The Uses of Appropriation


Audre Lorde famously said it, “[T]he master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” She went on: “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The essay was based on a 1979 panel presentation responding to a feminist movement dominated by those who opposed sexism but benefited in other ways from the existing social order. She warns a liberationist movement against reproducing the racial, economic, and other privilege-based operating assumptions of the dominant society, lest it fall far short of its potential to catalyze a more loving, just, equitable, and vibrant society.

Sometimes I like to adopt an alien view, to pretend I’m watching from outer space as we humans scurry across the face of the earth, billions of intelligent two-legged ants. What is getting them so excited now? What tools are being wielded with what intentions? And are they shoring up the master’s house or dismantling it?

In our little corner of the planet, my alien self picks up a loud buzz about appropriation. What’s that? In ordinary English the verb can mean many things: to set aside or authorize funds, to seize or steal something. In art worlds, the word has a fairly flat meaning and a heightened one. The flatter version covers things like Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades,” in which ordinary objects are renamed, repositioned, and exhibited as art. His most famous example was the 1917 Fountain, a porcelain urinal set on a pedestal and signed R. Mutt. Ever since, a huge amount of modern and contemporary visual art has included appropriated elements.

Appropriation is so common in popular music that a new word was chosen to represent it: sampling. There’s a nicely detailed account of Biz Markie’s losing a suit over a sample of “Alone Again,” one of many such cases in the early 90s challenging musicians’ right to use snippets of others’ copyrighted songs without prior permission. Rick James sued MC Hammer for sampling “Superfreak” on his hit, “U Can’t Touch This,” to cite one example among hundreds. The most recent cases turn on uses of as little as two words. But mostly, these are financial transactions having less to do with moral rights and more with getting paid. Reaching a financial settlement is almost always the endgame.

The heightened meaning of “appropriation” is cultural theft. The accusation is frequently made against artists—but also entrepreneurs and corporations—adopting and profiting by something emblematic of a culture not their own. “Cultural appropriation” is the full moniker, but mostly it gets shortened by omitting the first word.

When I googled “appropriation,” the first thing that came up was denunciation of the actor Zac Efron for posting a picture of himself in dreadlocks. The discussion about appropriation of dreads has been going on for a long time. The argument against dreads being worn by those commonly placed in the white category was most succinctly summed up by a young actress called Amandla Stenberg, who made a viral video entitled “Don’t Cash Crop My Cornrows,” saying “Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated but is deemed as high-fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves.” Her perspective located the axis of appropriation along the spectrum of social power, suggesting it occurs when something associated with groups commonly targeted by invidious stereotyping is exploited by others for some type of self-aggrandizement. As her title suggests, the chief currency of exploitation is…well, currency. Its clearest form is someone with social and economic cachet making money from the creations of those never commensurately rewarded for their creativity.

For the person calling out appropriation, it’s pretty easy to feel confident in dreadlocks territory: something created specifically for black hair, associated often with Rastafari and reggae music, is borrowed and promoted as a signifier of hipness by someone without any of the relevant attributes. (It is interesting to read how far back into ancient cultures of India and Africa dreadlocks go, especially when you consider that the Rastafari were inspired by descriptions of the consecrated hair of the Nazirites of the Hebrew bible. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I sometimes wonder if it started with Adam and Eve—but that’s another blog.)

Lining up clear cases of cultural appropriation is easy. When I pull my perspective out into space, gazing with alien eyes on our cultural controversies, certain moments pop out. On one end of the appropriation spectrum, there’s an incredulous brouhaha right now about Canadian writer-director Robert LePage’s theatrical production SLAV (pronounced slave), featuring mainly white actors costumed as field workers singing African American slave songs, which was cancelled a short way into its run at the Montreal International Jazz Festival due to massive protest against cultural appropriation.

