Cultural Appropriation is an American Asset
There is no American culture without appropriation, the whole world is doing it now, and we’re the only ones who feel bad about it. We shouldn’t.
When I was young, I noticed that some people on TV saw fried chicken, greens, cornbread, and black-eyed peas on a plate and called it Soul food. At some point, I learned that up north, this was considered black people’s cooking, but for me, it was my grandmother’s. There’s no difference between Southern food and soul food, apart from the name, but this hasn’t stopped the professional activist class from asserting racial ownership over the cuisine when it is presented without “context.” In 2021, Travon Jackson, executive director of the African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region in Albany, New York, told Times Union that white people could only avoid cultural appropriation while eating fried chicken if it is exhibited in “historical context”. According to Jackson, the “historical context” is that slaves served fried chicken to white people — which is true, but it's also true for virtually every dish which was ever eaten by a member of the Planter oligarchy. If you care to imagine a world without cultural appropriation, imagine being chased around an Upstate New York Cracker Barrel by a waiter yapping about slavery forever.
Like most things in America, fried chicken is a byproduct of cultural synthesis — in this case, Scottish and African. The contemporary American fixation on cultural appropriation is a strange one. It’s part of a larger attempt to replace the idea of America as a melting pot with multiculturalism. The melting pot has become seen as somewhat synonymous with assimilation, but it isn’t quite that. Melting may be a form of destruction, but it is also a method of production. This is why America has created so many new forms of music, literature, and art. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, is interested in the polite construction of a human zoo. It is a cosmopolitan ideal that fetishizes difference and seeks to preserve and ghettoize culture under the guise of diversity. Put cultures in cages, and you can gawk at them, coddle them, admire them even, but they'll never produce anything new. Destroying these artificial barriers and allowing cultures to co-mingle, collaborate, and borrow freely from one another is a dynamic, if somewhat Darwinian, process of cultural creation, and one which has served American culture well. Diversity isn’t our strength. Appropriation is.
Consider Selena Quintanilla. The Corpus Christi native has become seen as an emblem of Latin music but there is nothing Latin-American about her or her music, which was distinctly American — more specifically Texan and even more specifically Tejano — a melding of Spanish folk music, waltz, and polka, an organic fusion created by the meeting of Czech immigrants, German immigrants, and Texas Mexicans (Tejanos) in Central and South Texas nearly 200 years ago. This history didn’t matter to her fans, Hispanic or otherwise, and nobody seemed to care that she didn’t speak Spanish fluently and learned her lyrics phonetically. Decades after her tragic murder, another monolingual-English-speaking Tejana named Selena — Selena Gomez — faced backlash for releasing music in Spanish.
To keep it short, ideas about “cultural appropriation” were created decades ago in the “ethnic” studies departments — themselves a byproduct of new-left campus activism in the 1970s — but, for the most part, mercifully remained in the academic ghetto until the mass adoption of social media in the 2010s. Though significantly less common than they are now, conversations around appropriation popped up in mass media before the 2010s. For example, in 1994, Ray Charles took umbrage with people referring to Elvis Presley as “the king,” telling NBC’s Bob Costa that “he was doing our type of music,” and noted that while whites celebrated Elvis’s hip-swaying act, Nat King Cole had been run out of town in Alabama for doing a similar one. Ray Charles’ assertion that Elvis “did” black music is closer to the truth than the popular perception today, which is that Elvis “stole” black music. Elvis Presley was not a suburban Jew from New Jersey or a Norwegian farm boy from South Dakota. He was a poor white from Tupelo, Mississippi, who lived in a largely black neighborhood and found his musical inspiration in an Assemblies of God church — a church which, like all Pentecostal churches, traces its lineage to the Azusa Street Revival, a movement which came out of the black church but quickly attracted and accepted disadvantaged people from all walks of life, including the white underclass. United by hard lives and possessed by the holy ghost, poor blacks, Hispanics, whites, and Indians prayed, sang, testified, and spoke in tongues together. Given the segregated history of Protestant Christianity in the United States, this was a radical movement of cross-racial Christian brotherhood and, at least in Jim Crow Mississippi, must have seemed like an act of outright social rebellion. Of course, Elvis sang like a black gospel singer, he grew up in the same religious tradition! He was alleged to have literally stolen a song from a lesser-known black artist — but only decades after the appropriation accusations started. In any case, Ray Charles and black artists of his generation had reason to feel bitterness toward Elvis. White artists did have advantages in the Jim Crow era that black artists didn’t, and it's hard to imagine that Elvis could have replicated his mainstream success if he had been black.
