New York Times staff editor and writer Bari Weiss wrongly proclaims in a recent op-ed that cultural appropriation is a good thing.
I say “wrongly” not because I am denying Weiss her opinion but rather because her definition of cultural appropriation is incorrect, and hence, her entire argument falls flat.
Weiss begins her piece by citing this year’s MTV Video Music Awards (which she did not watch) as a prime example of the cultural appropriation label being run amuck. She talks about various targets of unleashed leftist critique like Kendrick Lamar for the “ninjas” scaling a flaming wall, Taylor Swift for being the Tang to Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” and Katy Perry for literally snatching wigs.
Eh. I agree that the online outrage machine (exacerbated by clickbait headlines) has reached its peak and that think pieces on absolutely any and everything are exhausting. The “many sides” approach is actually apt here. People on all points of the political spectrum are fair game for calling out extreme, illogical viewpoints. We can all use free speech to check each other.
However, Weiss falls off a cliff when she attempts to define how defenders of culture approach cultural appropriation:
The logic of those casting the stones goes something like this: Stealing is bad. It’s especially terrible when those doing the stealing are ‘rich’ — as in, they come from a dominant racial, religious, cultural or ethnic group — and those they are stealing from are ‘poor.’
No. I’m not sure how Weiss justifies boiling the argument down to rich vs. poor, but it is wrong.
Cultural appropriation is about power and representation. Katy Perry and her “baby hairs” and corn rows, the Kardashians and their artificially inflated asses/lips and candy-colored hair, and Miley Cyrus choosing to toss out twerking and (coated) tongue wagging in favor of country music (while berating hip-hop) are all examples of cultural appropriation. All of these women utilize the “cool” physical aspects of black womanhood in the comfort of their white skins, and they shed that black cool when it is financially and socially convenient to do so.
Meanwhile, the Keishas, LaQuandas, and Tamicas of the world go back to endure being called “ghetto,” a lack of job call backs, ridicule for being boisterous and such for those very same attributes (minus the coated tongue).
Cultural appropriation involves a certain level of disrespect, as noted by the Oxford Reference:
A term used to describe the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.
Weiss does not seem to understand this aspect of what cultural appropriation means, as evidenced by her use of democracy, slavery abolition, women’s suffrage, and algebra as examples of how “everything great and iconic about this country comes when seemingly disparate parts are blended in revelatory ways” in an op-ed about cultural appropriation:
More than half of the countries in the world now have some form of democracy — a system of government we enjoy and have evangelized, but was invented by ancient Greeks. Britain beat us to the abolition of slavery; the Isle of Man, New Zealand and Finland all decided to give women the vote well before the United States. Eventually, we got smart and borrowed these egalitarian innovations.
This summer, the University of Michigan posted a job for a ‘bias response team’ employee to ‘enact cultural appropriation prevention initiatives.’ I wonder if they’ll go after people for using algebra (thanks, Muslims).
She uses this logic to justify advocating for more cultural appropriation. Weiss says that she believes the term “cultural appropriation” is over-used when people are actually objecting to “syncretism” — the merging of different cultures, religions, and thoughts. Literally no one is objecting to democracy and the abolition of slavery.
That is a straw man argument.
There does exist, however, the notion of respectfully incorporating the ideas and ideals of other cultures into one’s own, and the afore-mentioned ideas fall into that category. Great ideas should be shared, sourced, and acknowledged.
Weiss’ cluelessness is further evidenced by her referring to the United States as a “melting pot” and saying that syncretism is the most “natural process.” Not at all. The U.S. is more like a shitty strip mall with a pothole-pocked parking lot. Everything is there, but separated, and a lot of those places have two-inch thick bulletproof glass for “protection.”
Weiss goes on with some false equivalencies about the Richard Spencers of the world and cultural appropriation watchers. She even tries to use the words “mongrel” and “miscegenation” in non-ironic ways. Her op-ed is wrong, ill-advised, not well-researched, and not well-written.
In her last paragraph, Weiss anticipates being called racist. I don’t call her racist. I call Weiss willfully ignorant. She chooses to not sort through the digital noise to see/read the voices of reason that exist on the side of calling out actual cultural appropriation.
Weiss is vocal and on the record about not being a Trump supporter, but I can’t help but think of the 53 percent of white women who voted and pulled the lever for Trump. They too are willfully ignorant.
Different story, same shit.