Cultural Appropriation: Hard Cases

There are some social debates raging on questions to which I don't know the answer -- in particular, debates in which charges of cultural appropriation are levied.

This is not to say that there aren't some relatively clear-cut cases. A white American wearing a Native American war bonnet as a "fashion accessory" was once universally acceptable among white Americans, and now a growing number of us see that as a social and moral mistake.

Cultural appropriation involves adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. In contexts where it might not be clear which culture is dominant, or whether a given other culture is minority, cultural appropriation is difficult to assess. For the most part, however, 21st-century America has a more-or-less readily identifiable dominant culture, and, though there is fuzziness at the edges, the minority cultures in the US are also recognizable. Only members of the dominant culture can commit this appropriation, and only minority cultures can be appropriated from, and that's because the imbalance of power is the crucial dynamic at play in cultural appropriation.

Understanding the imbalance of power requires awareness of the long history of colonialism. Inaugurated with Columbus's voyages, European colonialism grew to Africa, India, southeast Asia, and the Americas, and was characterized by conquest, genocide, subjugation and exploitation of people, and appropriation of resources. Colonialism depended on white people's belief in the superiority of white culture, for according to colonial ideology, they were doing a favor to the colonized peoples by "modernizing" them. Such modernizing usually turned out to be highly selective: usually amounting to little more than efforts to train indigenous people to be more serviceable to European profit. Colonizers cited "economic development," while in practice, typically, the only economy that was developed was the export economy: thus funneling resources and goods into wealthier countries and further impoverishing the colonized host.

Given this history, its not surprising that minority cultures catch whiffs of usurpation, exploitation, and arrogance when white Americans continue -- consciously or not -- the habits and assumptions of colonial superiority.

That said, here are three recent cases that, to my mind, aren't clear-cut. I think these are hard cases.
  1. In 2015, Diep Nguyen, a Vietnamese freshman student at Oberlin, objected to the Banh Mi sandwich offered at the Dining Hall. The student newspaper, The Oberlin Review, reported: "Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. 'It was ridiculous,' Nguyen said. 'How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?' Nguyen added that Bon App├ętit, the food service management company contracted by Oberlin College, has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes." The item was pulled from the dining hall menu. Should it have been?
  3. In 2016, Dana Schutz, a white woman, painted "Open Casket," which hung at the Whitney Biennial exhibition in New York in 2017. It is a portrait of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. African-American artist Parker Bright protested the painting, demanded that Schutz's painting be removed and destroyed. He wrote: "it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun." Others joined in Parker Bright's objection, including another African-American artist, Hannah Black, who wrote, "The subject matter is not Schutz’s. White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go." Schutz and museum curators defended the painting and its inclusion in the exhibit. Who was right?
  5. A couple months ago, on April 22, Keziah Daum, a white high school senior in Utah, wore a Chinese-styled dress -- a red cheongsam that she found at a vintage store in Salt Lake City -- to her school prom. She posted on social media pictures of herself in the dress alongside her friends. A number of people posted objections. Jeremy Lam, for intsance, wrote, "My culture is NOT your prom dress." He went on to say, “I’m proud of my culture, including the extreme barriers marginalized people within that culture have had to overcome those obstacles. For it to simply be subject to American consumerism and cater to a white audience, is parallel to colonial ideology.” Lam's tweet was retweeted 42,000 times and spurred an onslaught of similar criticism of Daum's sartorial choice. Daum replied: "I don’t see the big deal of me wearing a gorgeous dress I found for my last prom. If anything, I’m showing my appreciation to other cultures and I didn’t intend to make anyone think that I’m trying to be racist. It’s just a dress." Who is right?
My answer to all three questions posed by these cases is: "I don't know." In general, the "not knowing" stance has much to recommend it. Opinions tend to be pricey and high-maintenance, so it's wise to have no more than are necessary. Not knowing has been encouraged by diverse thinkers from British poet John Keats (who, in 1817, praised "negative capability" -- the capacity to be "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason," able to be comfortable leaving matters ambiguous, indeterminate, or unknown) to Korean Zen master Seung Sahn (1927-2004, who frequently told his students, "only don't know," to encourage them to set aside their conceptions).

But not knowing does not mean not engaging. In fact, in many ways it is just the opposite, for what we "know" may entice us to view a situation only through the lens of prior knowledge and thus miss details that make the case at hand unique. The not-knowing stance is one of openness and curiosity. It begins by resisting impulses to exclaim, "That's ridiculous!" and continues into training ourselves in how to articulate (even if only to ourselves) the most sympathetic possible version of other viewpoints.

Before we get to the question, "Who is right?" (and if we never get to that question, perhaps that's OK) let us ask: Who is hurting? What is their pain? What skillful and compassionate response to that pain is possible? What's needed is listening and understanding.

Some social issues need us to jump into the fray; others don't need any additional combatants, but do need attentive empathy and understanding. The hard cases where cultural appropriation is charged fall into the second category. These situations call for people who are attentive to the issues raised (neither withdrawing from the subject nor dismissing it) and empathetic to the hurt that's being manifested.

How would you attend to the pain and bring empathy to each of the three cases?
What more would you need to know?

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