“Cultural Appropriation” is a common term among intellectuals–and a political strategy used by ethnic- and racial-identity groups on the left. It deserves to be understood so it can be called-out as a political strategy that undermines the essential commonality and cross-borrowings of American culture. Ours is a culture that, at its best, incorporates, borrows, and transforms from the multiple groups within it. That’s why tacos and pizzas are now regular features of American food.
The issue is so central to identity politics, though, it deserves a separate post to explain what “cultural appropriation” is and how it works.
You are classified as a member of a group, say, transgender, Mexican-American, or fat. Your group membership should then dominate your self-conception, at least politically.
Your group deems itself oppressed, or rather its most vocal, politicized members say the group and all of its members are. They use this group identity and its oppressed status as tools for political mobilization. The key is for most members of the group to accept this putative group identity and its oppressed status as dominant (indeed, unquestioned) characteristics of their personal identity.
Having organized and mobilized the oppressed group, you identify the oppressors who are responsible for all the group’s misfortunes and attack them. Oppressors can only attain absolution (the secular equivalent of salvation) by supporting the goals and actions of the oppressed group. Those goals and actions should never be questioned by the oppressor group or reshaped by them.
A key element of your attack: Only your own group has the moral right to depict its own experiences, to write about them, paint them, or use their music. All others are shamed if they try to do so, especially anyone deemed to be from the “oppressor class.” Those people are “appropriating your culture.” Shame on them.
Want examples of why this strategy of cultural self-segregation is so pernicious? Think of what it would have prevented, or tried to. The fusion of rock music and blues music–and rock-and-roll more broadly–would be deemed unacceptable because those hybrid forms are built on the “appropriation” of an indigenous African-American cultural form. Here is one artistic response.
First, listen to Robert Johnson’s original, a work of creative genius, recorded in 1936:
Now, listen to its modern version, beautifully transformed, rendered, and incorporated into the mainstream of American culture:
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