There’s not much nuance in this story, although LePage would like there to be, trying to situate it as a threat to artistic freedom. What has left me shaking my head in wonder is how the production could have been conceived, written and composed, cast(!), included in the festival, promoted to audiences—can you count how many gatekeepers and approvals must have been part of that saga?—without anyone saying “Whoa!” before performances started. The cultural blindness, tone-deaf ethics, indifference to outrage, misplaced self-confidence—what do they say about the cultural climate in a metro area of more than four million souls?

My stomach turns to read about the Poles and Ukrainians who have taken to re-enacting Jewish ceremonies and celebrations and to promoting Jewish-style restaurants and klezmer music in a country that is today without Jews though still well-supplied with antisemites. Look at the pictures accompanying this story of “Jewish” weddings. If you too descend from those persecuted for their identity, I ask you to try a little thought-experiment: transpose the wigs and costumes to those of whatever ethnic group connects most closely with your own heritage and see how it feels. Some of the people quoted in the story said they see such actions as part of a healing process, just as LePage sees his as expressions of artistic freedom. But both took place in the context of tourism promotion, and both, if successful, would enrich its creators at the expense of the exploited.

The question is far murkier in other arenas. What about the teenage girl who was widely condemned for wearing a qipao—a Chinese dress—to her prom and posing with her friends with knees bent and hands clasped as if in prayer? The gestures displayed in her prom photo were also widely condemned as ridiculing Chinese culture, though in fact that have a much more recent lineage in the “Papa Bless” pose, originated by and associated with a YouTube entrepreneur who posts under the title “Vape Nation,” and from what I could learn was inspired by a joke about Papa John’s pizza, with not a hint of anti-Asian influence to be found. The first condemnation in the Qipao Affair was tweeted by a young man of Chinese heritage: “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.” But since everything that happens on the internet stays on the internet, people quickly turned up a six month-old tweet by the same young man: “I’m eating tamales with chopsticks. This is why America was founded.” Then came a view from China.

The type of blow-up in which charges of cultural appropriation are lodged on a purely racial basis—someone of your skin color gives offense by wearing or enacting something associated with a different one—can often be dissected, wheels within wheels, to interesting effect. The trigger is generally when residents of different cultural milieux misread each others’ codes and signifiers. Quite a few tweeters condemned the prom girls’ pose as ridiculing a demure and formal shyness they associate with Chinese women: knees and head slightly bent, hands clasped prayerfully. The young women enacting the Papa Bless pose evidently had no awareness of portraying anything but a silly, pizza-themed pop-culture meme. The tweeters who condemned them for that (you see, the tempest divided into two categories, debate over the dress and debate over the pose, with some people condemning or defending one or the other, or both), evidently had no awareness of the stereotypes resident in their own minds, contributing to that insulting interpretation. The tweeters who condemned the young woman’s dress as appropriation are highly likely to be garbed in jeans, durable, riveted work clothes created by a Jewish immigrant to meet thie needs of miners in the mid-19th century California Gold Rush. And so on ad infinitum.

In this story—which I find so juicy because it makes so much of so little, as in Bob Dylan’s words: “just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine”—no one gained economic or social power via cultural exploitation or insulting depictions. But damage is done. In a kind of cultural telephone game, the essence of cultural appropriation is reduced to a simple principle: no person not assigned to a racial or ethnic group may employ signifiers or expressions of that cultural identity.

Miles out in space, observing the global scurry with a jaundiced eye, my alien self enjoys the syncretic nature of human culture. We all know, don’t we, that the Japanese borrowed a system of writing and a great deal else from China? That western mathematics took the concept of zero from fifth-century India? We do not question the right of Anthony Davis to compose opera, of Misty Copeland to dance ballet, of Anthony Brown—whose father is Choctaw and African American and mother Japanese—to perform with Jon Jang, a jazz pianist of Chinese ancestry, or Mark Izu, a jazz bass player of Japanese heritage. Grace Kelly (nee Grace Chung) is a much-admired jazz saxophonist. Mildred Bailey was the first female singer to front a jazz big band; she grew up on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho. Natacha Atlas, an amazing singer of Arab-western-hip hop fusion, was born of Jewish parents. Thirteen years ago, I wrote a brief essay about the towering African-American artist Paul Robeson singing the Kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzhak in Moscow. The Hispano-Arabic, Muslim, Roma, and Jewish influences that created flamenco are taken for granted (or have perhaps faded away), so who has the right to compose and perform this music?

