“Cultural appropriation” (A Trump-free blog post)

A white author can’t write about a character who’s black.* A white artist cannot depict a black civil rights victim. And nobody’s allowed to argue otherwise.

It’s called “cultural appropriation” and it’s the newest gambit of politically correct grievance agitprop, sticking its finger in the eye of freedom of expression. As usual, it’s not enough for these totalitarians to argue their position. No, contrary opinions must be silenced and even punished.

Hal Niedzviecki was forced out as editor of the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine after defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.

Protest against “Scaffold”

New York’s Whitney Museum created a storm for exhibiting Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, murdered by Mississippi racists in 1955, an image that propelled the civil rights movement. British artist Hannah Black** organized a petition for the painting’s destruction. And sculptor Sam Durant was browbeaten into destroying his own piece, “Scaffold,” honoring some Native Americans unjustly executed in 1862.

Is book burning next? At least they can’t burn my blog. (Maybe they’ll attack it with malware.)

The idea is that such “cultural appropriation” is racist. It’s no defense that the white artist was actually memorializing a victim of racism. Nobody can, from the standpoint of white privilege.

And “cultural appropriation” connotes theft. They’re saying Emmett Till belongs to blacks alone; no one else is entitled to him. As if a painting of him deprives blacks of something. As if a black character in a novel somehow robs black culture, pillages it. It’s akin to the belief, encouraged by certain religions, that being photographed steals one’s soul.

At one time, we had minstrel shows, Jemimas, and Sambos. Maybe that was “cultural appropriation,” mocking, demeaning, dehumanizing people. And maybe if that Emmett Till picture was painted by a Klansman, that would be different. But surely we’re not talking about anything of that kind now.

At one time, when segregation reigned, and black culture was walled off from white society, the cry was for integration, to break down those ugly barriers. Now they’re being rebuilt, from the other side. And students whose grandparents marched for the right to join whites in schools now demand to segregate themselves.

Yes, the issue is racism. That’s what the cry of “cultural appropriation” is.

In fact, “cultural appropriation” is a good thing. It breaks down barriers and opens doors. Cross-fertilization among cultures makes all of them richer and better. And it’s harder to have racist feelings against someone if they’re seen as part of your own culture rather than as “the other.” Pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, genocides, all result from people being otherized.

* I use this word as the best among bad choices. “African-American” doesn’t apply to all “people of color.” And the latter, besides being linguistically clumsy, is hardly removed from “colored people,” which those so described once found quite offensive. “Brown” might be more descriptively accurate but no doubt some would profess to find that somehow offensive too.

** Apparently her actual name.

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4 Responses to ““Cultural appropriation” (A Trump-free blog post)”

  1. Robb Smith Says:

    The photo of Emmett Till and the scaffold sculpture are both trophies of white racism and, intentional or not, are triumphalist and appropriate only the culture of white supremacy. The justifiable public outcry is a reminder to the art establishment that “art” has limits, even today.

    Hal Niedzviecki’s poorly considered words are another matter. The quasi religious fury his sly, “reasonable” irony evoked is on his own head. He dipped his white wick in a boiling stew pot and got burnt. Meanwhile, the issue has become part of the gestalt for creatives. The “cultural appropriation” label sets up new risks for us in an already risky world.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    To say the Till painting is “triumphalist” and “appropriate only (to) the culture of white supremacy” is — forgive me — utter crap. Certainly the artist was not celebrating what was done to Till, but quite the opposite, to spotlight the horror of it (I was going to include an image of the picture, but decided it was in fact too horrific). Robb’s comment is exactly what I was talking about, the idea that white people are somehow barred from addressing these matters through art. That impoverishes us all, and our culture, and our humanity.

  3. Lee Says:

    Some symbols, words, and rites are deeply respected by some groups. These include some religious symbols, some aboriginal dances, and speaking the Jewish personal name for god. These are to be avoided out of respect, except in their proper contexts.

    In contrast, some symbols, words, and rites are deeply disrespectful to some groups. These include the n-word, images of M*hammad, and swastikas. These too are to be avoided out of respect.

    When I say “avoided,” I do not mean an absolute prohibition. That is, the first amendment wins and we can say what we want to. However, we should not take advantage of that right in these cases unless there is no other reasonable way to achieve some important goal. Speaking out against disrespect is not the same as giving the finger to the first amendment. Rather, it is an important use of the first amendment and it begins a dialog that is important to have.

  4. Lee Says:

    Art that conveys the murder of a person of color by the KKK, persecution of a Jew by the Nazis, a rape, etc. is not to be undertaken lightly. Unfortunately, the art can injure people who identify with the victims. Worse, some may say that the artist is siding with the aggressor.

    If what the artist has to say can only be said in this way, then the artist should do what they have to do. But, they shouldn’t be surprised when there is a response. The artist should be prepared to welcome the response and to acknowledge its validity.

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