiful” adding it gave her a “sense of appreciation and admiration for other cultures and their beauty.”

The critics of her choice insisted that, not being Chinese, she should not wear a recognizably Chinese dress, that doing so would amount to “cultural appropriation.”

According to Wikipedia, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture adopts elements of a minority culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange when there is the presence of a “colonial element” and an imbalance of power–in other words, when the adoption is for purposes of denigrating or mocking the original culture.

As the Guardian pointed out, in an article about the blowup, donning a Chinese prom dress hardly meets that criterion.

The original complainant’s instinct– to draw a line at a time when Chinese people are under siege from Trump-inspired China-bashers – is understandable, but in this case, completely mistargeted. If anything, the qipao represents power and class, not race, and certainly not the culture of some exploited underclass.

Criticisms of “cultural appropriation” raise some fairly profound issues. Have our politics become so tribal that any “crossover” is viewed as an attack, rather than a sign of appreciation? When is the adoption of an element of minority culture by members of the majority culture a compliment, and when is it an insult? When does such adoption advance intergroup understanding, and under what circumstances does it diminish appreciation of and respect for the “appropriated” culture?

I’m sure the White supremacists (aka Nazi sympathizers) who have become increasingly vocal since Herr Trump’s election disapprove of any adoption of any aspect of minority culture; for them,  it’s “mongrelization.” How is their call for “racial purity” any different from the criticisms that attended this teenager’s choice of a prom dress?

I don’t get it.

What ever happened to the old axiom that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

And what the hell happened to a sense of proportion?

 

Wisdom from RuPaul

Time Magazine recently published an interview with RuPaul, the celebrated drag star, and one exchange in that interview struck me as particularly perceptive and politically relevant.

The interviewer had noted that millennials “take a harder line on issues of identity” and are “a bit more affronted by the sort of wordplay and free-associative identity play central to drag.” RuPaul’s response wasn’t only wise and adult, it also put into words the proper approach to an issue that has been increasingly nagging at me.

I think the Trump era will wipe that out. To be that particular about words, you have to be in a place where you’re not under attack. I believe that those same people, right now, are so under attack that ain’t nobody got time to be dealing with “Did you call me a he or a she?” That is going to change real fast. When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies. And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident. The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, “Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?” That’s how you differentiate. That’s the real thing.

Pick your battles. When you fight everything, you win nothing.

I am a “mature” (okay, old) Jewish woman. I went to law school and entered the profession at a time when women lawyers were rare and anti-Semitism (while somewhat more genteel than the “alt-right” variety that Trump has encouraged) was common. What I learned was what I will hereafter call the “RuPaul” lesson: there is a difference between unintended offense that is a result of being socialized at a different time, or into a different set of cultural expectations, and bigotry.

As the first woman hired at a large law firm, I experienced plenty of insensitivity–comments that today, those same people would see as cringe-worthy. I also encountered  misogyny. There was a difference.

The same distinction applied to anti-Semitism. Most people who used phrases like “he jewed me down,” for example, were simply unaware of how offensive that phrase was, how much it incorporated hateful stereotypes.

If I had failed to differentiate between behaviors and attitudes that were a result of ignorance or insensitivity and those motivated by misogyny or prejudice, I wouldn’t have been a very effective lawyer–or member of society. More importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to educate people who inadvertently gave offense–to explain, nicely, just why that phrase or that stereotype might be sending a message that I knew they really didn’t intend.

I mention my own experience, because I think it speaks to the emergence of what I would characterize as identity politics on steroids. Women and minorities of all kinds are increasingly quick to take offense, quick to lash out angrily against real or asserted examples of privilege, “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.” Often the criticism (if not necessarily its tone and volume) is warranted. Often it isn’t.

The issue of privilege is real and important. Pointing it out is legitimate. (My jury is still out on the contemporary frenzy over “micro-aggressions” and “cultural appropriation.”) But whatever their merits, I can’t help thinking that these battles aren’t the ones we should be picking while Trump and his enablers are looting our country and trashing our Constitution.

Here’s the thing: right now, nothing is more important than ejecting Republicans from Congress in 2018. If Democrats take the House in 2018, they can halt the daily assault on economic and environmental regulations and civil rights laws, begin to reverse America’s ignominious performance in world affairs, and elect a new Speaker to replace Ryan.

If that doesn’t happen, the damage done by 2020 may well be irreversible.

Right now, Democrats, liberals, moderates and sane Republicans need to focus on the big picture. We need to remember the old admonition not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We need to stop criticizing people on our side for inadvertence or insensitivity or less-than-perfect policy preferences, and save our ammunition for the people whose animus is intentional–people who pose a clear and present danger to American values and institutions.

We need to listen to RuPaul: When you’re under attack, when it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies.