Two news stories highlight the contentious topic of cultural appropriation. The New York Times reported last week on the fury over a show, called “Slav,” put on at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Billed as “a theatrical odyssey” exploring the history of slavery via “traditional African-American slave and work songs,” “Slav” had a white director and star, and a mostly white cast. This spurred comparisons with blackface; cast members were heckled amid charges that “white artists had recklessly appropriated black culture.” The show was canceled after just two performances, with the festival management issuing a statement apologizing “to those who were hurt.” Here in the U.S., meanwhile, actress Scarlett Johansson's planned portrayal of a transgender man in the film Rub & Tug has sparked a similar backlash, with transgender activists insisting that the role should go to a trans actor.
The concept of cultural appropriation traces to colonial-era critiques by such writers as Frantz Fanon, Antonio Gramsci, and Paulo Freire; today, it tends to take on such issues as whether it’s acceptable for white people to wear dreadlocks, or whether, when singer Katy Perry performed as a geisha at the American Music Awards in 2013, it constituted a tribute to Asian culture—as Perry insisted—or rather a “yellowface” insult. The basic idea is that artifacts, styles, or modes of expression constitute possessions of the cultures that develop them; and that their use by artists or performers who don’t belong to those groups represents at best a travesty, at worst a kind of theft. Those promoting this idea view it as crucial to the defense of cultural patrimony against a plunder akin to that of nineteenth century archaeologists, whose “discoveries” in remote places were carted back to stock European museums. Those opposed view it as a lamentable excess of political correctness and identity politics.
You can trace the idea across the spectrum of cultural production. There’s the Portland, Oregon burrito cart owners who got called out for “stealing” their recipes during a trip to Mexico. The French fashion brand Chanel caught flak for selling a boomerang for $2000 and thereby appropriating aboriginal culture. There’s actor Zac Efron’s new dreadlocks, or Kim Kardashian’s braided ‘do at the MTV Movie Awards. (Hairstyles are an object of particular controversy.) Two Twitter users duked it out over that hairdo. “Braids have roots in all of history,” one commented; “the longer you continue to fight for equality, you have to move on from things like limiting hairstyles to one race.” The response questioned both Kardashian’s intent and her standing, zeroing in on the issue of trespass: “Why is she dead set on only using African styles and not Armenian ones?”
Criticisms of cultural mimicry and costume reveal a hierarchy of offense. For a white American, donning a Mexican sombrero is a no-no, imitating a Chinese accent is worse, and dressing like an African “tribesman” would be beyond the pale. Yet wearing lederhosen to a beer party doesn’t seem to bother anyone. And a black comic like Chris Rock can imitate white people—and it’s funny. The truth is that every nation has its own particular raw spots, reflecting past offenses by the powerful against the dispossessed; and in the United States, the rawest is our history of racist exploitation against black people. If you go around speaking with a German accent, people will find you eccentric, but not offensive. But when African American author Carvell Wallace denounces (white) singer Meghan Trainor’s “blaccent,” calling it “stolen language,” and asks, “What does it mean that Meghan Trainor’s voice is, technically, an approximated black one that comes from a white body?”, white people are put on alert—not least because he’s echoing themes set forth in stinging critiques by race-focused writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. Trainor’s action abrades that American raw spot.
The cultural-appropriation critique takes a swat at liberal complacency. Criticizing the casting of Scarlett Johansson, and citing instances of cisgendered actors winning awards for portraying trans characters, the trans actress Trace Lysette, from the TV series Transparent, commented acerbically: “Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived.” Not sympathy, then, but larceny: larceny and self-congratulation. The stealing-our-narrative trope Lysette deploys is everywhere these days, one of those signal ideas that exists both at the theoretical-academic level and at the Oprah-daily-life level. How do we frame issues, and who gets to? Who owns the story? Our understanding of history, politics, and group identity increasingly resembles a never-ending political campaign, with its imperative to frame or be framed. In this light, narrative is essentially a means of production; the power to define becomes the power to own and rule, and an act of imaginative projection—even a sympathetic one—is viewed not only as exploitation for profit, but a presumption or an act of outright occupation. What gives you the right to tell my story?