Cultural Appropriation

I know this is rambling and disjointed. Sorry about that, but I don’t really feel like doing a lot of editing and rewriting at the moment.

One of the new(er) buzzwords is “cultural appropriation.” There is a fair amount of disagreement on this, even among liberals. Some say it doesn’t even exist, while others decry even questioning it as racism. Needless to say, in this received wisdom only white people are capable of this particular evil.

Being a regular reader of the Gawker family of blogs, as well as various and sundry other political and culture sites, I come across this phrase frequently. Virtually every time, it is a white person pointing and shrieking at another white person with cries of racism. A white person with dreadlocks? Cultural appropriation. A white person eating Mexican food without having the proper progressive ethical outlook? Cultural appropriation. A white person listening to rap? Cultural appropriation. A white person listening to rock ‘n roll music? Cultural appropriation. A white person rapping while not being Marshall Mathers or the Beastie Boys? Cultural appropriation. Some pop diva wearing Bindi? Cultural appropriation. White people doing yoga? Cultural appropriation. (and never mind that Indians are, for the most part, descended from the original Aryans).

To this I say: nonsense.

Cultural appropriation is nothing more than a trendy new way to say that white people are terrible. It’s okay for a rich suburban lily-white lady to do yoga, so long as it makes her happy. It’s even okay for her to do her yoga at a studio that charges more money than poor folks can afford. I, personally don’t do yoga, but my wife does. She does it at the local YMCA, where we have a family membership for less than $30/month and where they have a policy of not refusing membership to anyone based on their ability to pay. Poor people of south Asian descent or origin are just as welcome as rich black people and middle class white people are – and all of these groups are well represented at this gym. One of the regulars at the absurdly early hour I go is a black physician whose income is probably 10x mine and another is a Guatemalan who works as a dishwasher at a local Mexican restaurant. If fairness, none of us do yoga – we mostly just lift and run.

I listen to lots of different kinds of music, including classical, rock, reggae, Irish folk, early music, rap, filk, and metal, with my primary tastes running to metal and alt-rock. And yet there are those who would say that every one of those musical styles except filk and classical are cultural appropriation because Elvis didn’t invent Rock ‘n Roll music, because the Irish people didn’t used to be white (?!), because black people started and popularized reggae and rap, and because calling European pre-baroque music ‘early’ implies that no one else in the world had music before that and is therefore racist.

The majority of black men I know wear their hair cut very short – less than 1/2 inch long. I also wear my hair buzzed very short, usually with a #2 guard. I’m sure that someone would call that cultural appropriation.

So, anyway, where I’m going with this is that I hate the term and its implication. It’s stupid and fundamentally absurd and saying that does not make me a racist. You may want to say “check your privilege” at this point. Don’t worry – I am fully aware of my privilege in the society I was born into. That doesn’t change the fact that if I or any other person chooses to adopt some mode of dress, religion, or whatever from some group of people or culture that we were not born into does not make it a bad thing.

Yes, it is certainly possible for this to be objectively offensive and reprehensible – e.g. blackface. However this is easily avoided by following a simple rule in life – don’t be an asshole.Here is a simple list to help you on your quest to not be an asshole

Wearing a Sioux ceremonial headdress for the purpose of mocking and demeaning the Sioux is being an asshole.

Keeping a Buddha image on a bookshelf because you went to Thailand and it is a good remembrance for you is not being an asshole.

Doing yoga because you like the exercise and it makes you feel good is not being an asshole

Doing yoga and telling everyone about how you get a deep spiritual connection to some ancient spirits when you can’t even find India on a map is being an asshole.

Listening to rap music is not being an asshole

Thinking that Elvis Presley invented rock ‘n roll does not make you an asshole, but it does make you stupid.

Eating a burrito, or pad thai, or tandoori chicken, or chicken marsala, or hummus, or borscht, or wat, or suya is not being an asshole.

Saying that you only eat authentic Mexican/Chinese/Ethiopian/whatever food because you want the real experience of that culture when you can’t find those countries on a map and wouldn’t dream of going into a neighborhood where people from that culture are the majority makes you an asshole.

Wearing sacred religious emblems/garments that are not of your religion, for the purpose of fashion, is always being an asshole. Don’t do it – if you are not Christian, don’t wear a cross. If you are not a Jew, don’t wear a Star of David. If you are not Mormon, don’t wear the sacred temple garment. If you are not American Indian, don’t wear an eagle feather. If you are not Asatru, don’t wear a Mjolnir.

Cultural appropriate, as a concept, is bullshit. As with most things, all problems in this area can be solved by simply not being an asshole.


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