11 November 2015

Appropriate and Appropriation

Smart analysis from Timothy Burke, history professor at Swarthmore College:

What’s being called appropriation in some of the current activist discourses is how culture works. It’s the engine of cultural history, it’s the driver of human creativity. No culture is a natural, bounded, intrinsic and unchanging thing. A strong prohibition against appropriation is death to every ideal of human community except for a rigidly purified and exclusionary vision of identity and membership.

Even a weak prohibition against appropriation risks constant misapplication and misunderstanding by people who are trying to systematically apply the concept as polite dogma. To see one example of that, look to the New York Times article, which describes at one point a University of Washington advice video that counsels people to avoid wearing a karate costume unless you’re part of the real culture of karate. But karate as an institutional culture of art and sport is already thoroughly appropriated from its origins in Okinawa, and it was in turn an appropriation of sorts from Chinese martial arts–and no martial arts form in the world today is anything even remotely like its antecedents in practice, form or purpose. Trying to forbid karate costuming to anyone but a truly authentic “owner” of the costume is a tragic misunderstanding of the history of the thing being regulated. It’s also a gesture that almost certainly forbids the wearing of a costume that has a referent that is not wholly imaginary. If a karate outfit is appropriation for anyone but a genuine Okinawan with a black belt, then so also are firefighters, police, soldiers, nurses, doctors, astronauts and so on. Even imaginary characters are usually appropriations of some kind of another, drawn out of history and memory.

It is precisely these kinds of discourses about appropriation that are used by reactionaries to protest Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall, or to assert that a tradition of a particular character or cultural type being white or male or straight means it must always be so. It might be possible to configure a critique so that appropriation from below is always ok and appropriation from above is never ok, but that kind of categorical distinction itself rests on the illusion of power being rigid, binary and fixed rather than fluid, performative and situational.

What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression.
I’ve been trying to remember Halloween costumes from my years at Yale. I don’t remember the types of costume that the administration felt compelled to warn students against this year. In fact, I have a hard time imagining anyone in that period thinking variations on blackface would ever be appropriate—and I do remember clear moments of racism and other bigotry. But maybe I just didn’t go to those parties.

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