Some ramblings on ‘cultural appropriation’


Recently been thinking about ‘cultural appropriation’ and basically whether it is a useful conception or unimportant hand-wringing emerging and rooted in the weakness of the American left. This stems from a minor occurance at an Anarcha-Feminist conference in the UK a couple weeks ago, where, either a ‘People of Color caucus’ or individual from it mentioned that a white attendee with dreads was engaging in cultural appropriation.

This seemed like only a minor thing at the actual conference, but it is really the only thing I know about what happened at it, because that is all I’ve seen mentioned on Facebook and on Granted, my exposure to the type of people in the UK who would go to it is limited by political relationships I’ve been able to maintain as someone who is not from there, nor has ever been there, but I assume there was a lot more to the conference than a white person with dreads being told that’s ‘problematic’.

Why is this the only thing I’ve heard about the conference though? It could be me selectively paying attention. As someone thousands and thousands of miles away, I can’t always be bothered to notice what are often routine details, and I instead pick up on controversies. Maybe also, the UK is not used to these sorts of racial politics that are rooted in the U.S., and so encountering them starts controversies. There’s also a possibility that I also only know class reductionist white males from the UK, and so what I see is colored (no pun intended) by that. This is doubtful, but possible.

Something I’ve noticed, that I’m sure is playing a part in this, is I think many white/European radicals spend more time objecting to loony identity politics then the fucked people/attitudes that they are a reaction to. In the end, they discredit themselves in a battle that is conceived of in terms of two opposing sides. Also, while I’m not a big fan of placing cultural appropriation in my politics really at all, I think it also signifies a lack of addressing race and when that happens the vacuum gets filled with ideas imported from elsewhere.

From my experience, most cultural appropriation stuff when it comes to interleftist ‘call-out culture’ is a bit much. I’m not really concerned about what kind of hairstyle somebody has. Personally, I’m more concerned about potential pests and mites that often reside in white dreads, then whether the white person is appropriating something.

But there are some situations I’ve encountered on the left or in life that could possibly be considered cultural appropriation that have pissed me off.

White people dressing up as versions of oppressed racial and ethnic groups in the United States for Halloween gets me angry enough to fight over it. Not sure if that is appropriation as much as it is a variant of blackface.

I remember once I went to a party at a cooperative house where a white woman from a liberal nonprofit was dressed as a ‘Puerto Rican hoodrat’ and felt compelled to drunkenly tell me that’s what she was dressed as and of course, “Isn’t that hilarious?!”, etc. Several years ago while at a Crimethinc convergence (I know, I know…), white kids dressed themselves up as Native and African tribespeople and then started doing an embarrassing and offensive dance while they were hootin & hollering.

I don’t see it ever mentioned as an example of cultural appropriation, but among many rural working class whites, there is a whole orientation towards collecting, making, wearing and selling Native and Native-influenced knickknacks, clothing, artwork, etc. This is pretty ironic, considering their recent ancestors are the ones who shoved the Natives off the land they lived on and into wastelands we call reservations. Even today, Natives are possibly the most impoverished, ignored, hated and oppressed minority in the United States today. And these same rural white working class whites are among the front lines of that. This isn’t a situation of appreciation and cultural exchange, but a process of American white supremacy where the dominant race and culture marginalizes, opposes and nearly destroys oppressed people’s cultures until all that’s left of them outside of their segregated communities are trinkets that can be commodified and idealized, while the process it took to get to that point is ignored or denied.

I recognize that almost all racial/ethnic cultures in the United States fade away and then are subsumed and commodified into the dominant culture. The difference between this happening to, say, German, Irish and English culture is that in exchange for this process, they were granted access to advantages we now recognize as whiteness, where others such as Natives, Latinos and blacks received hostility and brutality.

But what exactly is cultural appropriation? Like, ‘white privilege’, there seem to be competing definitions and disagreement about what qualifies. Is the whiteboy who grew up in a black neighborhood and is culturally very similar to the black folks he grew up with ‘appropriating’? Is the person with a ‘mohawk’ hairstyle really a big deal? Isn’t some of what is called appropriation really just variations of blackface?

Also, why does it matter?

Some claims of cultural appropriation I’ve seen do not come from a radical place. An aspiring small capitalist of Indian descent who decries the plethora of yoga establishments owned by small white capitalists should not be something of importance to us. Neither should the many other variants of ethnic capitalism, whose advocates are perfectly fine with their culture being commodified, as long as it is a capitalist of that ethnic group who is making money.

So what is useful in the concept of cultural appropriation for people who want to see a multiracial movement of the proletariat that aims to abolish capital and the state? It’s unclear to me. What do you think?


One comment

  1. “So what is useful in the concept of cultural appropriation for people who want to see a multiracial movement of the proletariat that aims to abolish capital and the state? It’s unclear to me. What do you think?” Juan, I have two contexts in which to respond to your piece. First, I am living right now in Ghana. The people around me speak their ethnic languages, Twi, Ewe, Ga, and many others. Many also speak English, the language of the last colonial power in Ghana. Civility is about listening to others and this includes cultural factors that, while incorporated into capitalistic systems, also have historically preceded and have elements that are present independent of class. So I share your concern about being class reductionist. Gramsci and many others have noted the difficulties of class analysis and praxis being effective because Marxist thought has not well addressed culture (among other things). Good listening is important for good organizing, and that includes listening and learning about others’ cultural positions, experiences, and emotional postures. One can see in Ghana that me being here in the south of Ghana, buying, to shade my pale skin, a straw hat from a street vender who hails from Bolgatanga in the north, is taken better if I know where the hat style came from and if I sit with him as he weaves. Others who wear the hat only to shade the sun without listening to the vender or producer may not piss off locals or persons from the north, but if one does pay attention, then I have an opening for relationship, a necessary component for organizing or of just plain interpersonal respect and kindness. This posture opens possibilities. Cultural deafness leaves doors closed. Second, as a parent of children from three racial/ethnic groups, we are careful to honor the birth families and the cultural matters that inevitable present, everything from an angry child saying I am going to live with my real mom to the difficulties of white skinned parents trying to be fully present for a three year old black daughter, the only child of color in her preschool, when she comes home on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, having been read an appropriate book on MLK, and she wanting not to be identified with a group that needed to be “helped,” and she wants skin like white Mommy and Daddy. This is where cultural appropriation becomes big No superficial conversations can be had here if one wants to keep one’s cultural integrity and parent well. We cannot do this correctly. What we can do is listen as we are able and invite ourselves to be critiqued across different identity groups. Love is relevant here, as is clear for most when it is one’s child that is at stake, a person for whom I’d give my life in less than a second if needed. Being a culturally insensitive person in the presence of my now five year old will get up my ire and will result in more focused preparation for my daughter (from both me and friends of color who are part of the community that raises her), preparation in cultural survival skills. I could point out dozens more examples, but I will close with one more. Having been a social worker for many decades working with severely mentally ill and impoverished HIV+ persons, one cannot be effective in life enhancing (often life saving) efforts if one is ignorant of cultural matters. Cultural appropriation is one aspect of simply being culturally ignorant, of denying that it is important. It is important, and we ignore it to the continued weak praxis on the left.

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