Around junior high school, when I realized that “races” were a thing and I had one too, I started making my schoolwork Japan-themed wherever possible and ex nihilo informing my classmates that “taco”, in addition to being a receptacle for beef or chicken, meant “octopus” in Japanese.
(I wonder if the age at which you first realize your own race is a reliable shorthand for the stigmatization of the race of which you are a member…)
My classmates and teachers were nice enough not to call me out on this strange behavior. In fact, it probably would have been seen as improper if they had – after all, I was celebrating my heritage. I had Japanese ancestry, and that earned me the right to “rediscover my roots”, even in an awkward, teenage way.
(It’s funny how learning something new is frame as recovering it if you’re in a demographic thought to be born with that knowledge.)
Later, in high school, there was a club called Asian Cultural Enlightenment (ACE), which I somehow felt that I should join, although I never did. Several of my classmates in Japanese (the only Asian language elective) were members. I think I was putting a little bit of distance between me and Asian-ness, or simply taking advantage of the fact that as a stealth minority (i.e. capable of passing as white – many people assume my last name is Irish), I didn’t need to affirm any particular ethnic identity. I was fine with un-discovering my roots at this point.
Looking back, I wonder if the other members would have thought it was strange that someone with basically one toe in the pool of Asian identity would try to join an almost explicitly ethnically-based club. I also wonder how far back in my family tree I could have an Asian ancestor to legitimize an Asian identity if I had wanted to embrace one. If I merely shared with the other Asians the 99% of DNA that all humans share, would that not count as enough?
This journey down memory lane was spurred by yet another news story about cultural appropriation.
The regressive left case against appropriation
Every few months, a white person wears something that is considered the property of another culture, and Twitter goes slightly crazy. This time, it was a prom dress, but other times it has been geisha makeup or a whole J-pop universe. I’m also old enough to remember when Gwen Stefani wore a bindi, but this was when Apu was still not widely considered problematic either. In each of those cases of cultural appropriation, people attacking the appropriator do so for a variety of reasons, some good and some shockingly illiberal. Those defending the appropriator seem to have mirror-image good and bad reasons.
For both sides, the good reasons have to do with the unfairness of the dominant cultural group being able to pick up whatever shiny object it sees from non-dominant groups and repurpose (i.e., “appropriate”) it for usually purely aesthetic reasons. Attackers note that it is a privilege that only the dominant group enjoys and needs to recognize the unfairness of. Defenders state that ignorance of privilege isn’t a crime in the same sense as willing plunder, and that aesthetic appreciation of other cultures’ symbols is certainly preferable to disdain or can lead to exciting new cultures. I have my own thoughts on the good arguments for and against appropriation, but I want to focus on the bad arguments here.
The bad reasons seem to see culture as a fixed property of ethnic groups, passed down with perfect fidelity through blood (often coded “heritage”). The problem with white people wearing Chinese clothes is that they’re not Chinese, and therefore Chinese culture isn’t theirs to enjoy. On the other hand, say some defenders, it’s fine for a white person to adopt some trappings of Chinese culture even though he/she can never truly understand it if respectful distance is implied in the manner of appropriation. That is, it would be wrong for a person of one culture to think he/she understood another culture, because he/she is not of that culture, but because appropriation doesn’t imply understanding, appropriation is acceptable. The bad arguments have in common the conflation of “blood” and “culture” and the impossibility of truly understanding cultures other than one’s own. Both seem to me to be a form of regressive left argumentation that maddeningly clashes with small-d democratic principles.
(Let me make clear, because I know “regressive left” is a virtue signalling token for a certain too-cool-to-be-called-liberal school of the Internet intelligentsia, I don’t sympathize at all with the appriopriators in most of these cases. I tend to consider a certain blasé ignorance an emergent property of simply being in the majority in any country, and a bit of a waste of energy to condemn. Or rather, there’s no violation of principles to condemn when someone who doesn’t understand something does something that evinces a lack of understanding. People with the inclination to consider things like appropriation a problem at least have principles to argue with.)
Obviously, people don’t usually want to go on the record with the belief that cultures are passed down through blood, a premise of the American project overall being that anyone from anywhere can become American and adopt “our” values. Also obviously, there are many cases where people do appear to believe that culture springs from race, especially in the case of minority cultures. There is a clear tension between the belief that cultures are a public good and the belief that cultures are the exclusive property of their bona fide members, and the surest way to track cultural bona fides is through ancestry. It seems to me that many cases of apparent cultural appropriation arise when something is assumed to be a public good by some people and exclusive property by other people, particularly when the appropriator seems to lack cultural bona fides in the form of the right DNA. The regressive left argument against cultural appropriation correctly holds that majority culture isn’t really a public good, but then attempts to compensate for unequal access to majority culture by asserting these principles:
- Visible minorities have their own cultures equally valuable to the majority culture,
- These cultures are accessible only to bona fide members of those cultures,
- Membership is determined by heritage (the same mechanism by which they are excluded from mainstream culture), and
- These cultures, usually the national cultures of the countries of origin of their ancestors, are equally shared among all members.
I think points 1 and 2 are basically true although circular and vague enough to be true of anyone. Points 3 and 4 are where arguments against cultural appropriation can get truly regressive.
DNA as cultural bona fides
Membership in a particular culture is not guaranteed by ancestry, and in the modern US, assuming that it is is a well-known form of othering. People are not born with culture-specific knowledge. I don’t think I need to say any more about this except that it follows from this commonsense position that a person with “Japanese DNA” doesn’t have some immutable connection to kabuki or nattō, and someone’s wearing kimono isn’t made legitimate or illegitimate by a Japanese immigrant in the family tree. Ironically, after 12 years in Japan, I know enough about kimono to recognize my (and generally most people’s, Japanese or not) ignorance of it.
