Last week the pop singer Taylor Swift made headlines with an otherwise-unremarkable live performance. She was considered to have stolen some of her moves and production from the singer Beyoncé, and because Beyoncé is black, there were calls of ‘cultural appropriation’. Only a few short years ago this strange phrase would have meant nothing to Taylor Swift or anyone else, but today it’s the kind of thing that has newspapers like The Guardian up in arms.i Swift will probably be expected to make a statement at some point, like a politician caught in a scandal. What on earth is going on?
The phrase cultural appropriation only surfaced in mainstream discourse very recently, after beginning life as the latest fashionable accusation to fling around on university campuses. The idea is that you should not be allowed to wear Mexican sombrerosii or practise yogaiii or commit any number of similar crimes if ‘your’ culture is not the culture usually associated with these practices, because that would constitute stealing. Even the use of vernacular terms associated with a particular group is now sometimes seen as an implicit attack on that group. The phrase ‘Poetry is lit’, for example, was condemned as ‘anti-blackness’ when it was seen on a Portland student’s T-shirt on campus. Apparently the phrase constituted ‘appropriation’ of African American Vernacular English.iv
The issue escalated in 2015 when Yale lecturer Erika Christakis decided to comment on campus hysteria over ‘culturally offensive’ Hallowe’en costumes. Certain students had complained to her that their choice of costumes was being aggressively policed by administrators and other students, and so she circulated an email with her thoughts. “As a former preschool teacher,” she wrote, “it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably ‘appropriative’ about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it… what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it ok if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions… I don’t, actually, trust myself to foist my Halloweenish standards and motives on others. I can’t defend them anymore than you could defend yours.”v
She continued in this measured and reasonable tone throughout the email, but the Yale mob were outraged. They demanded that she and her husband Nicholas (also a professor) both resign their positions immediately. A crowd of students surrounded Nicholas Christakis on campus and screamed and swore at him, with one tirade standing out in particular: “Who the fuck hired you?! You should step down!… (University) is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!… You should not sleep at night! You are disgusting!”vi Students claimed that they were suffering nervous breakdowns as a result of the email from Erika Christakis,vii and in the face of all this madness she agreed to step down.
As the historian Kenan Malik has observed, these accusations of cultural appropriation really amount to a “secular version of the charge of blasphemy.”viii Now we can see the witch-hunt spreading to society outside of academia, hence the targeting of Taylor Swift. Artwork depicting scenes from Native American history has been destroyed because the creators were not Native American themselves,ix editors have been forced to resign after defending the right of white authors to create indigenous characters,x and white people have been criticised for sunbathing because this involves a “co-option of Brownness.”xi Indeed, the issue often crops up in the most mundane of areas: Marks & Spencer, for instance, has been attacked for selling biryani wraps that contain no meat. According to the Soho restaurant Darjeeling Express, “you do not appropriate names from a cuisine without even bothering to do any research on that dish.” Maunika Gowardhan, the author of Indian Kitchen, said that selling a vegetarian biryani wrap was “wrong on many levels,” and “to narrow it down to something that is wrapped in a pack with lettuce and sweet potato… is ill-informed.”
