In Defense of Cultural Appropriation

by Kenan Malek
Op Ed Writer
New York Times
June 14, 2017





Seventy years ago, racist radio stations refused to play “race music” for a white audience. Today, antiracist activists insist that white painters should not portray black subjects. To appropriate a phrase from a culture not my own: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

In Canada last month, three editors lost their jobs after making such a defense.
The controversy began when Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Write, the magazine of the Canadian Writers’ Union, penned an editorial defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds. Within days, a social media backlash forced him to resign. The Writers’ Union issued an apology for an article that its Equity Task Force claimed “re-entrenches the deeply racist assumptions” held about art.
Another editor, Jonathan Kay, of The Walrus magazine, was also compelled to step down after tweeting his support for Mr. Niedzviecki. Meanwhile, the broadcaster CBC moved Steve Ladurantaye, managing editor of its flagship news program The National, to a different post, similarly for an “unacceptable tweet” about the controversy.

It’s not just editors who have to tread carefully. Last year, the novelist Lionel Shriver generated a worldwide storm after defending cultural appropriation in an address to the Brisbane Writers Festival. Earlier this year, controversy erupted when New York’s Whitney Museum picked for its Biennial Exhibition Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Many objected to a white painter like Ms. Schutz depicting such a traumatic moment in black history. The British artist Hannah Black organized a petition to have the work destroyed.
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Other works of art have been destroyed. The sculptor Sam Durant’s piece “Scaffold,” honoring 38 Native Americans executed in 1862 in Minneapolis, was recently being assembled in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. But after protests from indigenous activists that Mr. Durant was appropriating their history, the artist dismantled his own work, and made its wood available to be burned in a Dakota Sioux ceremony.
What is cultural appropriation, and why is it so controversial? Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University, defines it as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission.” This can include the “unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
Appropriation suggests theft, and a process analogous to the seizure of land or artifacts. In the case of culture, however, what is called appropriation is not theft but messy interaction. Writers and artists necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one, and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.
Critics of cultural appropriation insist that they are opposed not to cultural engagement, but to racism. They want to protect marginalized cultures and ensure that such cultures speak for themselves, not simply be seen through the eyes of more privileged groups.
To read the rest of the essay go to: https://nyti.ms/2sn9LOI  

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