Stealing Culture and Identity

Jul 21 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

John McWhorter (who has written extensively about language) has a post in the Daily Beast about stealing culture. Cultural appropriation. This is in response to a Time op-ed.

First, he makes the point that stealing for financial benefit (a la Elvis) when the originators receive nothing, but the thief gets rich is wrong. That is different, he says, from other situations.

But what began as a legitimate complaint has morphed into a handy way of being offended by something that should be taken as a compliment.

The meat of his point is in the next two para:

... editorial in Time, where a black woman tells white gay men to stop imitating them by taking on their gestures and expressions.... To her, these men are “stealing” black womanhood.

But what does it mean to “steal” someone’s culture when we’re not talking about money? With gay white men and black women, for example, it’s not as if the black women are being left without their culture after the “theft,” or as if gay white men are somehow out there “out-blacking” the women they “stole” from.

The argument goes somewhere interesting after this. Its starts with (this is McWhorter's argument):

  1. white gay men imitate black women out of admiration.
  2. some of that admiration is because black women are "fellow suffers of oppression"
  3. but that (as the Time op-ed claimed) white gay men suffer less oppression than black women is a slippery slope of an argument.

But the part I really liked is a bit more minor, and towards the end:

The claim that white gay men are wrong to imitate black women because they aren’t as oppressed implies that black women’s cultural traits are all a response to oppression.

He then includes a quote from Ralph Ellison (who I realize is quite out of style now, though he made a huge impact on me as a young adolescent):

“Can a people,” he [Ellison] asked, “live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting?”

and then McWhorter (who identifies as black) says:

So very much of what it is to be a black woman is simply being someone, being someone beautiful with a particular complex of cultural traits that simply are, for themselves. That isn’t something anyone can “steal.”

This takes me back to Deirde McCluskey's views on change. (if you have not read her book, you must. well written. insightful. etc)

My gender crossing was motivated by identity, not by a balance sheet of utility.

Who we are, what we are, what culture we embrace is both a response to oppression and  a response to the joy of what we are. I am neither a black woman nor a gay white man, and do not wish to evaluate the arguments about cultural theft in this case. But as in any good/interesting/valuably provocative debate, it has given me a new room in which to sit and think. The chairs in this room are not particularly comfortable.

On some axes (plural of axis, not plural of axe) I have privilege, on others I have struggled. For me, I refuse to let male academics define me as butch. or dyke. or hag.  I refuse to give into their expectations about older women. or quiet women. or respectful women. I am exactly what a woman in her late 50's looks like, neither young nor old for my age. I  behave exactly as a woman in her late 50's does. I am neither mature nor immature. My struggles have informed me, and helped shape me. But they are not me. I am a continuation of my parents and grandparents. Their struggles are stories that help me, but their struggles were not mine. I do not claim the oppressions against which they, my beloved ancestors, worked. I do not claim that my story, my experiences are even necessarily relevant to gay men or women of color or third world women children sold into slavery. But I read all of these stories to learn. And I share mine in the hope that will help or matter or provide a chair in which someone else can sit and learn.

 

5 responses so far

  • Nicky says:

    Thanks for sharing, this post resonates for me.

  • The claim that white gay men are wrong to imitate black women because they aren’t as oppressed implies that black women’s cultural traits are all a response to oppression.

    This was not at all how I read the college student's essay. It seems clear to me that her point is that white gay men are wrong to imitate black women because to whatever extent white gay men are oppressed, their oppression does not derive from their possession of any of the particular characteristics--including the ones they choose to imitate--of black women that lead to their oppression.

    • mistressoftheanimals says:

      Your interpretation has validity. My reading is different. The traits they are imitating are not necessarily the particular characteristics that lead to oppression. They are not coloring their skin, which in my reading is the source of oppression, not the cultural aspects that gay may are adopting.

      The point I got was no one should be "taking the sweet" when they don't "experience the sour". This is also a valid point.

      I still don't think I'm in a position to judge these claims and counter-claims.

  • The point I got was no one should be "taking the sweet" when they don't "experience the sour".

    Yes, I agree that this was the main point. Where I disagree with you is that I didn't take away from the essay any quantitative rank-ordering of oppression.

    • mistressoftheanimals says:

      that was more McWhorter's perspective. And its not so important for the point I wanted to make about not being defined by one's oppression.

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