Wednesday, 26 March 2014

On Cultural Appropriation

     So, a couple of weeks ago, I saw an article by Randa Jarrar on Salon called "Why I can't stand white belly-dancers", in which she complains about cultural appropriation. Not surprisingly, it provoked a lot of response, and much of that negative. My own reaction was a roll of  the eyes, as it was so full of historical grievance rhetoric. Not that the historical grievances don't exist, but I am wary of the righteous victim card; when you devote more ink to how angry you are than to articulating exactly why other people should feel the same way, I feel the eyerolling urge. Magnitude of emotion is not evidence that a position is sound. Arguing passionately is one thing, but too much anger tends to make one incoherent.
     I have long suspected that the concept of cultural appropriation was one of those bits of self-vindicating pseudobabble that escapes serious analysis by dint of angry incoherence. I recall being mystified at the rage with which some people attacked Paul Simon for his album Graceland, accusing him of stealing African music. Part of why have little sympathy for this view is that I object to the concept of intellectual property generally, and I think "stealing" is just the wrong paradigm. But at the same time, I think there is a legitimate complaint here, even if it isn't being formulated well.

     Back in the mid 1980's, a friend gave me a 300 baud modem for my Apple ][ and the phone number of a few local dial-up bulletin board systems he thought I might enjoy. That evening, when I got home from my weekly RPG, I called one up for the first time, and when asked to specify a user name, the first thing that popped into my head was "Bald Dwarf", because the character I had been playing that evening was a dwarven fighter. (Rebelling against class and race stereotypes, I decided to make my character completely bald, but he always wore a wig and beard to conceal this embarrassingly undwarven trait.) I've been online ever since.
     Now, online trolls are not at all a new thing, and there was one fellow who seemed to make it his mission to disrupt any meaningful conversation he deemed pretentious, elitist, or just too serious, I suppose. Then as now, I loved to debate issues like abortion, gun control, economics, theology and so on, and so I was a frequent target. And, for some reason, he started drawing a comic strip for the university newspaper, and named one of the characters "Bald Dwarf".
     I don't know what sort of reaction he was looking for. Perhaps I was supposed to feel insulted, or honoured, or both. I was annoyed, but it actually had nothing to do with the depiction of me or the character as such. Rather, it was that my handle had been co-opted, and would ever more be associated with something I had nothing to do with, and didn't particularly want associated with me. I didn't even dislike the comic -- sometimes it was very funny -- but I knew that people would now think I had taken my name from the comic, and not the reverse. In short, my name had been appropriated. (I have not mentioned the name of the author or the comic strip because, oddly enough, he is trying to distance himself from it; it turns out that making something to deliberately offend people isn't something you want to be associated with when you're looking for charitable grants to support your medical research.)

     This happens all the time, and in many different ways. The swastika was a beautiful, elegant geometric design, but ever since it was adopted by the Nazis, it has taken on an overwhelming new and hateful meaning that effectively prevents anyone from using it for anything else. The concept of the meme, as originally described by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, is a powerful concept for understanding cultural evolution, but whenever I talk about memes to people today, they think I'm talking about Facebook macros and I have to spend ten minutes explaining. I get annoyed when journalists talk about something "begging the question" when they mean "raising the question", but it's probably a losing battle trying to make people understand that particular logical fallacy.
     So I acknowledge that there's a real and sometimes infuriating phenomenon here. But calling it "cultural appropriation" is really nothing more than an attempt to shoehorn a few instances of a general process into an ideological narrative of oppression and imperialism. To be sure, oppression and imperialism exist, and play an enormous role in how this process of cultural evolution unfolds (including explaining why certain instances of cultural evolution cause more pain than others), but a white woman who decides she wants to learn how to belly-dance is not engaging in a systematic attempt to disempower women of color.

     I'm not saying one should just meekly accept it when someone else redefines a cherished symbol or practice in a way one doesn't like. Not at all. We can and should engage to vigorously promote the conventions we want to see adopted, and if you think that "belly dancing" carries a particular meaning, then by all means disseminate that meaning so that it might catch on and become the dominant convention that we all think of when we see a belly-dancer. Decry the poseurs who are dumbing it down or missing the critical nuances. Educate. But complaining because you don't like the colour of their skin is no way to stake out a defensible moral claim.


  1. Did you notice whose photo art was at the top of the "I hate white bellydancers" article?

  2. Yes I did! That's why I actually posted the link on the photographer's wall on Facebook.

  3. Hmm. I actually have the book of that particular comic, and I'm not at all surprised to learn the author aggressively stirred up BBS boards.

    His attempting to distance from it is easy to explain. If you wrote such a thing in your youth, would you want it known to your professional colleagues? It's a fairly career limiting thing.