Tag Archives: cultural misappropriation

The Queasy Rhetoric of Cultural Appropriation

Porgy and Bess                                                                                  WFMT

Many Americans worry when the defining features of one group are used for commercial purposes by another.

Identity politics defines our age and is scattered through the nation’s history.  A nation spread across a continent is bound to be divided into regional and social allegiances, even though these social anchors often trigger thoughtless comments and lasting resentments.

We are all complicit.  Thinking in terms of one’s own community first is a natural impulse. But inevitably sensitivities can be stepped on when ‘outsiders’ adopt or imitate another group’s practices and traditions.  This is a familiar issue with the names of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.  Are these sports teams entitled to use native American symbols?  Is the use of key words and symbols an inherent complement to the first Americans, or a commercial gambit the teams are not really entitled to?  Legal entitlement is one thing.  Cultural entitlement is less definitive, if no less involving.  As with so many linguistic issues, applications of a group’s lexicon or symbols are almost always subject to different understandings. And in these days when nerve endings are more exposed, the appropriation of any group’s names and artifacts can raise eyebrows.  In our climate of discontent, even viewing a mainstream Hollywood film from a previous decade can make us queasy.  Why are there only African American actors in 50’s comedies playing maids or butlers?  Why was the lead in the popular Charlie Chan series given to a Swedish American?

What may seem like acts of empathy or flattery to one person can be another’s example of expropriation.

No short essay can do this subject justice.  But the questions we might ask are still valuable.  While Americans in the 21st Century are more open to claims of “cultural misappropriation,” we are still search for the outer limits of this kind of critique.  Who gets to be an authority on Thai or Mexican food?  Who gets to be a French chef?  Likewise, did George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward step over the line to write the iconic black opera, Porgy and Bess?  I’m glad they did.  But was the story of the impoverished residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row theirs to tell?  In its time (1935) Porgy was a daring extension of a  tradition-bound form.  But what may seem like acts of empathy or flattery to one person can be another’s example of expropriation.

We can all cite less cosmic examples of cultural infringement. When I was a visiting professor years ago I can remember my chagrin when otherwise wonderful British colleagues greeted me with an over-the-top “Howdy Partner!,” delivered in a theatrical Midwestern drawl.  Minor stuff for sure; I suppose I could have responded with a fake Lancashire accent. But what would be the point? I would have preferred a greeting in their own voice.

The image of an American melting pot has begun to yield to the realities of a rising tribalism. This idea was behind Pete Wells’ concern in a recent New York Times review of a restaurant built on the side of an old recording studio.  The decor featured lots of images of African American recording artists like Stevie Wonder, even though none of those performers apparently recorded at that 10th Avenue location.  This made Wells “uncomfortable.” “Stevie Wonder will always be cool,” he noted, “but a restaurant dreamed up by real estate developers doesn’t automatically become cool by putting him on the wall.”1  

Is there a legacy–a history, an origin–that is a community’s property, but not necessarily the culture’s?

This issue raises the question of what constitutes fair use of a group’s symbols.   Does the existence of a common language within the culture extend to the words and images associated with a specific sub-group?  Or is there a legacy–a history, an origin–that is a community’s property, but not necessarily the culture’s?

In a famous essay the journalist Walter Benjamin considered a related problem: the difference between original works of art and the sometimes convincing copies made of them.  “The work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility” raised better questions than answers.  But he did make the point that an original retains an “aura” that will always make it different and special, even while it may be cheapened by its copies. Our age has simply pushed the discussion forward to the moral question of whether those outside an exploited group have the right to use elements of the group’s legacy.

However one feels about a particular case, the viability of  the idea of ‘offensive misappropriation’ is a clear indicator that bonds to specific communities may now be stronger than bonds to the culture.  That’s surely one reason the idea of “tribalism” has become the word of the moment in discussions about current American attitudes.

1 New York Times, June 20, 2018, p. D7.

The High Voltage Language of Status Issues

Michelle Obama responding to the kidnapping of Nigerian girls in 2014 wikipedia.org
          Michelle Obama responding to the                                 kidnapping of Nigerian girls in 2014                                                 wikipedia.org

Nearly all Americans can be provoked into political engagement if they suspect their identity interests are threatened by governmental bodies. 

These days our public rhetoric includes a lot of angst about slights and insensitivities to individual communities under the big tent of American life.  On one hand, many Americans believe other members in the society have become too sensitive to language that only seems to demean or degrade others.  The view from this mostly conservative side of the ideological divide sees “political correctness” as “liberal” overreach that verges into censorship.  They argue that the once-worthwhile idea of inclusiveness has run amok.

Other communities see these problems as all too real, noting that it’s wrong for outsiders to appropriate another group’s cherished symbols, as when a sports team calls themselves the Redskins.  Most social progressives argue that it’s equally a mistake to mislabel or ignore others if the effect is to place a community on the margins of American life, as we’ve seen in recent complaints that Academy Award nominations feature too few Hollywood professionals of color.

Sometimes the offenses committed against groups are blatant and criminal, demanding a response.  Police shootings of unarmed suspects and the treatment of women in parts of Africa and elsewhere only hint at what is a long list of justifiable grievances.  More subtle are complaints of how affinity groups are named in the media, along with concerns about who gets to tell their stories.  Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall street, native American groups, veterans organizations and countless others are tuned to pick up linguistic slights they see as representing deeper animosities.  Were the occupiers of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge “felons,” or freedom-loving “militiamen?”  What does it mean at Princeton that the name of Woodrow Wilson is attached to one of it’s prestigious schools?  Should the former president be known primarily as a “political progressive” or a “racist?”  And there is even  one American college that is embroiled in a mini-controversy over whether their food court should be permitted to serve “General Tao’s Chicken.” Is the kitchen’s botched attempt to serve a dish with apparent Chinese roots a case of “cultural misappropriation?”

As these questions swirl through the culture it seems that our collective nerve endings have become raw.  Americans seem to hear slights from their neighbors rather than empathy.  More than a few observers of our national scene wonder if the middle will hold, whether the United States is still sufficiently united to be a functioning culture, let alone a “great society.”

There are no simple answers.  Especially on this subject, individual perceptions matter. The charges of “inquistic colonization” or offensive omission are the prerogatives of any wounded party to at least express.

From a communication perspective it is important to note that we are all affected by status issues: those topics in a culture that provoke ordinary citizens to ask if their interests are adequately acknowledge and protected.  Politicians sometimes call these hot topics—abortion rights, equal access to good schools and a decent job, respect for religious beliefs, respect for gender differences—the “third rails” of American politics.  In a subway the third rail is the train’s power source, carrying upwards of 1500 volts that can instantly fry any human that touches it.

Status issues arise and dominate our public discourse when enough Americans believe their cultural legitimacy is being put at risk by the hostile actions of a political institution.

I find it helpful to remember that a secure place under the umbrella of a state is part of any citizen’s birthright.  We expect to have our legitimate interests respected if not honored by others.  It is sometimes easier to accept claims of marginalization if we understand this fact. Here’s the point: fears expressed in a rhetoric of anger may lead us to overlook the simple need of every citizen and their tribes to feel acknowledged.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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