When your radar is active to the pretty baldly incorrect assumption that culture tracks race and vice versa or that “who I am” is synonymous with “what race I am”, you start to see ads like the following as pretty insidious:
(I am old enough to remember Chili of TLC searching for her ancestry back in the 1990s, framing her quest as “finding out who I really am”.)
Ideas about membership often conform to a nationalist narrative
There are beliefs more common in some places than others wherein culture is supposed to descend unproblematically from one’s race and place of birth. These 19th-century-style conceptions of nationhood and national culture are, in my view, what feed some of the accusations of appropriation whenever someone of one volk adopts the trappings of another volk. The white nationalists in the news recently believe in the intertwining of blood, soil, and culture, as do conservatives in many countries with a homogeneity myth. Of course, they are wrong, but the way these beliefs show up outside of right-wing politics shows that they have some intuitive appeal. I doubt the commenters on that little girl’s geisha outfit thought they had a lot in common with the alt-right, but their beliefs on the connection between blood and culture are basically the same.
Even if we accepted that cultures were the birthright of races, it wouldn’t follow that the particular types of culture that get appropriated would belong to the races that they are supposed to belong to. Japanese culture is not a monolith, and the types of culture elevated to stand as national symbols, usually former pastimes of the landed class, often have little or nothing to do with the lives of most Japanese citizens. Almost no one born and raised in Japan has meaningful contact with geisha (I think the baseline is having seen maiko walking around on a field trip to Kyoto). I have no idea what the importance of qipao is in China, but it’s almost certainly not shared by everyone, even in the parts of China where people might actually wear them. Conservatives in any country might applaud their chosen national symbols appearing to have gained currency abroad, but these symbols rarely represent the actual people who live in those countries. Designating kimono or any other token of Big C culture as the property of the entire Japanese race plays into a national narrative in Japan that silences its own ordinary citizens and minority groups. The actual political entity China is home to 56 ethnicities according to official propaganda, making the very idea of membership in “Chinese culture” problematic even after a single Google search. The desire among some people to further a national narrative is, to me, is one reason for the common form of backlash to accusations of appropriation wherein citizens of the country being appropriated laud their culture making landfall overseas. The attribution of national culture to races flattens and neuters the actual cultures that people in those races live in.
Let me end with the argument against appropriation that I agree with.
Majority culture is not a public good
Nobody considers a common prom dress like “black evening dress with sequins” to be the cultural property of WASPs, if they consider prom dresses to be culture at all, and everyone gets to wear those without the requirement of “understanding prom culture”. When the clothing in question is something marked out as non-mainstream, crossing that line and wearing it makes one subject to condemnation or ridicule. The assumption made of white people is usually that because they have access to the full benefits of mainstream culture, they should be happy with that. When they “pretend” to be other races, they are often considered vaguely pathetic.
Despite our pretenses and national myths, visible minorities don’t actually have equal access to mainstream culture. This can be difficult to spot if you’re in the majority. Othering and exclusion don’t always take the form of explicit actions or statements; while it’s not likely that a white client will proclaim out loud that a black sales leader just seems like she shouldn’t be leading the meeting, the message is nonetheless sent very clearly other ways. Minorities in the US are faced with a loss of identity if they lose monopoly rights to “their” culture, partly because mainstream, unmarked and unracialized identities are unavailable to them. The reality of stereotype threat should tell us that these beliefs in the ether of American culture do get realized whether people voice them out loud or not (and they do sometimes get voiced). Exclusive rights to some other culture besides vanilla American, even if you mostly grew up watching the same shows and eating the same food, is a way of building a raft to float on when the residents of barge that most people live on keep kicking you off. I’m sort of describing minority identity as a booby prize, but I mostly mean to say that most members of the majority don’t understand the psychological need for an affirmative ethnic identity because forces of exclusion (helpfully, for me, compared to magnetic fields) are invisible to them.
So minority identities are not some kind of luxury enjoyed on top of mainstream American identity, as is often insinuated by bemused Fox News hosts accusing people of playing “identity politics” (on this point I definitely agree with Ezra Klein over Sam Harris, although Sam is right that the article that started this controversy basically libeled him). The feeling I get is similar (and this comparison will strike some people as opaque) to “native speaker” English teachers in Japan and their pigeonholed “oral communication-only” teaching jobs. The roles that NS English teachers are given in Japanese schools are unfairly limited and mostly a sideshow to the serious work of preparing students for tests, but if that pigeonhole didn’t exist, schools wouldn’t hire NSs at all. A bargain that both conservatives and regressive leftists want to offer minorities is the exclusive right to special clothes, music, and food in compensation for restricted access to mainstream success; a limited and stereotyped role in exchange for the right to participate at all.
My gut says that people should never accept clearly race-based assessments or assignments of skills and abilities, but part of me also thinks that like the aforementioned privilege of ignorance in the majority, this kind of exchange of stereotyping for access is an inevitable part of having people who consider each other different living in the same society. At the same time, I hope that the proportion of abilities thought to be the genetic inheritance of particular nationalities decreases as people of different backgrounds are more able to participate in the mainstream without the threat of stereotypes and subtle negative messages. This isn’t the same as hoping for a blanding of American culture, just a decoupling of “heritage” and culture.