A Fast and Loose Marxist Critique of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a buzzword which caught my attention recently and is a fine demonstration of some of the issues I discuss on this blog.  Loosely defined, cultural appropriation is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different cultural group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s cultural elements by members of the dominant culture.

To put that in my language, it’s the masters playing as slaves.  I do specifically mean this in the Nietzschean sense.  One thesis of this blog is that the dominant phenomenological perception of social organization is that of the master/slave dynamic due to people perceiving hierarchies everywhere.  This presents in ethical systems of rights/duties, entitlements/obligations and debtor/creditor dynamics.  The question people are constantly in search of answering is justifying their experience in these terms because this runs so deep that I dare say this entitlement dyad (superior/inferior) is the fundamental ontological relationship between people.  Note, I am not saying that this is the only relationship.  Hierarchy, economic exchange and communal exchange all exist at one level or another in every society.  (Graeber, 2011)  But economic exchange is easier because of the neatness and finality of the obligations created while communal exchange exists as a safe and relaxing contrast to status relations and always implies an other (See Derrida on The Guest)

Of course, everybody hates a tourist, as best expressed for this aging punk rocker by Pulp (Common People, 1995).  I like the William Shatner version for the irony of using a cover song:

It’s clear that people feel a sense of loss when imitation violates the meaning of their practices.  This is because the practices are objectively meaningless and the subjective illusion has been punctured by the violation of sybmolism.  This is where I want to problematize the issue.

Return to the definition above:  To experience this sense of loss and the ensuing resentment, the imitated person has to believe they are not part of the dominant culture.  If your peers imitate you, it’s a roast.  If your inferiors do it, it’s flattery.  True or false, identifying as an outsider is a powerful self focused belief.  My problem with this is that those who feel marginalized are fighting for the right to remain separate and avoid contact rather than fighting for some material advantage such as to better their lot in life, take care of their community, or hell – take power.    Power exists in the lived experience of the ontological system of entitlements.  This means fit in with the dominant culture or enjoy your resentment.

This issue is obfuscated in understanding by linguistics and psychodynamics.  A signifier (the phrase “cultural appropriation”) has been created to refer to a signified concept (oppression = master/slave relationship = resentment = they are bad and we are righteous victims).  This prevents change because it substitutes the content (any cultural symbol in question) with the underlying struggle (comparative desire).

As an example, today Kylie Jenner was accused of cultural appropriation for styling her hair in corn rows by the likes of Amandla Stenberg

Amandla had this to say:

“While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips, and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally,”

There is some evidence of projection at work in her attitude. (Praised by whom?  Shamed by whom?)  I would ask Amandla whether she wishes she could have access to these supposed privileges and whether she feels ashamed of her black features.  If she isn’t jealous of white women, then maybe these aren’t privileges after all.  If she isn’t ashamed of being black then whoever is supposedly shaming her isn’t doing such a thorough job that it needs to be taken seriously.  In Ego Analytic terms She is ashamed of being ashamed.  Or, in an Id Analytic framework you could say there is evidence of denial of feelings of inadequacy about her appearance.

Even if I make no comment on the reality content of the praise/shame claims made by Amandla I must point out that for those who have endured long term feelings of inadequacy (economic or otherwise) it becomes impossible to differentiate between oppression (active/other) and shame (passive/self). 

Of your gods you will make horrible idols.

The main point you need to take home is that if you are going to be mad you should be mad at Kylie because her family is rich and contributes nothing of importance to society.  Hell, they even make money off of your criticism!  Even better, you should be mad at the media corporations she is making money for.

Social justice warriors and those concerned with cultural appropriation are tilting at windmills.  You are fighting for the victory of maintaining exclusive rights to symbolic identity, an identity that traps you, for the purpose of retaining a separateness as a shamed underclass.  (You prove you are not ashamed by defensively maintaining your position).  You are defending against shame and not against tyranny.

To get others to agree that you have the exclusive right to cultural symbols and they have the duty to acknowledge that is to admit that they have power and you do not because it is your separateness which establishes your identity.

