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Critics of cultural appropriation suffer from a cultural deficit

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On July 4, the Montreal International Jazz Festival announced it would cancel all performances of a controversial show featuring African-American slave songs. The show, SLAV, which had a white lead singer and mostly white cast, was met with virulent resistance from the African-American community. One black musician, Moses Sumney, dropped out of the festival in protest on grounds that the show was appropriative, hegemonic and neo-imperialistic.

The show’s white performer, Betty Bonifassi, who has been performing slave songs for over 15 years, has said that the production was billed as a tool for resilience and emancipation through traditional African-American, Serbian, Bulgarian and Métis songs. She has said that uniting two colors is a modern theme and that she doesn’t talk about blacks or whites in shows, but about human pain and suffering. People of all cultures and ethnicities suffer.

{mosads}There are a couple of ways of looking at cultural appropriation. One is from a standpoint of shared cultural experiences; the other, as a form of inverted racism.


To begin with, culture belongs to the world. It is universal. It cannot be the property of any group, let alone any one individual. By definition “public,” culture is a dynamic and interactive enterprise among all human beings. Cultural traits, traditions, customs and experiments in ways of living are consciously and subconsciously absorbed through osmosis by all those who inhabit the public space.

The English language is spoken by blacks and several cultural groups outside the Anglo-Euro tradition that produced it. Freudian psychological terms, developed by an Austrian Jew, inform  the deepest self-image of those outside the cultural traditions of its architect, yet no one says, “Only Jews can benefit from Freudian psychoanalysis.” The Western form of clothing is universal for much of the world’s population. Ancestors of today’s Hasidic Jews did not wear black coats and fur-lined hats in Levantine deserts, nor did the Plain Indians ride horses before the arrival of Europeans.

Besides, several claims to cultural originality — especially those involving food — have been shown to be false. Chili peppers, a central staple in Chinese food, are not indigenous to China but are from Central and South America. The tomato, a signature staple in Italian dishes, is not indigenous to Italy but is a New World crop that, like potatoes in Ireland and paprika in Hungary, was introduced into Europe by explorers returning home from their adventures. Plantain is a staple used in the national dishes of many Caribbean countries, and especially among the Yanomami Indians in Amazonia, a region shared by Brazil and Venezuela.

The colloquial criteria for cultural authenticity turn out to be shallow; they turn on the common practice of making major differences out of minor details.

Those against cultural appropriation inhabit a particular psychological attitude that is worth examining. When well-intentioned persons such as Bonifassi attempt to pay respectful homage to black culture through empathic understanding and blacks reject this honor, they do so because they want to have a coercive monopoly on victimology. They want to make an invidious comparison between their suffering and that of others, like beggars comparing sores. They resent others having the audacity to use their agency to reconstruct the cultural tropes through which such suffering has been rendered.

To honor the tribute would reveal the universality of all suffering and rob them of their special status as certified moral icons of innocence through victimization. It would reveal the common denominator to all suffering.

The inverse racism involved in rejecting cultural sharing is appalling. Blacks and indigenous peoples are heirs to a Western tradition that made incalculable contributions in the realm of modern medicine, technology, progressive judicial systems, economics and science. They are the legatees of such Western traditions, and the architects of them didn’t keep minority cultures from being beneficiaries. No one is denied the benefits of modern medicine because their ancestors did not create its stupendous achievements.

The plain truth of the matter is that the shrillest critics of cultural appropriation — ethnic and racial minorities — are so culturally bankrupt in their own minds that the thought of others partaking in their contributions fills them with angst. There just isn’t enough of the cultural goods to be allocated among those outside the tribe.

This form of tribalism seeks to reify group membership through a litmus test predicated on authentic experiences. The irony is that today’s black singers who may sing slave songs are crooning in ways that may have little to do with their actual lived experiences. Many of them actually may have more in common with Ms. Bonifassi than they would with their long-deceased ancestral brethren.

The appeal to biological collectivism, on which all forms of tribalism rests, is un-American because America is a nation that intrinsically repudiates tribal affiliation as a criterion for citizenship and civic participation.

It is time for ethnic and racial minorities to transcend their cultural narcissism, their tragic cultural inferiority complex, and begin to feel honored that others find value in their cultural achievements. Over-sensitivity leads them into cultural stagnation.

Cultures develop when they interact with each other, not when they function as hermetically sealed units. Members of a thriving, dynamic culture have no fear of others sharing in their properties. They see themselves as heirs to a civilization whose members’ continued socialization they contribute to, and they know that cultural generosity, as historical benefactors have shown, is the path to civilizational greatness.

Jason D. Hill is honors distinguished professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago. His areas of specialization include ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, cosmopolitanism and race theory. He is the author of several books, including “We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People” (Bombardier Books/Post Hill Press). Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.

Tags Cultural appropriation race and society Sociology of race and ethnic relations

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