E pluribus unum: The forgotten function of cultural appropriation

We’ve been talking about cultural appropriation a lot recently and, while it pains me that we’ve allowed MTV to set the level of public debate on the matter, I’m still glad that it’s a conversation we’re having on front-pages at all.

Miley Cyrus’ performance at the MTV Video Music Awards has been branded “sordid” by body-shaming hacks that you don’t care about, but has also led to some genuinely constructive debate. Sparking discussions about issues as diverse as the manufacturing of “blackness” by white pop stars, and the uncomfortable equation of sexualisation with maturation in coverage on female celebrities, Cyrus has inadvertently provided a mainstream platform for hundreds of feminist and anti-racist writers.

Broad interest in social justice is always nice to see, but I’ve become increasingly concerned by the oversimplification of these complex issues as they enter the mainstream. The concept of cultural appropriation suffers particularly when truncated, as legitimate concerns about the fetishisation of minority cultures eventually come to resemble isolationist arguments for cultural segregation.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, entirely valid criticisms of Miley Cyrus’ cultural appropriation. She uses black bodies as accessories in a clueless attempt to celebrate her own, and even dresses them up as animals, but to ignore the context of socially normalised racism that led to that performance and flatly argue that “white people twerking is racist” entirely misses the point.

In trying to protect “black culture”, white-knight critics often end up making sweeping and pejorative statements like: “twerking is a dance move typically associated with lower-income African-American women”. Both racist and classist, this comment correctly identifies that much of the United States was introduced to twerking through hip-hop culture, but then uncritically assumes that hip-hop must represent all lower-income African-American women. This conflation of culture with race and class would never be applied to, for example, middle-class white people and indie rock music, but is frequently and lazily applied to minorities. Through this process, those that intend to protect minorities in fact work to ghettoise and further isolate them.

As well as making Eurocentric assumptions about the intersection of race and culture, a black and white understanding of cultural appropriation ignores many positive examples of the practice. The most obvious example is when an oppressed group appropriates the cultures of its oppressor. Mods are a great historical example of this. A UK subculture from the 1960s, Mods were working class youths who appropriated and parodied the highly tailored clothing of their Tory oppressors.

Another great example is the rise of the Keffiyeh in Japanese and European fashion. A scarf typically worn by Arab men and some Kurds, globally it’s become synonymous not with cultural exploitation, but with Palestinian solidarity.

Notting Hill Carnival, an irrefutable sign of black people’s cultural permanence in Britain, is yet another potent example of the positive potential of cultural integration. Unfortunately, many stringent opponents of cultural appropriation ignore the sense of unity that cultural crosspollination often produces and only focus upon the most garish and exploitative examples.

In a world where Sexy Native American Halloween costumes exist, we’d be idiots not to wonder where along the line appropriation becomes exploitation, but for us to scrawl divisive coloured lines between cultural groups is at best naïve and at worst, inadvertently oppressive.

Oliver Balaam

2 thoughts on “E pluribus unum: The forgotten function of cultural appropriation

  1. I’m blown away by the thoroughness, the extreme clarity and truly unbiased stance of this article. This is journalism at its very finest. I wish there was more writing like this, seriously. Congratulations.

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