Unfortunately Gowardhan then undermined her argument by explaining that “Every region (in India) will have their own techniques of cooking it.” As chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon Club in London explains, “there must be dozens if not hundreds of vegetarian versions of the dish in the sub-continent. I don’t think there is a Holy Grail of what a biryani should be. Having cooked professionally for 25 years, I think a vegetarian biryani is just as authentic as anything else.” But the self-appointed culture police continue in their hysterics. They have described Marks & Spencer’s curry kits as “upsetting” and “callous,” and they have accused Sainsbury’s of “casual racism” for its golden Persian curry.xii They even attacked the chef Gordon Ramsay for billing his new restaurant “an authentic Asian eating house.” His comments had apparently been hurtful to the entire continent of Asia – one Asian reviewer sobbed that she had to “drink through the pain.”xiii
Students have been expelled from school for wearing blackface. This is supposedly “part of a history of dehumanisation,” as opposed to, say, kids innocently messing around with fancy dress because it’s fun. Blackface produces “the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence!” shrieked a professor of race culture in The Huffington Post. Many of us will nod our heads and accept such statements without really thinking about it, but if we gave the argument a moment’s consideration then we would see what drivel it is. The professor has linked schoolchildren in fancy dress costumes to the oppression of black people by the police. This is embarrassingly silly. And yet some of the guardians of cultural purity have gone further than this, instructing their readers not to “dress up as anyone who’s ever been oppressed.” Of course the truth is that all races, ethnicities, and cultural groups have suffered oppression at some point, and so if you’re the kind of person that likes to dress up, then it looks like the fun is over permanently.xiv
In a world that criminalises cultural appropriation, no one is safe. Even writers who have gone out of their way to play by the new PC rules have ended up being viciously attacked. The journalist Jonathan Kay has described a recent example of this in an excellent essay for Quillette.xv He details the case of the Athabasca University Creative Writing Professor Angie Abdou and her novel In Case I Go. The book features First Nation Ktunaxa characters, and Abdou was keen to be as politically correct as possible in her representation of these characters. She hired an indigenous Cree consultant and ran everything by him. “(He) told me of the racism he experiences regularly. I wrote it in. He told me the novel’s Ktunaxa girl couldn’t be a ghost. She had to be real and solid and of this contemporary world, like Eli. I changed it.” Abdou sacrificed her art to the god of political correctness, and in my opinion this may be close to unforgivable. But the consultant told her this sacrifice still wasn’t enough. She must meet with Ktunaxa elders, he insisted, because “you can’t use their name or language without permission.” And so the Ktunaxa Nation Council gave her their orders: “You need to ground the story in this country’s history: the residential schools, the Indian agents, the reserves.” Again, she obeyed. “I stood in the centre of the (room) and told (the elders) about my novel,” she remembers, in an image immediately suggestive of a trial. “I said if they didn’t like my representation of the Ktunaxa, I could create a fictional indigenous name.”
After she had gone through several (entirely self-imposed) rounds of ritual humiliation and artistic self-flagellation, Abdou did actually win the approval of the Ktunaxa elders, and she went on to get her novel published. But the Social Justice Warriors were waiting – the shrieking mob with their pitchforks and bloodlust. They attacked Abdou for supposedly catering to “readers who objectify indigenous peoples as an ‘other’,” they attacked her for failing to get involved with unrelated land-use litigation concerning the Ktunaxa Nation, they attacked her for the ‘racism’ of a white person engaging with the Ktunaxa at all, and they suggested that she shouldn’t even be using the word ‘Ktunaxa’, in case it offended someone. Clearly, there was nothing she could have done to please them.
And so it seems that (a) no one is safe: the forces of political correctness will eat their own, and (b) these attempts to avoid cultural appropriation will be the death of art. Kay paints a vivid picture of where we are headed: “White women writing about white women. The Ktunaxa Nation writing about the glories of Ktunaxa Nation. With councils of elders and armies of Twitter trolls on hand to police the boundaries. Does this sound like an inviting intellectual landscape for all those hot new young writers (of whatever skin colour) that the publishing world is always looking for? If glorified mommy blogging and state propaganda are going to be your main options, why not cut to the chase and go straight into click farms and PR?”xvi
One of the most widely-discussed incidents of cultural appropriation occurred at San Francisco State University in March 2016. Cory Goldstein, a white student, was aggressively accosted on campus by Bonita Tindle, a black student, because she objected to his dreadlocks. Video footage captured Tindle struggling with Goldstein in a corridor and pulling him back down the stairs as he tried to get away. Dreadlocks, she told him, are “my culture.” As far as she was concerned Goldstein belonged to a different culture, and so he had no right to wear his hair in that style.xvii This vivid incident might provide us with a useful springboard from which to go into more detail about the problems raised by cultural appropriation.