But today, legitimate grievance has been replaced by neuroticism. The Harvard Crimson asks, “Does Avatar Use Blueface?” wondering aloud if James Cameron “appropriated” various non-specific “Indigenous cultures.” (It's worth pointing out that the Dutch also have an “indigenous culture”; the word indigenous has merely become a polite synonym of “tribal” — people say indigenous when they want to invoke the image of hooting Indians and South Pacific headhunters without admitting it.) How alarming that not even fictional movies set in outer space are safe. I suppose Cambridge hasn’t gotten too far away from its Puritan roots – “Before we enjoy the movie, are we sure nobody saw Goody Cameron with the Devil?”
The concern about cultural apportion has ironically turned into a form of cultural imperialism, whereby the whole world is subjected to narcissistic and anxious American racial concerns. In January, in an article for Allure, editor Jesa Calaor, a Filipino-American, admitted that she loved Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku era as a kid but came to “examine it” as an adult. Calaor interviewed the Italian-American Stefani, who hilariously told her, “I’m Japanese,” (legend) and what followed was a lot of hand-wringing about power differentials and money with quotes from Asian studies professors discussing boundaries between appreciation and appropriation like little mullahs debating a fatwa.
To subject something as fun as Gwen Stefani’s love of Harajuku street — a pedestrian paradise where the catwalk got its claws (MEOW!) — to such boring academic debate is puritanic, silly, and rests on the premise that Asians are uniquely oppressed by anyone in this country besides schizophrenic vagrants and college administrators working under affirmative action mandates. Moreover, Asian-Americans, even Japanese ones, don’t “own” the Harajuku fashion subculture any more than Gwen Stefani does. “Asian” is a census word that means so little that it’s lopped in with Pacific Islanders, as if Samoans, Chinese, and Bangladeshis have anything in common. Asian means even less in Japan, a country that has chosen to commit demographic seppuku rather than risk corrupting the great Yamato race with immigration (their sentiment, not mine!). Stefani didn't “steal” anything. She utilized the age-old American impulse to melt down parts of the culture in the production of something new. “I’m a little bit of an Orange County girl, a little bit of a Japanese girl, a little bit of an English girl,” she said.
Appropriation and cultural synthesis happen on a global scale now, thanks to the internet, and now foreigners mock Americans for their tsk-tsk-ing about the practice. Earlier this year, Spanish singer Rosalía was criticized (by Americans) for “appropriating” Latin American culture leading to the “widespread misconception that she is Latina,” so says an NPR writer in an article that uses the term “Latinx.” (They talk like that in el barrio Ms. Restrepo?) These “gringo latinos” were later mocked by actual Latin Americans, who didn’t seem to care that Rosalía was a “colonizer.”
Demanding that artists avoid “cultural appropriation” not only limits style but storytelling. Under a cultural appropriation regime, all work must be memoir, or at least conceivably so. Cher’s Half Breed describes the plight of a half-Cherokee woman in the first person. It’s a sympathetic portrayal, a classic tragic mulatto narrative familiar to students of literature. Did anyone actually think the story was autobiographical? Even when she performed the song on a horse, in full (rhinestoned to hell) Native American regalia? Probably not, since she’d released Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves two years earlier. Had she been trying to pass off either as an official origin story, she probably wouldn’t have performed the songs together in a medley on her own televised variety show. This was storytelling, everyone knew it, and everyone loved it.
