Say what you like, cultural appropriation makes the world a better place
It’s not OK for Nicki to have a blonde wig if Miley can’t twerk
The outstanding fact about people who think cultural appropriation is a bad thing is that they’re not very intelligent.
Imagine a London frozen in 1945. It’s a bright day but there’s no colour in the streets – there’s no colour anywhere – torn paper is fitfully pushed around by the breeze over the roofs of houses, which haven’t changed since the 19th century. The homes are skeletal, patched up with corrugated iron and rotting cardboard. Everything smells like boiled cabbage or damp towels.
In this immiserated city the restaurants only serve liver and knuckle and tongue and gruel, crammed into sad little pastries and pies. At the club you take your pick between dirty bangers from Vera Lynn, Benjamin Britten or Elgar, at the bar they only serve a sour tasting gin or pints of the bitterest ale.
But people in this place seem happy and responsible; they’re gormless, authoritarian and pathologically tolerant new model citizens of a world where cultural appropriation is banned. They’re smiling because there’s not a problematically misplaced sombrero or bindi or headdress in sight.
This is an England where the culture was strangled before it grew, where the people view the rest of the world with suspicion, as a predatory stranger over the hill who they’d never want to meet.
Cultural appropriation is less an idea than a way of describing something which is undeniably real. It’s “a power dynamic where members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been oppressed by that dominant group.” – as defined here.
What happens next is the stupid part. Those who buy into this way of describing the world – an accurate description of at least the last 12,000 years of human history – think it’s a bad thing that needs to stop right now.
It does mean theft, pillage, hypocrisy and plagiarism but more importantly, it means fun.
Vast migrations of labour have scooped people up from all over the earth and flung them together in the big cities of the west – this is the story of our time. It means the food you love, the clothes you love, the music you love, the people you love are the product of cultural clashes and implosions. Call it appreciation, call it appropriation – whatever – you’re fooling yourself if you can’t see they’re the same thing.
To write all of this off as a problematic because frat boys in America can be dickheads at Halloween, or because Nicki Minaj’s resting bitch face was pointing in Miley Cyrus’ direction at an awards ceremony, is not just dumb, but actually quite depressing.
At the root of all this is the belief that somewhere out there authentic cultures still exist. The student union reps who won’t let you wear bindis or sombreros or headresses think these objects represent “authentic” cultures, free from external influences, pure and in need of protection.
But the truth is the opposite: there are no authentic cultures left on earth. Our creativity and dynamism as human beings comes from the tension and conflict between cultures. If we try and drag culture back to a mythical edenic state – where nobody ever gets upset, where nothing is ever stolen – we’ll find ourselves as trapped and alone as Nick Griffin would be at Carnival.
Too often cultural appropriation is platitudinous window dressing for outright xenophobia and crude bigotry. Too often we forget what it has given us, the world as it is today: nasty, brutal, mysterious and beautiful, always worthy of celebrating.
Believe in what you see there, not in what you believe in already.