The actual powers that be don’t give a shit about assimilating your culture.  If anything, they want you to keep it because they can continue to sell it to you and profit from it.

*Note:  As an update I thought I’d deal with the obvious rebuttal from minorities, feminists, gender theorists and others to this position.  It’s easy to hear what I’m saying as “Don’t worry about the issues which are important to you, we’ll take care of those after we make important changes.”  It’s obvious that this received message would feel even more infuriating and marginalizing.  You are who you are and what matters to you matters to you.  How I’d like people to hear this message is that focusing on symbolic issues may produce satisfaction which, while important and worthwhile, does not address the causal relationship at play.  

**Note:  An expanded ego-analytic perspective on Kylie/Amandla could look like:

  • Amandla felt ashamed due to the narcissistic injury endured by Kylie’s perceived slight.
  • She responded with counter-blaming and a benign narcissistic anger (being offended).
  • This may be successful in counter shaming but is not effective in producing compassionate change because she was not vulnerable.  What comes through her message is not how much pain and grief she has experienced but how bad she thinks white people are.  That is obviously a hard message for someone else to hear who isn’t already prone to feeling bad about themselves.  Notice too that the net amount of suffering has not been reduced, but increased.
  • What makes it impossible for Amandla to be vulnerable is that she is ashamed about being ashamed.  This is evidenced in narratives about pride about cultural emblems.  As if black women just should be proud of their hair.  It’s natural to feel bad about oneself and admire the physical traits of others.  But instead of vulnerability, contact, compassion and growth we are left with defensive entitlement, counter-blame and a reinforcement of the existing difference.  A similar issue arises in education among the poor where trying to be bookish produces shame in others and there is blame cast about siding with the enemy.
  • What could help those who feel ashamed by immitation would be to greive the pain and suffering they feel as a result of shame.  Unfortunately, most of their peers would just tell them there is nothing to be ashamed about, you should be proud and thus invalidating their feelings and driving them further underground.  One who actually is authentically proud is not easily vulnerable to shame.

***Note:  A market criticism would point out that Kylie and others are imitating a culture that is being sold to them by the very people who are complaining.  Hip-hop culture, for instance, like all music culture, represents a whole aesthetic gestalt to the consumer.  You don’t just buy the album, you buy the t-shirt, too.  A recommended solution if this bothers you could be for black people to refuse to support commercial hip hop musicians. In a very libertarian way  If you can’t keep the market out of your life, keep your life out of the market.  This solution is much less relevant to other forms of asserted cultural appropriation like native american head dress, but it is very relevant to pop culture like anime. My house is full of hand made ethnic art.  I like to buy it in my travels.  It seems to me like second and third world cultures I’ve visited have always been thrilled and proud to have outsiders participate in their cultural events and eager to have outsiders buy their crafts.  The sensitivity to this in first world nations among the privileged bourgeoisie (the Kylie dreads example was an argument between two wealthy young women neither of whom are members of the working class) makes me again suspicious that it is a sign that points to a problem, and is a symbolic struggle that relieves tension rather than relieves the underlying structural issue the sign refers to.

****Thanks to the respondent who pointed out that Amandla is a common ethnic name, not a neologism.  I edited out the following aside, reprinted here in full:  “…as an aside, is the refusal to accept standard names an attempt to master or perpetuate a stigma.? Why not “Amanda?”  While I fully retract this point in the case of Amandla, I think the rhetorical question is still worth considering for new name creation in stigmatized communities.  I do, however, disagree with the statement that “saying there are standard names is a pretty big claim.”  My rejoinder is that smaller communities tend to anthropologically have more duplication of similar names.  A teleological attempt to name outside the bounds of existing names in the community, I dare say, means something.  I offer two possibilities above, but am by no means saying these are the only ones.  It could, for instance, be an attempt to merge one cultural pronunciation and phrasing with another as synthesis – or something else.  But it is on purpose.