Racism and “Cultural Appropriation”

I only encountered the bizarre new concept of “cultural appropriation” within the past 2-3 years. I remember the moment well: a black Facebook friend posted a picture of some white, middle-aged women dressed in traditional African clothing. It was a sweet photo, so I was taken aback by the commentary that accompanied it: apparently, here was an example of white supremacy, once again stealing from Africa. The women were guilty of “cultural appropriation”, apparently. And that’s bad.

Here was a new and puzzling idea. The left of old was insistent that Africa was victim to the exact opposite problem: something we referred to as “cultural imperialism”. We thought that culture could be imposed by those with the money and the guns. It was a superficially obvious idea: but we failed to understand what culture is, or how it works.

There are genuine moments when a culture has been forced onto an African population: the South African attempt to teach children in Afrikaans was one example. This policy prompted an uprising by school students who demanded to be taught in English, and led to the Soweto uprising, and the famous 1976 massacre of school students. The imposition of Islam in the Sahel by the Arabian empire was, one suspects, not done entirely peacefully.

Suppressing culture for the sake of it is simply expensive and pointless. This doesn’t stop politicians, police and control-freaks from repeatedly trying.

An attempt to suppress black American music
An attempt to suppress black American music

Culture doesn’t flow by force, nor does it necessarily follow the money. The story of black American music is the ultimate proof of that. Even in pre-civil rights segregated America, black music found widespread popularity. Recording fuelled the rise of jazz, swing and rock & roll. The racist white establishment attempted to suppress this, but were unable: when something is good, people will find a way to get it; this is as true of “dangerous music” as it is of illegal drugs. For sure, it was easy (prior the civil rights era) to suppress black artists, by refusing to record them, banning them from radio and from live performances. But this couldn’t prevent white artists – Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly – from helping to popularise black music.

The dominance of black music, dress and language over white culture was undeniable. The African diaspora filled vacuums in Western culture: music, rhythm, dance, spoken word, new styles of humour. African culture also brought a more straightforward approach to discussion of sex; this fact alone might explain much of the resistance to black culture from conservatives.

Culture is neither imperialised nor appropriated: it flows where it is welcome, usually because it fills an existing gap. It is the self-appointed job of conservatives, racists and small-minded bullies to prevent the flow of ideas, but they will inevitably fail, in the long run.

The significance of “cultural appropriation” is that it marks the shift of racism and conservatism from the right to the left of the political spectrum. Rather than exhort people not to buy “NEGRO RECORDS”, the neo-bullies tell people that black culture is for black people, and must not be appropriated.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen black racists and their confused white “liberal” cheerleaders use cultural appropriation as evidence of how racially oppressed they are. Apparently, wearing African clothes, listening to hip-hop or making soul music is today’s evidence of just how much white people still hate black people. Which is weird, when you think about it.

This idea is the work of a racist minority, and certainly doesn’t reflect the views of most black people. In fact, many older black art-forms still only exist because they’ve been adopted by white people. The dub reggae scene – which I’ve frequented for many years – was once mostly black, and now mostly white. The same applies to many other music scenes, from soul to traditional African music. With the exception of current Nigerian pop superstars like Wizkid, who can fill large London venues with young, black Brits, African music is largely ignored by black people in the UK. Senegalese friends of mine are currently touring Europe, playing to appreciative white audiences. Without this appropriation of (i.e. love for) their culture, these African musicians would never get to leave Africa.

Most Africans love to see whites wearing their clothing, and would be bemused to learn that some angry black people in America and Britain see this is a symbol of racism. Furthermore, there is no such thing as “African clothing”. If I wear Nigerian clothes in Senegal (as I’ve once done), the locals don’t see the clothing as theirs, but as foreign.

One can also note that Africans and western blacks themselves have happily appropriated foreign culture. Today’s most enthusiastic flag-wavers for Christianity are found among Africans and the African diaspora. Although konscious black Christians will angrily point out that Ethiopia was an early Christian society, Christianity (and its European-made book) was brought to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa far more recently by Europeans, not Ethiopians, beginning with the Portuguese explorers of the west coast. Islam, likewise, came overland from Arabia. Just as African rhythm and spoken word filled a void in the West, so Islam and Christianity provided what sub-Saharan Africa had never before encountered: complex, stable religions, with their own books.

Sections of today’s left are continuing the work of the white supremacist right of last century.  They try to define rules that only apply to certain racial groups. Blacks can “appropriate”, whites cannot. Black culture must be left alone, white culture can go where it chooses.

