Blue-eyed soul. White girls twerking.  Race-themed Halloween costumes. The new “Harlem Shake.” Non-black folks rocking braid extensions. White women in belly dancing classes. The list of things that have been deemed “cultural appropriation” has grown exponentially over the past few years as people of color have become increasingly vocal about their concerns over “outsiders” laying claim to things they’ve created. But as our society becomes progressively diverse, are some folks just turning into overly-sensitive “grievance-mongers”?

That’s the thesis of a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, which argues that the phrase “cultural appropriation” has become a catchall for those looking to complain about White people who enjoy the food, music, or traditions of other cultures.

Charlotte Allen writes:

Bet you didn’t know that white people eating tacos falls into the category of “cultural appropriation.”

Well, it does now. This past May 5 — a.k.a. Cinco de Mayo — two colleges canceled or significantly altered their annual “Phi Phiesta” taco-bar fundraisers after complaints about cultural appropriation from offended Latino student organizations.

You may be wondering, at this point, exactly what is cultural appropriation? Technically, it’s the process by which one culture adopts and incorporates elements of another: the Romans sculpting Greek-style statuary, for example. But now, it’s become a catchall designation for anything that white people might borrow from an ethnic culture that the grievance-mongers in that culture don’t like.

Some of the cultural appropriation complaints are well taken because the appropriated practices genuinely include mockery of the affected minority group: minstrel-show whites in blackface, for example. Sombreros and fake mustaches might fall into that category. But tacos?

As the ethnic grievance industry grows ever more shrill and its spokespeople more thin-skinned, the list of ethnic practices forbidden to whites grows ever longer.

Allen cites a Salon article by Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar titled, “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” as proof of how some folks have “overreacted” to cultural appropriation.

In the article, Jarrar argued, “Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings. This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze.”

Many pushed back against Jarrar’s perspective on White women participating in belly dancing, asserting their decision to dance was a result of cultural exchange, not cultural appropriation, but Jarrar was unmoved. She penned another article taking on her critics to task once again.

Let’s be clear. Christopher Columbus syndrome is real, and White folks have been absorbing and profiting off the culture and creations of people of color for years (see: the colonization of Africa, India, the Transatlantic slave trade, and Rock n’ Roll).

But have we gotten too sensitive about labeling the innocent byproducts of living in an increasingly diverse society as “cultural appropriation” instead of cultural exchange?

Let’s talk about it, folks.

Tags: ,
Like Us On Facebook Follow Us On Twitter
  • MiceFaces

    I’m completely against “cultural appropriation” in the sense of one culture (i.e. white capitalism) making profit off a culture they have historically oppressed without that culture receiving their due. I’m also against white people (and I am one) taking on parts of a culture’s spiritual, religious, or other beliefs (i.e. white people calling themselves “two-spirit” or otherwise pretending to be Native Americans). And of course, when these appropriations take the form of racial stereotypes it’s absolutely terrible and oppressive.

    But at what point does cultural exchange become cultural appropriation? Is a working-class white guy who decides he’s going to learn the oud and seriously study Turkish music being appropriative? What if he doesn’t make money off of it and always credits the tradition and musicians to whom he’s indebted? What about the millenia-old history of different Middle Eastern empires conquering and assimilating other cultures, without which music in Turkey today would be very different? Going back far enough in history, isn’t EVERYTHING somehow appropriative? What if the only people criticizing this hypothetical guy for his music are wealthy, educated, posturing white people, while he nonetheless has the respect of actual Turkish musicians for his musical commitment and skill?

    I also don’t buy these common ideas of authenticity or cultural “property.” What does it mean for a dance move to belong to “Black culture”? As if Black culture is one monolithic thing. I feel like a lot of descriptions of cultural appropriation delve into these sorts of unclear metaphors. Talking about possession of abstract concepts by abstract entities strikes me as unclear and impossible to sustain.

    A common argument against cultural appropriation I often here is that the individual’s intentions don’t matter. If people are offended by something, then you can’t question that. I understand and agree with that idea. You shouldn’t be insensitive or deliberately offensive to other cultures or identities. But if somebody’s individual intention doesn’t matter, then how is that they, individually, are morally responsible for the atrocities committed by their ancestors if they just don’t know better?

    Also, I often here people say that white people should stick to their own culture and heritage. But I find so much wrong with that. For starters, I know of no groups who more strongly believe that white people should stick their own culture than neo-Nazis, the Tea Party, the KKK, etc. I am also baffled by what “white culture” even means. I grew up in America. All of my ancestors were white immigrants. I’m at least a mixture of French, English, Scottish, Irish, and Swedish, plus who knows what else. What am I supposed to do? Confine by life to river dancing, cheese, and reading about Norse mythology? That said, I don’t feel like I’m any of those ethnic groups. I am an American who grew up with the World Wide Web. My country is only 300 years old, and my particular culture within America even younger. Not to mention, America is a melting pot of cultures, so it seems impossible to define “American culture,” let alone “white culture” (“white culture” itself being an expression that erases countless ethnic, linguistic, and class divides). I don’t feel like I have a heritage, so what can I do that isn’t appropriative to somebody?

    All in all, talking about cultural appropriation and what’s bad about it is important. But at some point, we have to take what we’ve learned from it and move on to newer, bigger, understandings of oppression and inequality, and especially how to fight oppression and inequality. Too often anger about cultural appropriation becomes stagnant and more about petty, personal grievances, not to mention social status within social justice communities. In short, it seems to risk keeping people’s attention focused not only on symptoms of inequality and oppression, but on their own egos, rather than the underlying social institutions that make this inequality and oppression possible.