And that’s just music, and just a few examples. The syncretic force in human culture is powerful, blending belief systems, borrowing spiritual practices, opening to influences. Forcible appropriation has created huge wounds in the fabric of human life: forced conversion of Jews and Indigenous people to Christianity, for example. But even under such terrible conditions, the impulse to blend, meld, and borrow survives, as in the practices of Crypto-Jews in the Southwest, as in customs such as Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and the Chicano diaspora, and so much more.

Humans’ overwhelming cultural truth is mixing, which rests on a foundation of conviviality, consensual exchange, curiosity, and pleasure. Against that backdrop are actions—some terrible, some trivial—of true cultural appropriation, in which something seized from one generally maligned cultural milieu is exploited for profit and power in another more privileged.

So what does this have to do with “the master’s tools?” Everything.

In this moment, many people respond to a rising tide of racism, antisemitism, homophobia, and other oppression based on identity by asserting pride in belonging to a particular category of identity. It is natural to do so, aikidoing the painful energy of an onslaught into the animating energy of an assertion of value. The positive impact of this transformation is sometimes very clear and powerful. Consider “black is beautiful,” a direct response to standards of beauty created and imposed by white supremacy. That assertion carries so much meaning: that no one is entitled to dictate the standards for all; that multiple and coexisting beauties are real, natural, necessary; that no one should be told to internalize a concept of beauty that devalues their own truth. It speaks truth to power in a particular pointed way, exposing the weakness behind the mask of power in much the same way the boy in the fable pointed to the emperor’s nakedness.

But what’s fightening about the prom-dress strain—you’re the wrong race to wear, eat, sing, or dance that—in the current chorus of cultural appropriation turns on the truth that racism is real, inscribed in policies, relationships, countless expressions of oppression, but the concept of race is tool of domination. By compliantly continuing to use the so-clumsy half-dozen categories scientistic racists promulgated as a culling-system for human beings (there are tons of useful accounts of this history, here’s just one short one)—by collaborating in the white supremacist project of putting all of us into our assigned categories and treating us as if that were natural and right, we are using the master’s tools to shore up the master’s house.

If you doubt this, look at how the white supremacists deploy this tool: falsely claiming there is such a thing as “white culture,” falsely claiming it is under attack by those of other races who they claim contaminate or pollute it by appropriating its tropes, customs, and practices. This tool has worked very well to promote white supremacy. Can we claim it belongs to anyone other than the master?

I’m planning to continue revelling in the cultural richness of my own heritage, which is Ashkenazi Jewish and first-generation U.S., the recipient of the social category of whiteness which can be and has been given and taken by those in power; my husband’s Okinawan heritage and Hawaiian upbringing; the family stories and present-day customs of my Haitian friends; of Hispanos, Tewa, Hopi, and Zuni friends in this region—the incredible and specific mixtures of influence, migration, exploitation, and choice that can never be adequately be summed up by one word.

I’m planning to continue patronizing bagel bakeries staffed by Jews and non-Jews alike (though expect me to call out the blueberry bagel as the abomination it is), to eat fusion food prepared with heart and respect, to listen to music made across cultural categories, including hip hop from Palestine and Eritrea (go ahead, google “hip hop” and the name of any country or culture you choose).

And I’m planning to go on calling out real violations of cultural appropriation when I see them: it’s not too hard to distinguish an ersatz Jewish wedding in Poland performed in full costume-shop regalia from a cheongsam prom dress in Utah. But know this, I’ve resigned any role I may have formerly taken, knowingly or not, in enforcing the clumsy racial categories white supremacy created to keep everyone in the places that uphold its world order.

Grace Kelly, “Unchain My Heart.”

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