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Saturday, May 07, 2016

The bane of cultural appropriation

The bane of cultural appropriation

"In recent decades, however, the universalist viewpoint has eroded, largely as many of the social movements that embodied that viewpoint have disintegrated. The social space vacated by that disintegration became filled by identity politics.

As the broader struggles for social transformation have faded, people have tended to retreat into their particular faiths or cultures, and to embrace more parochial forms of identity. In this process, the old cultural arguments of the racists have returned, but now rebranded as "antiracist".

But how does creating gated cultures, and preventing others from trespassing upon one's culture without permission, challenge racism or promote social justice?...

The trouble is that in making the case against cultural appropriation, campaigners equally perpetuate stereotypes.

After all, to suggest that it is "authentic" for blacks to wear locks, or for Native Americans to wear a headdress, but not for whites to do so, is itself to stereotype those cultures.

Cultures do not, and cannot, work through notions of "ownership". The history of culture is the history of cultural appropriation - of cultures borrowing, stealing, changing, transforming.

Nor does preventing whites from wearing locks or practising yoga challenge racism in any meaningful way.

What the campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal is the disintegration of the meaning of "anti-racism". Once it meant to struggle for equal treatment for all.

Now it means defining the correct etiquette for a plural society. The campaign against cultural appropriation is about policing manners rather than transforming society...

The very fact of being outraged makes one the arbiter of what is outrageous. The gatekeepers, in other words, define themselves, because they are ones who want to put up the gates.

The debates around Justin Bieber's hair or Beyonce's Bollywood outfit are relatively trivial. But, in other contexts, the creation of gatekeepers has proved highly problematic.

In many European nations, minority groups have come to be seen as distinct communities, each with their own interests, needs and desires, and each with certain so-called "community leaders" acting as their representatives...

Notions of "offence" are often used to police not just what outsiders may say about a particular community, but to shut down debate within those communities - think of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or the shutting down by Sikh activists of Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti, which explored the role of women within Sikh communities.

The campaign against cultural appropriation is, in other words, part of the broader attempt to police communities and cultures. Those who most suffer from such policing are minority communities themselves, and in particular progressive voices within those communities. The real fight against injustice begins with ridding ourselves of our self-appointed gatekeepers."
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