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Cultural appropriation

I feel that the left’s reaction against cultural appropriation is good but some are missing that the flipside is cultural imperialism and we might need to walk the tightrope between the two of them (sometimes erring on one side, sometimes the other) instead of diving headfirst into compulsive white normativity.

I know words like “normativity” and “feminism” is a trigger for a lot of people to immediately close their ears but stick with me for three seconds on this. I’ll retread some basics and then I’m going somewhere new with this.

Coming from an old-school radfem perspective, and “rad” means “root”, as in going to the root of things, the analysis was that it’s weird and bad that pretty much all “neutral” symbols, like the dude on the street crossing sign or the idea of a “neutral ‘he’” in text books, is male coded. Like in the Smurfs, every smurf has a schtick—one smurf likes pranks, one likes mirrors, one likes hammers, one likes glasses, one likes alchemy, one likes being lazy, and one is a woman. Being a man is the default setting in culture. We’re in the 21st century so this has been noticed and struggled against and backlashed against and reinforced and the pendulum has swung forth and then back again harder than ever, so it can be hard to fathom what an absolute mindblow this realization was.

Even for us women. The chains had been so invisible and the “male defaultness” norm had been so successfully programmed. Yes, life for men sucks too—coal mines and suicides and prison rape and bar brawls. We haven’t missed that. Solving that is important too. Don’t get hung up. I’m building up to make a point about something else.

It’s like the old saying of fishes taking water for granted.

Just as the male perspective was enshrined as the cultural “default”, the unflavored milk ice cream, the schtickless schtick, the --no-init-file, the plain glass of water… there’s also a similar cultural bias to the “defaults” of language, clothing, hairstyles, food, games, music.

As minorities are protecting their own cultures, there’s a tendency among the groups to push each other towards this vanilla “cultural default”, seemingly forgetting the historical hierarchical biases of that cultural default. Enshrining and elevating “white America” to a mandatory norm.

I can’t pass judgment on specific cases or decide how any one group wants to do this—and the groups aren’t homogenous, they “pull in all kinds of directions” as Pratchett put it—so I want to make sure I don’t overstate an example like how some Chinese-American actors have been rebuked when they use some phrases originating in African-American Vernacular English, or come across as telling any member of either of those groups how to react.

It’s legit that some in the black community are protective given how eager white audiences are to throw money at anyone who isn’t black, from Elvis to Eminem, while cops are shooting them and while black speakers of AAVE are punished in schools and in the workplace.

But it’s easy to get the impression that the message is “act straight, act white, and to the extent that bring your own culture’s thing it’s only to the backdrop of Norman Rockwell conformative hellscape”.

It should go without saying, but just to be clear and sharp as a glass shard, I am not endorsing the white complaints of a “lack of identity” and similar white supremacist trolling campaigns.

I’m saying the opposite: white cultural norms are everywhere, like the fish/water story I mentioned above.

So instead, what I’m talking about here is how minorities can take place fully in the public forum and how they can bring their cultures to each other, not just as strawberry ripples filtered through the great blandness of the bossman’s boots.

None of this is to reduce the kyriarchy to “if only the minority groups would…” It’s not the fault of fish that the water is wet. I’m not absolving the establishment of any responsibility to help set things right.

I’m also not saying “full steam ahead! 2–4–6–8, come on, let’s appropriate!”

It’s a tightrope between the twin pitfalls of appropriation and imperialism. There are things that are, correctly, increasingly being recognized as wrong, like treating someone’s sacred ceremonies as a Halloween costume or a music video. It’s great that today’s intersectional left has a growing awareness of these pitfalls of cultural appropriation; it makes me hopeful that while we’re just getting started on a long road ahead of us, we’re gonna get better in that regard. That we’re realizing that minorities shouldn’t get trampled in an “everything belongs to everyone” mess. That we understand that when two forces come together like colliding amœbas, the force in power has more responsibility. However, let’s not neglect the opposite danger of enshrining white tropes, of cementing their universality.

It’s like when you’re sailing between a rock and a whirlpool. Swerving straight into one of them isn’t a victory no matter how far that took you from the other.

And, this isn’t an accusatory screed, it’s more a cautionary, pre-emptive one. The kids are alright, and are mostly getting this balance right. Balance might be a misleading word here. “Centrism” sucks and isn’t what I’m going for. It’s more like there are two things that we wanna avoid that are sometimes related and sometimes not.

We’re gonna make mistakes and there are gonna be some no-win binds, but as we evaluate what to do in a given situation, please let’s keep both of these in mind. Most likely, our (the intersectional left’s) priorities are going to have to keep shifting back and forth the way they already have, and what’s the right call in one situation might be the wrong call in a similar-seeming one. You don’t want to toss water on a flooded building but you might on a burning one.

I aim to stick to my promise that I wouldn’t make this kind of social justice topics my bread & butter on here. If you love these topics I hope you are getting your fill elsewhere, because I have other things to talk about. It’s been over a year since my last post about this kind of stuff.