Why is cultural appropriation so hard for people to understand?

There’s always been a backlash to political correctness. Many behind the backlash say they’re sensitive to the legitimate concerns of disadvantaged groups but things have gone too far. More often than not, when you dig a bit deeper, their solution is usually something like: why can’t we all just relax and treat everybody the same way? Well yeah, that’s the point – but the question is, who isn’t being treated fairly and what’s being done – and by whom – to keep these people from achieving social equality?

There are some people who’ll never believe that by virtue of being members of certain groups based on shared ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, etc., individuals are vulnerable to mistreatment and often are mistreated on that basis. They might do a bit of research and number-crunching to support their views, but more often than not, they just don’t care. Even if it could be unequivocally shown that certain groups in society are disadvantaged, they wouldn’t change anything about their own behaviour. It rarely seems to be noted that for every offense taken by SJWs, there’s an equally-vocal group who instantly become offended that someone is offended. These types relish in the notoriety of holding controversial opinions whether they have a genuine belief or familiarity with the ideology that underpins them, or not.

It’s clear to any decent, honest person who isn’t a misogynist that Baby it’s Cold Outside is a manual for sexual harassment, its easy acceptance by most people a horrifying signifier of women’s oppression. It doesn’t take much effort to see the problem. The machinations of gender are clear: we see how femininity has conditioned not just the woman in the song but women as a class to be nice, to do everything possible to avoid hurting men’s feelings, to give in to their pressure; and how masculinity has given this man such a sense of entitlement to this woman’s attention and body that he feels totally comfortable taking advantage of his greater size and strength, and the woman’s desperate attempt to balance her internalized duty of politeness with her own instinct for self-preservation. Over and over again, she says no – but he has a smarmy rebuff each time. How, then, can there be a critical mass of people who feel no shame in whining so much that radio stations felt they had no choice but to put the rape apologist song back on the air? All this in the era of #MeToo when there are literally countless examples of male violence exposed for all to see. You can prove in the clearest terms that these problems exist, how they work, and how to eradicate them. But facts don’t matter when you don’t have power.

It’s within this context that I’d like to discuss recent news that Coop les Récoltes, a bar and co-operative at the Université du Quebec à Montréal, banned white comedian Zach Poitras from performing there because he has dreadlocks. Their public statement can be read here (in French). I think there’s a debate to be had about the current climate of safe spaces and censorship at universities in Western countries, but this is a legitimate issue that won’t go away for good reason.

I approach this case with two main questions in mind:

  1. Is it justifiable for private establishments to ban someone who engages in cultural appropriation?
  2. Is this an example of cultural appropriation?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that white people who wear dreads are engaging in cultural appropriation. What should we do about it as a society? We can’t force the offenders to stop, so some form of social censure is required if we agree that this practice is rude at best and harmful at worst. Is it fair to exclude cultural appropriators from certain events and spaces out of respect for black people who also wish – and deserve – to enjoy those same events and spaces? To me, it turns on one fundamental observation: there’s been ample debate for some time now that white people who wear dreads can’t possibly feign ignorance to the fact that many black people say it’s insulting. Why isn’t that enough to make them stop? Why is their personal aesthetic more important than the right of black people to be treated as equals? There are two rights here, and in my mind one is manifestly more important than the other. People shouldn’t engage in practices that are disrespectful to a disadvantaged group unless they have a very, very good (i.e. rights-based) reason for doing so. Individual style doesn’t make the cut. So consequences should be expected, and reasonable, which I would define as decisions that don’t violate fundamental human rights. I don’t think this is one such example, so Coop les Récoltes had a right to make the decision they did. That being said, I get why it’s controversial.

As to whether this case is indeed an example of cultural appropriation, I think an honest, robust analysis leads to a fairly easy conclusion that it is. I saw many comments on the Facebook post that are lazy and shallow. One person linked to a Wikipedia page which says:

During the Bronze Age and Iron Age, many peoples in the Near East, Asia Minor, Caucasus, East Mediterranean and North Africa such as the Sumerians, Elamites, Ancient Egyptians, Ancient Greeks, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, Amorites, Mitanni, Hattians, Hurrians, Arameans, Eblaites, Israelites, Phrygians, Lydians, Persians, Medes, Parthians, Chaldeans, Armenians, Georgians, Azeris, Cilicians and Canaanites/Phoenicians/Carthaginians are depicted in art with braided or plaited hair and beards.

This point is irrelevant. Braids and plaits aren’t the same as dreads and no skater dude, stoner, new ager or anarchist is trying to emulate an Indian sadhu or Aztec priest. Dreadlocks as a concept and style are known in the West primarily and specifically as a result of the growth of the Jamaican diaspora. Ask any random person what springs to mind when they think ‘dreadlocks’ and they picture a black person by default.

There are two main reasons why dreads are typically worn by members of the subcultures I’ve listed here: (1) they presumably give one an earthy, ‘ethnic’, ‘hippie’, ‘alternative’ kind of look; and (2) they’re a symbol of resistance popularized by Rastafari, most famously by Bob Marley. Another person who comes to mind is Zack de la Rocha, formerly of Rage Against the Machine. White people, and other non-black people, adopt the look because this connection conveys for them an ineffectual, cool, edgy image.

Dreads and cornrows are firmly located within black communities and are meaningful from a black liberation perspective because black people – and by extension, black hair – have been so heavily stigmatized. Just like the afro and the comb, dreads are an unmistakable symbol of black pride more broadly even if dreads are ultimately attributed to Jamaican culture specifically. How is a white person treated and regarded when wearing dreads, compared to a black person?

White people mimicking black people is nothing new, but the argument can’t rest on comparisons alone. Either a practice is right or wrong on its face. Otherwise, we’ll continue to go in circles forever, failing to recognize that these are not isolated, trite issues. You’d have to know all of this and not care about the message you’re sending as a white person wearing dreads, especially if you want to socialize with people of all backgrounds. I’m sure Poitras has met black people who’ve told him he’s alright and his hair doesn’t offend them. Several responses to the Coop les Récoltes’ announcement say as much. Then again, I’ve also met women who hate lesbians and think all women should have children, so…

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4 thoughts on “Why is cultural appropriation so hard for people to understand?

  1. http://rastafaritimes.com/rasnews/viewnews.cgi?newsid1046818607,27271,.shtml
    This article is important when I consider that Zack, as far as I can find out, has been a sincere practitioner Of Rastafari religion for many years. Therefore, calling his dreadlocks “Cultural Appropriation” is like calling an African who became a Franciscan Friar an appropriator Of Italian Peasant culture, as their habit was originally a normal feature of secular beggars throughout Italy. Devout Rastafari HAVE to wear dreadlocks just as devout Muslims MUST be circumcised. Skin color and ethnicity don’t inter into it. As a religious mandate, it transcends mere culture. That everyone in this debate have been obtuse to this is astonishing. If a non-Black has dreadlocks, the FIRST thing you should ask is, “is he a Rasta?”, before inquiring into appropriation of a sacred tradition for the sake of mere shallow fashion. I’m sure a priest would be very perturbed if thousands of people started dressing like him just because they thought his habit looked cool, for whatever reason.

    • Thanks for the comment, Patrick. Just to clarify, I don’t think Zack de la Rocha is wrong to wear dreads but rather that lots of people have tried to emulate him thinking some of Zack’s image will rub off on them. White men shouting “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” and thinking they’re woke…

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