Tag Archives: Identity politics

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?


Ben Carson, Joan Gubbins and Identity Politics

People usually use the term “identity politics” to mean blocs of voters who cast their ballots for people with whom they share an identity.

For example, during the last two Presidential elections, opponents of President Obama often attributed his huge advantage among black voters to his skin color. Of course, “they” would vote for one of “their own.”

If that were true, of course, African-Americans would be lining up to support Ben Carson. They clearly aren’t, and a lot of Republicans don’t understand why. The confusion lies in a profound misunderstanding of what we should probably call “communities of interest” rather than “identity politics.”

Most readers of this blog, even those who lived in Indiana at the time, will not remember Joan Gubbins, a particularly unpleasant woman who served in the State Senate in the 1970s. Gubbins was a forerunner of today’s social conservatives–among other things, she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment and memorably campaigned against her opponent in one primary by going door-to-door and explaining that the voter’s choice was between “a good conservative Christian and a damn liberal Jew.”

The Women’s Political Caucus (of which I was a member) endorsed her male opponent, who supported a number of women’s rights measures.

Women’s organizations like the (now defunct) Political Caucus and Emily’s List usually support women candidates–but not those with positions inimical to women’s rights. In the 2008 Presidential race, no self-respecting advocate for women’s equality was persuaded to vote Republican because Sarah Palin was on the ticket.

Latinos support candidates with reasonable positions on immigration and other policies relevant to that community. Whatever Ted Cruz’ ethnicity, he’s not going to get the Latino vote.

Women don’t disproportionately support Hillary Clinton because she’s female; they do so because she has championed women’s issues. (Sorry, Carly. As Sara Palin’s candidacy should have demonstrated, female plumbing isn’t enough.)

In 2016, African-Americans aren’t going to vote for a monumentally unqualified Ben Carson, whose positions suggest that he suffers from something akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

Anyone who thinks that “identity politics” means voting for someone who “looks like me” just doesn’t get it.