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Recognizing The Limits Of Your Cultural Appropriation

Kevin's recent post on the ethics of cultural appropriation reminded me that I've had a post on the subject kicking around in my head for a while that I ought to get written down. The lefist position holds that cultural borrowing is OK as long as it's respectful of the originating culture. This respect means not damaging the originating culture through your appropriation, and acknowledging the authority of the originators. As Kevin puts it:

You can be white and into Hip Hop, but if you don’t know about the Last Poets or Kool Herc, if mentioning the Zulu Nation leaves you with a blank stare, I’m questioning you. Dressing a certain way and talking like you’re a so-called gangsta or whatever you imagine Black folks talk like means nothing.

While I agree with this view, I can't help feeling it's a bit one-sided. The one-sidedness may come from the paradigm (and most harmful) case of cultural appropriation being the white kid who's "really into" a certain other culture and imagines that donning a bowldlerized version of the superficial trappings of it makes him cool. By "questioning" a person like that, Kevin would expose his shallowness and point him in the direction of achieving his stated goal (partaking of whatever culture) in a more appropriate way.

This standard leftist response basically says "if you want to be into this culture, you have to be really authentically into it." I'm made a bit uncomfortable by the all-or-nothing implications that this outlook could take on, and the sense in some statements of the leftist position (albeit not Kevin's) that all of the parts of a culture are inseparably welded together such that they can only be partaken of in their original authentic context.

So let's take the example of the white hip hop fan in a different direction. I don't usually listen to hip hop, but I may someday happen to stumble across a hip hop song that for whatever reason does it for me. Since I'm not into hip hop, I would not be willing to expend the time and effort to listen to all of the important artists and learn all of the history so as to have the full context in which to place the one song. But with only the perspective in Kevin's quote above, that seems to be my choice -- get totally and authentically into hip hop, or stick strictly to indie rock*.

The "other side" to respectful cultural appropriation, it seems to me, would be cultural appropriation that acknowledges its limits. I can like that one song, buy the album, and listen to it over and over. But I have to be clear, with myself and others, the shallow level at which I've done the appropriation. I can't claim to be a "hip hop fan," or that liking that song is a bulwark against racism, or that I'm somehow closer to people who are genuinely part of the culture that song comes from. I have to accept that there are levels of appreciation of the song that are closed to me as long as I'm unwilling to get deeper into hip hop. In short, I can be inauthentic as long as I know how inauthentic I am and I present that inauthenticity honestly to others.

As someone who's in no position to be a victim of inappropriate cultural appropriation, I may be off base -- maybe there isn't any way to pull off this other side of the coin in a way that's truly respectful of the source culture. But I self-interestedly hope there is, if only to excuse me for creating Koftas Salvadoreñas (which I sometimes tell myself is actually the whitest dish in my reportoire, because it's made via the traditional white techniques of crudely imitating the superficially interesting aspects of other cultures and throwing it all together in a bland mix).

* I don't actually know much about the history and full scope of indie rock either, but I've arguably imbibed all of the relevant cultural orientations just by being a middle class white person.


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