The difference between the person who rails about “cultural appropriation”, and the person that organised a boycott of “negro records” is wafer-thin. The language has changed beyond recognition, but the ugly, bullying, divisive intent is the same.

Guardian Linked To Racist Journalism

The phrase “linked to” is a favourite among the architects of moral panics. Marijuana was linked (back in the day) to black men raping white women. In more recent times, Ecstasy and various other safe drugs have been linked to (mostly invented) deaths. It is a favourite tool of tabloid journalism – claim ice cream is linked to gang violence and – Lo And Behold – it is! Because you just linked it.

In its endless descent into the journalistic gutter, the Guardian has adopted such tools too, such as its recent article Online trolling of women is linked to domestic violence, say campaigners. The Graun is, at least, smart enough to add “say campaigners” to the headline, so that when one points out that the claim is utterly baseless, the editor can respond: “we were just reporting what they said”.

This isn’t just sloppy journalism. The Guardian has long been militating for increased censorship of the Internet, and since it still maintains the pretence of supporting free speech, it must find online harm at every turn.

The Guardian itself appears to be becoming increasingly censored, especially on anything related to sex. What had originally seemed like the work of a few puritan journalists now seems to be official editorial policy. A series of good journalists have published ludicrously flimsy anti-sex articles. Not being privy to the internal workings of the organisation, I wonder what has been going on at Graun HQ. Does Julie Bindel stand over every journalist’s desk with a gun until she or he has produced yet another denunciation of “sexualisation” or “pornification”?

This feeling of a pro-censorship conspiracy is not just speculation: in her book The Sex Myth the sex worker/blogger/author/researcher Brooke Magnanti reveals that, after she won the Guardian’s 2003 blogger of the year award, a group of female Guardian journalists jointly threatened to resign if she was offered a column in the newspaper. Her crime was to present her sex work as a choice, and to refuse to label herself a victim, in strict contravention of Guardian editorial policy on sex work.

The Guardian’s hatred of any sexual expression is becoming so strong that the normally-PC paper is prepared to stray into the realm of racism where necessary. I’ve blogged previously about the jaw-dropping 2009 “white man’s porn is making black men into rapists” article by Tim Samuels.

Not to be outdone, Hadley Freeman (another once-sane journo who appears to have succumbed to the Curse of Guardian Towers) was enraged by Miley Cyrus’s recent twerking episode at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Her rage (of course) is primarily about open displays of sexuality: “she copied the dance moves of strippers” (but I know strippers who dance very well – what’s the problem?) and “female celebrities will one day feel that they don’t need to imitate porn actors” (all sexual expression is porn, and porn is bad, m’kay?)

Freeman tries to dress up her anti-sex rage as concern about racism, and digs herself a deep hole in the process. She casually drops in the fact that she has lived in the Notting Hill Carnival area for 12 years, which is kind-of like saying “I have black friends, you know”. I grew up a couple of miles north of Notting Hill, and while it was once a heavily Caribbean area, it had gentrified long before Freeman moved in.

She appears to be outraged that Cyrus had black backing singers: “a young wealthy woman from the south doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder”. They are “fodder” in Freeman’s eyes anyway: to me, they are dancing beautifully, as only women of African origin can, and helping distract from the fact that Cyrus can’t dance. She refers to the event as a “minstrel show”. Other than banning black backing dancers from shows with white lead performers, it’s unclear what remedy Freeman would like to see.

She has fallen into the trap awaiting “progressive” middle-class puritans: dance and music originating in sub-Saharan Africa have always been far more overtly sexual than those originating in Europe. The overtness of African sexual expression offends the sensibility of European prudes, just as it offended (and titillated) European colonialists in Africa, who insisted that shameful African nudity was covered up.

Black music now dominates Western popular music forms. Not because (as Freeman suggests) whites are guilty of “cultural appropriation”, but simply because it is better, and it has come to dominate the meme-pool. It is hard to imagine what Western music and dance would be like today without African influences.

Freeman, of middle-class Jewish-American roots, educated in English boarding school and then Oxford, did not grow up around black culture. Like many privileged whites who grew up surrounded by privileged whites, she is discomfited by it, and all the Oxford education in the world cannot help her formulate linguistic tricks that adequately hide that fact.

The icing on the cake is that Freeman wraps up her bizarre articulation of dislike for black sexual expression in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. King dreamed of a racially mixed world, but Freeman dreams of a world without strippers, porn and black backing dancers. What a sad, decaf, Euro-centric, Guardian-approved world that would be.