Firstly, groups have no claim on cultural practices. The notion that a cultural feature belongs to a particular group simply does not bear scrutiny. Dreadlocks, to take Tindle’s example, are thought to have been common in the areas we now call Greece, Egypt, and India long before they had any association with modern ‘black culture’. So who exactly do they belong to? Should dreadlocks be illegal outside of Cairo? Or would that be a terrible mistake, and should they be exclusive to Mumbai instead? The philosophy of cultural ownership soon drives us into an impossible tangle of weeds. This is because it’s based on a mistake, which is the assumption that particular practices are the ancient and unchanging preserve of particular populations. The truth is that these features are often new and imported.
As the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker patiently explains, “the ancestors of the Hasidic Jews did not wear black coats and fur-lined hats in Levantine deserts, nor did the Plains Indians ride horses before the arrival of the Europeans… potatoes in Ireland, paprika in Hungary, tomatoes in Italy, hot chile peppers in India and China, and cassava in Africa come from New World plants, and were brought to their ‘traditional’ homes in the centuries after the arrival of Columbus in the Americas.”xviii In Scotland the clan-specific tartan kilt is a proud and supposedly long-standing tradition, but the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper kindly spoils the illusion for us. The kilt is in fact “a purely modern costume, first designed, and first worn, by an English Quaker industrialist, and… bestowed by him on the Highlanders in order not to preserve their traditional way of life but to ease its transformation: to bring them out of the heather and into the factory.”xix
Meanwhile the essayist Adam Gopnik has pointed out that nineteenth-century Japanese prints by artists like Hiroshige and Hokusai were emulated by French impressionists, and therefore could be classed as cultural appropriation, at least at first glance. “Those delicate black-edged figures and long almost cartoonish faces, those startling juxtapositions of foreground and distance, that informal and haiku-like lyricism” – all so quintessentially Japanese, right? Wrong. Gopnik explains that the Japanese artists had actually been copying Western perspective drawing and graphics in the first place. The more we examine the facts, the more we will find that the history of every society has involved the large-scale imitation and appropriation of features from other societies. This means that every culture is thoroughly mongrelised and corrupted – and quite frankly, the more corrupt, the healthier.xx
Secondly, groups have no claim on individual human beings. Today’s individual is in no way connected to the historical practices of members of ‘his’ or ‘her’ culture, so today’s individual cannot be excluded from the historical practices of ‘another’ culture. Writers, for instance, have often adopted ‘other’ dialects in their work – think of Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, Robert Louis Stevenson.xxi Do we discard their masterpieces? And if so, where does it end? Do we deconstruct the entire history of literature in our efforts to hunt down the heretics, the cultural appropriators? This idea of an ancient cultural connection between individual and group is really pseudo-spiritual nonsense. None of us were born into a culture; we were born into nature. And so today’s individual can wear his hair however he pleases, and it’s absolutely none of Bonita Tindle’s business.
Thirdly, cultural groups themselves can’t be coherently defined. The very concept of cultural appropriation rests on an assumption of the rigidity and purity of cultures, which is an idea that bears no relation to the real world. Presumably Tindle imagined herself to be defending black culture, based on the belief that black culture is a determinable reality. But this is a mistake. The characteristics of every cultural group will change rapidly over time – far too rapidly for any pseudo-scientific definition of the group to be established. Language changes quickly, and behaviour changes even more quickly.
The Islamic Moors who conquered medieval Spain, for instance, brought with them comparatively advanced ideas in science and philosophy, and they also brought their obsession with the purity of the Arabic language. Jews living in Spain soon adopted the same concern for science and philosophy, and the same concern for the purity of their own language: Hebrew. Before too long these had all become stereotypically ‘Jewish’ characteristics.xxii We might look to the nineteenth century for another good example: Irish immigrants were widely despised in the United States because of their violence and alcoholism and lack of hygiene. They were known for keeping farm animals in city neighbourhoods, and the terrible cholera epidemics that swept through Boston and New York were directly linked to the arrival of large numbers of Irish in those cities. But over time the immigrants turned things around, and a class of ‘lace curtain Irish’ began to distinguish itself from the ‘shanty Irish’. Soon enough Irish culture was unrecognisable.xxiii These radical changes are happening all around us all the time, and while the changes occur because each group is constantly incorporating practices from other groups, they also reflect the fact that the groups themselves are the vaguest and most slippery of ideas. No consistent dividing lines have ever been drawn between cultures, and with good reason.
