“It’s a truth only selectively acknowledged that all cultures are mongrel,” wrote Parul Sehgal in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “Is Cultural Appropriation Always Wrong?” If it is, then count me among the select. As I said back in May, cultural appropriation is culture. Artists build new culture out of existing culture, and while they sometimes innovate within the terms of a given subgenre, they frequently import material from outside it.
Sehgal acknowledges as much, begrudgingly, but reminds us there are right ways and wrong ways to talk about it. “We sometimes describe this mingling as ‘cross-pollination’ or ‘cross-fertilization’ — benign, bucolic metaphors that obscure the force of these encounters.” I had observed that acts of war sometimes precipitated the cultural exchange. But pardon me for interrupting: “When we wish to speak more plainly, we talk of ‘appropriation’— a word now associated with the white Western world’s co-opting of minority cultures.”
Catch that? “Appropriation” is the plain descriptor. No injection of judgment going on there. If you buy into those agricultural analogies, you’re no better than a thief. (I detest the use of passive voice and first-person plural to conjure this hand-wavy societal aggregate into apparent existence. That aforementioned truth is selectively acknowledged by whom? And who is this “we” she keeps talking about?)
Seghal’s answer to her titular question is, “I’m not sure.” Her framing makes it clear what she wants the answer to be, but to her credit, she allows that the views of creators including Questlove, Mykki Blanco, and Kamila Shamsie don’t let her draw that conclusion. Shamsie makes a particularly convincing argument: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories.” Sehgal appreciates that we owe allegiance to those stories apart from the identity of the writer.
Cultural Appropriation Doesn’t Hurt People
On the other hand, she cites two ways in which cultural appropriation causes harm. Neither of them are substantive.
Vaunted Harm No. 1 is the bizarre idea “that the cultural devaluation of black people paves the way for violence against them.” Her source for this notion is a video posted to YouTube by Amandla Stenberg of “The Hunger Games.” I do not argue with children. Instead I leave it to someone sympathetic to this view to explain how it happens that when a nonblack artist quotes black culture, thus supposedly devaluing it by deleting its context, it prompts someone to injure or kill black people. Has this ever happened? Did bigots beat up a black guy and cite Miley Cyrus’s twerking hiney as inspiration?
Vaunted Harm No. 2 is the anger that ensues when people borrow cultural trappings while making life difficult for the culture that originated them. “When Allure magazine offers tips on achieving a ‘loose Afro’ accompanied by a photograph of a white woman, we can’t overlook how actual black women have been penalized for the hairstyle — that two years ago it was widely reported that a 12-year-old black girl in Florida was threatened with expulsion because of her ‘distracting’ natural hair, and that schools in Oklahoma and Ohio have tried to ban Afros outright. We can’t forget that South Asian bindis became trendy in the mid-’90s, not long after South Asians in New Jersey were being targeted by a hate group that called itself Dotbusters, referencing the bindi, which some South Asian women stopped wearing out of fear of being attacked.”
These sound like galling dichotomies until you—excuse me, we—realize that the people doing the borrowing and the people doing the oppressing are not the same people. Allure magazine does not have input on personal grooming codes at elementary schools in Tulsa. If bindis got big in the ’90s, people only started objecting to non-South Asians wearing them at Coachella recently, and it’s a stretch to justify the outrage by pointing to a spree of racial violence in New Jersey from more than two decades ago.
The only way to conflate these instances into a pattern is to presume that all white people are the same in all places at all times. That strikes me as a poor way to think about humanity, grouped by skin color or otherwise.
Bad Poets Imitate; Mature Poets Steal
So the answer to my titular question is no, with one exception: cultural appropriation is wrong when it results in failed art. Iggy Azalea, her astonishing powers of mimicry aside, has nothing interesting to say as a musician. Cornrows, which can look stunning on black people, tend to make whites look like they’re wearing centipedes. That goes for everyone else’s borrowing, too. I wanted to like Babymetal. I did not succeed.
But T.S. Eliot said as much long ago. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
Eliot might be fending off a Twitter social justice mob had he said that today, but it’s still true. If you make good art, if you love good art, all cultures are yours.