The toxic notion of cultural appropriation breathes new life into old racist attitudes

The toxic notion of cultural appropriation breathes new life into old racist attitudes
© Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSteyer calls on DNC to expand polling criteria for debates Gabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch MORE (D-Mass.), who has rather famously claimed Native American ancestry, recently revealed the results of a DNA test that seemed to confirm her claim. President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE has repeatedly mocked Sen.Warren’s claim, calling her “Pocahontas” and even promising to donate one million dollars to the charity of Warren’s choosing if she could prove she was “an Indian.”

How did we get to this point in our culture and conversation where this seemed like a good idea to Warren? Who would think it is appropriate to use genetic tests to determine our membership in racial or ethnic groups?

ADVERTISEMENT

One might have reasonably assumed that someone like Warren would find the premises of such an exercise in blood purity repugnant. In any case, the Cherokee Nation quickly released a statement addressing some of the obvious problems with Warren’s vulgar display, pointing out first: “A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship.”

The statement goes on to add that “Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.” Well, that didn’t go as planned. As a matter of course, observers began to ask whether Warren’s was an act of cultural appropriation.

But the idea of cultural appropriation is itself based on the same mistaken premises that led Warren to her bizarre and embarrassing blood quantum test. The idea that culture is something susceptible to appropriation assumes that culture can be (and is, as a matter of fact) owned by a particular group, defined by membership in a racial or ethnic group. Such membership is, in turn, ostensibly defined by objective blood or DNA factors, a standard that pretty obviously encourages — better yet, constitutes — the merest racism. 

Fundamentally, cultural appropriation requires us to believe that culture is a dead thing, However, culture is a living thing, forever changing and blending with other cultures at its margins. Cultures have never been hermetically sealed from one another, self-contained and exclusive of outside influences. Each one is necessarily a mixture or an agglomeration of its influences. A culture doesn’t spring to life fully formed, a platonic ideal that generated itself from nothing. 

The idea of cultural appropriation presents a demarcation problem: Where are we to draw the line that separates permissible from impermissible behavior? Is it permissible for a white American to practice yoga or become a rapper? Perhaps a Cinco de Mayo party is an example of impermissible cultural appropriation, or maybe it depends on how many people of Mexican heritage are participating. Any rules that attempt to distinguish cases, to map lines of demarcation are sure to be arbitrary and absurd.

When people treat other cultures with derision and disrespect, the problem is not cultural appropriation but cruelty, hatred and racism. A simpler lesson is, in such cases, called for: Don’t be a jerk. Treat people with respect, as autonomous equals with valuable lessons to impart about who they are, where they’re from, and what’s important to them. Genuine liberalism is and always has been a cosmopolitan philosophy based on the idea that we’re all human beings and citizens of the world, much more alike than we are different.

Just as there is no such thing as a pure race or ethnic group, so are there no pure cultures, unmixed with others, their essence uncorrupted. The toxic notion of cultural appropriation breathes new life into old racist attitudes, discouraging us from finding new opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and exchange.

Our small-minded, parochial and plain ridiculous worries about cultural appropriation are robbing us of both opportunities to learn from and simply have fun with each other.

American society needs more cultural appropriation, more acceptance of other cultures and more blending with them. A free, open and pluralistic society encourages and celebrates a wide range of cultural practices, aware that we all stand to benefit tremendously through the free interplay or values and traditions.

David S. D'Amato is an attorney, an expert policy advisor at both the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute, and a columnist at the Cato Institute's Libertarianism.org.