Around the World bop: Perhaps we should toast Cultural Appropriation
The hysteria around cultural appropriation and the Pembroke Bop theme is a deranged exercise in hiding ill-defined notions behind pseudo-technical jargon.
We are now in the aftermath of Pembroke’s controversially uncontroversial bop.
I want to talk about a phenomenon which is setting a dangerous precedent across student meetings, not just in Cambridge, but all over the world. I want to talk about cultural appropriation.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really don’t care what the students of Pembroke College wear to parties, and I think that insensitive costumes are as offensive as the next man. But I do care that the decision to ban the theme was informed by the belief that people would be offended by cultural appropriation, and the idea that this is an offence that we should be avoiding in the first place.
My basic argument is this; most of the rhetoric surrounding cultural appropriation is misguided and wrong. The idea that people’s cultures can be appropriated is based on political ideals of segregation and self-interest, and it is immensely damaging for racial integration in general. What’s more, it is an insult to me and many others mixed-race people like me.
‘Cultural appropriation’ is a term which describes the use of another culture’s behaviour when the user is a member of a culture with a history of oppressing other cultures. The favourite perpetrators are those who ‘appropriate’ hairstyles, henna, traditional dress and foreign food, with hoards of people queuing up to castigate (usually) white people for partaking in the activities that they tried so hard to destroy when they were attempting to take over the world.
Naughty naughty white people.
The first problem with this is that deriving your ethics from repeatedly dredging up the messed up things that people have done to each other in the course of history is a stupid idea, and it is no way to go about living your life. If we spend too much time poring over atrocities such as the holocaust or American slavery we are going to end up with, at best, a warped view of modern day race relations, and, at worst, with a desire for retribution against those who had nothing to do with the original crimes. The resulting belief that certain appropriations are justified while others are not, due to “structures of oppression” is a deranged exercise in hiding ill-defined notions behind pseudo-technical jargon.
What we have in place at present is a system of belief in which our permitted behaviours are dictated by the colour of our skin. I don’t think that’s progress. In fact, I think it is positively damaging. The whole idea of cultural appropriation implies that people own and inherit cultural behaviours and that the mixing of cultures is somehow unjust because it bastardises something which ought to be protected. I struggle to get on board with that sentiment, as I am the result of the mixing of cultures. The massive, and fatal, inconsistency in the theory of cultural appropriation is the fact that it encourages people to think that mixed race people are undesirable, as they are the products of cultural appropriations themselves.
Do we really want to promote a discourse which encourages the feeling that we should constantly be thinking about our skin colour before we act? Do we really want to push a rhetoric which stresses the differences between ethnic groups, rather than the things that tie us all together? Do we really want our representatives to be basing their decisions on an idea which suggests that ethnic minorities adopting British culture is an act of borrowing something that isn’t really theirs? I’d say probably not.
There is so much more which could be said on the subject, but now is not the time to delve into it. Instead, I’ll raise my glass to mixed-race people, who are living proof that we don’t need to spend our lives wallowing in our own history, and pigeon-hole-ing people into power structures.
And here’s a toast to cultural appropriation, without which I wouldn’t even exist.