Finally, and most importantly, Tindle was needlessly promoting division. Criticisms of cultural appropriation serve only to strengthen the artificial walls that we’ve constructed, and this prevents progress. The cultural appropriation police might imagine that they’re defending cultures, but in reality they’re defending the surface-level differences that divide us. Clearly, this is a pointless and retrogressive task.
Indeed, there is evidence that a society’s success depends on the extent to which it borrows cultural features from other societies. Western technology was badly copied and imitated in Japan for only a few short decades before the imitations became better than the originals, and Japan established itself as the global standard for quality in fields such as optics and automobiles. Now Japanese culture is firmly associated in most people’s minds with technological excellence – something that would have seemed laughable less than a century ago. And as the great social theorist Thomas Sowell explains, “When European technology has been seized upon by peoples so different as Americans and Japanese – one the clear heir of the European culture and the other from a radically different culture… then it is clearly the cultural receptivity of different peoples that is crucial, rather than simply their initial similarity to those in the technological vanguard. This suggests that the diffusion of technology is not simply a process of making information available or even transferring the embodied technology itself to other lands. Rusting Western machinery and decaying Western factories in many Third World countries, in the wake of massive international aid programs, are a monument to the fallacy of believing that technology transfer is simply a matter of access, rather than of cultural receptivity as well.”xxiv
Those Third World countries do not appear to have the same receptivity as countries like Japan – the same aptitude for cultural appropriation – and this is one of the reasons for their stagnation. Japan is actually a country almost destitute of natural resources, but this has proved no barrier to economic success. In comparison, Argentina has always had some of the best land in the world for growing wheat, but the country once overlooked this potential and actually imported wheat. It was only when certain immigrants arrived and demonstrated the massive potential of home soil that Argentina was able to take its place as one of the world’s great wheat-exporting nations. When the culture began appropriating new ideas, then it began prospering.xxv
Sowell concludes that “Throughout history, one of the great sources of cultural achievement, both for groups and for nations and even for civilisations, has been a borrowing of cultural features from others who happened to be more advanced in given fields at a given time… When firearms have displaced bows and arrows over vast regions of the planet, when a numbering system originating in India has displaced all sorts of other numbering systems among all sorts of peoples on every continent, when printing and paper from China have likewise spread their dominion more widely, more irresistibly, and more permanently across the world than any of the greatest conquerors of all time, then cultural relativism seems less like a principle and more like a fetish, if not mere squeamishness. Certainly the peoples of the world have borrowed extensively from each other’s cultures over centuries and millennia.”xxvi
This extends to all areas of life. The rock music that soundtracked and defined the second half of the twentieth century sprang ultimately from Bill Haley and Elvis Presley borrowing ‘black’ ideas. Had they never done that, the unique alchemy of rock ’n’ roll would never have been discovered. No Satisfaction, no Light My Fire, no Kashmir: the world would have been culturally poorer. Obviously someone like Taylor Swift is unlikely to produce anything of lasting significance, but the principle remains the same. She is following in a rich and vital tradition, and her critics would do better to stay quiet.
This essay was partly adapted from a book in progress.
