Saturday, October 17, 2015

Kwame Anthony Appiah on the benefits of appropriation

Bo Derek, running dog of appropriation
I'm amazed that I blogged about Kwame Anthony Appiah's "The Case for Contamination almost ten years now. I guess that's what happens when you've had a blog as long as I have - my 10 year bloggerversary is coming up on November 2.

I still remember posting it though, so it doesn't seem so long ago. I was very impressed by his main point - that cultural appropriation is a good thing. Although he only uses the word "appropriating" once and not in reference to the current popular meaning. His focus in the Case for Contamination is more on other cultures being made less pure by whites (Europe and the United States):
The preservationists often make their case by invoking the evil of "cultural imperialism." Their underlying picture, in broad strokes, is this: There is a world system of capitalism. It has a center and a periphery. At the center - in Europe and the United States - is a set of multinational corporations. Some of these are in the media business. The products they sell around the world promote the creation of desires that can be fulfilled only by the purchase and use of their products. They do this explicitly through advertising, but more insidiously, they also do so through the messages implicit in movies and in television drama. Herbert Schiller, a leading critic of "media-cultural imperialism," claimed that "it is the imagery and cultural perspectives of the ruling sector in the center that shape and structure consciousness throughout the system at large."
One of the pillars of identitarianism is opposition to the cosmopolitanism Appiah is talking about. But their cultural appropriation is not people of color using white people stuff, but white people using people of color stuff - young white women wearing their hair in cornrows is a particular irritant for them, in spite of the fact that Bo Derek wearing cornrows was a thing back in 1979. But anti-appropriationist Parul Sehgal felt the need to mention them anyway in her NYTimes screed:
In fashion, there was the odd attempt to rebrand cornrows as a Caucasian style — a ‘‘favorite resort hair look,’’ according to Elle.
Shehgal doesn't seem to have any problem with black women straightening their hair though, so apparently in her mind people of color can appropriate anything they want, only white people are forbidden from adopting something that was originally associated with another ethnicity, even if, like cornrows, it was adopted thirty-six years ago by white people.

But it doesn't matter which side of white/nonwhite you are against adaptation, what we're talking about is culture purity, which is almost always associate with fundamentalism and reaction. And cultural appropriation has been happening forever. Appiah again:
The ideals of purity and preservation have licensed a great deal of mischief in the past century, but they have never had much to do with lived culture. Ours may be an era of mass migration, but the global spread and hybridization of culture - through travel, trade or conquest - is hardly a recent development. Alexander's empire molded both the states and the sculpture of Egypt and North India; the Mongols and then the Mughals shaped great swaths of Asia; the Bantu migrations populated half the African continent. Islamic states stretch from Morocco to Indonesia; Christianity reached Africa, Europe and Asia within a few centuries of the death of Jesus of Nazareth; Buddhism long ago migrated from India into much of East and Southeast Asia. Jews and people whose ancestors came from many parts of China have long lived in vast diasporas. The traders of the Silk Road changed the style of elite dress in Italy; someone buried Chinese pottery in 15th-century Swahili graves. I have heard it said that the bagpipes started out in Egypt and came to Scotland with the Roman infantry. None of this is modern.
I wasn't able to find anything by Appiah addressing anti-appropriationism, but I hope he writes something soon. The ethnicity of a writer should not matter more than what they say, but to identitarians no white person has the right to speak on the issue of ethnicity (unless the white person is an identitarian), so what I say won't mean anything to them except as an example of a white woman refusing to STFU. Appiah is not white and so might actually be able to get through to identitarians. Not because he makes superb, reasonable arguments, but because of the authority of his ethnicity.

In the meantime I thought this piece by a couple of bloggers, Reflections on Cultural Appropriation is pretty good, although I can't confirm they are people of color and so quite possibly dismissible by identitarians. All they have is rational argument, a thing that identitarians are notably resistant to.

I hadn't been keeping up on the career of Appiah, and I see he's the now the New York Time's Ethicist. I will have to start reading that regularly.