I will concede the existence of a sort of crass cultural appropriation which should be condemned — but condemned on aesthetic and artistic grounds, not moral ones. When Azealia Banks eviscerated fellow rapper Iggy Azalea — Igloo Australia, as Banks calls her — on cultural appropriation grounds, her most scathing line had nothing to do with cultural appropriation. “The Grammy’s are supposed to be accolades for artistic excellence,” Banks said, “and Iggy Azalea is not excellent.” Iggy Azalea isn’t excellent. She’s an Australian woman who raps in a butchered black southern accent and not well enough to pull off calling herself a “runaway slave master.” (A comment that’s offensive for obvious reasons that have nothing to do with cultural appropriation.) In a 2019 article for Junkee, Jackson Langford compared the somewhat effective cancel culture campaign against Iggy Azalea to the experience of fellow white rapper Eminem. Jackson notes that throughout the course of Iggy’s short-lived career, Eminem had recorded a leaked song in which he threatened to rape Iggy Azalea, said he would punch Lana del Rey in the face, and called Tyler the Creator a faggot, among other transgressions. Jackson wrote, “Of course, his career has been much longer and much more celebrated than Azalea’s, but that shouldn’t make him immune to criticism or being held accountable for his actions.” But Eminem didn’t get away with any of those things (or cultural appropriation for that matter) because his career happened to be long and celebrated, but because it deserved to be long and celebrated. Iggy Azalea's didn’t.
People sometimes try to navigate cultural appropriation charges by acknowledging it themselves. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was Macklemore’s album White Privilege II — an incredibly corny act of self-debasement in which the wordsmith who brought us lyrics such as “when I was in the 3rd grade I thought that I was gay because I could draw” also called out other white artists for the appropriation of black culture. He rapped, “You’re Miley, you’re Elvis, you’re Iggy Azalea/ Fake and so plastic, you’ve heisted the magic.” It wasn’t well received and I’m not sure he’s been heard from since. A few years later, another white rapper, Jake Harlow, would also address the issue in songs like Baxter Avenue, but keep it brief. Scale is one difference; the other is style. Macklemore came off as a neurotic suburban kid and groveling libtard, someone who got what he wanted and insisted on apologizing for it. When Macklemore won a Grammy, he sent Kendrick Lamar a text saying he wished he’d won instead, and then published a screenshot of said tweet on his Instagram, a move widely characterized at the time as both self-promoting and patronizing — a real “I’m one of the good whites” moments. Jack Harlow, a smooth Southern party boy, sometimes comes off as goofy, but in a sexy fuck boy way, never corny in the Macklemorian sense (hipstery, northwestern, preachy). When he addresses the appropriation issue, he does so in passing and does so with a (comparatively) detached coolness. Eminem addressed the issue in “Without Me,” rapping “Though I'm not the first king of controversy/ I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley/ To do Black music so selfishly/ And use it to get myself wealthy,” but it wasn’t an apology and neither was his line in the song “Elvis” which simply says “Yeah I stole black music.” Even when the cultural consensus seems to be that cultural appropriation is bad, Eminem doesn’t have to apologize for “stealing” black music.
Because he’s done it well. Even today, voices that rail against cultural appropriation are not always enough to stop things that are good. People will listen to Eminem and Gwen Stefani because they make good music, people will watch Avatar because of all of his bad writing, James Cameron’s Stalinist directing style and meticulous attention to detail create visually stunning cinema, and people will eat fried chicken without thinking about slavery because they like fried chicken. What’s concerning is new artists, whatever their medium, self-censoring or having their work aborted by others over fears of cultural appropriation — a driving force in American culture for generations and one that we would be stagnant without. Other societies have no such qualms. I doubt that K-pop idol training camps — a sort of gulag archipelago for hot young Koreans — have biannual DEI classes. Their fascistic puppetry of American pop music is utterly soulless, but at least they have the courage to do it — not a hair out of place — without apologizing. The whole world is engaged in cultural appropriation now, and we as Americans used to do it better than anyone. If we stop running with one foot tied behind our backs, we can stay ahead. God willing, we will.
Can't recall who I heard say it, but "all culture is appropriated"