i Arwa Mahdawi – “Don’t shake off the Taylor Swift–Beyoncé controversy as just a performance,” The Guardian, 4 May 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2019/may/04/taylor-swift-beyonce-performance-appropriation
ii Catherine Rampell – “Political correctness devours yet another college, fighting over mini-sombreros,” The Washington Post, 3 March 2016 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/party-culture/2016/03/03/fdb46cc4-e185-11e5-9c36-e1902f6b6571_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.fb79dfd185a7
iii Andrew Foote – “Yoga class cancelled at University of Ottawa over ‘cultural issues’,” CBC News, 22 November 2015 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/university-ottawa-yoga-cultural-sensitivity-1.3330441
iv Chris Bodenner – “The surprising revolt at the most liberal college in the country,” The Atlantic, 2 November 2017 https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/11/the-surprising-revolt-at-reed/544682/?utm_source=twb
v Erika Christakis, email to Silliman College (Yale) students on Hallowe’en costumes https://www.thefire.org/email-from-erika-christakis-dressing-yourselves-email-to-silliman-college-yale-students-on-halloween-costumes/
vi Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – “Yale University students protest Halloween costume email (video 3),” 6 November 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=32&v=9IEFD_JVYd0
vii Conor Friedersdorf – “The new intolerance of student activism,” The Atlantic, 9 November 2015 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-new-intolerance-of-student-activism-at-yale/414810/
viii Kenan Malik – “In defense of cultural appropriation,” The New York Times, 14 June 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/opinion/in-defense-of-cultural-appropriation.html
ix Hilarie M. Sheets – “Dakota people are debating whether to burn ‘scaffold’ fragments,” The New York Times, 5 June 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/05/arts/design/dakota-people-are-debating-whether-to-burn-scaffold-fragments.html?module=inline
x Marsha Lederman & Mark Medley – “Writers’ Union of Canada sparks outrage, resignations,” The Globe and Mail, 10 May 2017 https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/writers-union-of-canada-editorial-on-cultural-appropriation-sparks-outrage-resignations/article34952918/
xi Vrinda Jagota – “When does tanning become racially insensitive?” Paper, 4 May 2019 http://www.papermag.com/gigi-hadid-tanning-vogue-2565915412.html
xii Valentine Low – “M&S roasted over ‘fake biryani’ wrap,” The Times, 30 January 2019 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/m-s-roasted-over-fake-biryani-wrap-lq5dj8qzx
xiii Frances Perraudin – “Gordon Ramsay defends new restaurant in cultural appropriation row,” The Guardian, 14 April 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/apr/14/gordon-ramsay-defends-lucky-cat
xiv Diana Bruk – “How to avoid cultural appropriation this Halloween,” Best Life, 2 October 2018 https://bestlifeonline.com/halloween-cultural-appropriation/
xv Jonathan Kay – “‘Canada has gone mad’: indigenous representation and the hounding of Angie Abdou,” Quillette, 10 January 2018 http://quillette.com/2018/01/10/canada-gone-mad-indigenous-representation-hounding-angie-abdou/. Kay cites https://twitter.com/CarleighBaker/status/926109473839579136
xvii Aftab Ali – “Black San Francisco student filmed harassing white student over his dreadlocks in ‘cultural appropriation’ row,” The Independent, 30 March 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/black-san-francisco-student-filmed-harassing-white-student-because-of-his-dreadlocks-in-cultural-a6959181.html
xviii Steven Pinker – The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Penguin, London, 2002), p66. Pinker cites Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat – A History of Food (Blackwell, Cambridge, Mass., 1992)
xix Hugh Trevor-Roper – “The invention of tradition: the Highland tradition of Scotland” in Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger (eds.) – The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p22
xxi As discussed by Heather Mac Donald in “The death of the author and the end of empathy,” Quillette, 2 August 2018 https://quillette.com/2018/08/02/the-death-of-the-author-and-the-end-of-empathy/
xxii Thomas Sowell – Race and Culture: A World View (BasicBooks, New York, 1994), p4. Sowell cites Raphael Patai – The Jewish Mind (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1977), pp. 122-5
xxiii Ibid., pp. 106-7. Sowell cites Oscar Handlin – Boston’s Immigrants (Atheneum, New York, 1970), p114; George Potter – To the Golden Door: The Story of the Irish in Ireland and America (Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut, 1960), p181
xxiv Ibid., p8. Sowell cites Yasuo Wakatsuki – “Japanese emigration to the United States,” Perspectives in American History vol. XII (1979), pp. 430-4, 465-70
xxv Ibid., p22
xxvi Ibid., pp. 30, 225. Sowell cites William H. McNeill – The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991); John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, & Albert M. Craig – East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass., 1989 edition); E. L. Jones – The European Miracle: Environments, Economnies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992)