On the Judgment of Appropriators

Photo: SarahMcGowen/Flickr/Creative Commons LicenseMelissa Hillman, who writes Bitter Gertrude, recently asked her friends on Facebook to help define the parameters of inappropriate cultural appropriation.  Hillman has (among many others) been an outspoken critic of both the casting of white people in non-white roles (see Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the new movie version of Peter Pan) and the integration of non-white cultural signifiers and traditions in shows and circumstances that she feels are inappropriate (see The Wooster Group’s Native American-themed Cry, Trojans and Lantern Theater Company’s Japanese (and, a little bit, Chinese)-infused Julius Caesar).  If you’ve read Bitter Gertrude, you know Melissa is both extremely articulate and extremely blunt, and in her frustrated posts about these issues, as well as in the reactions of many others across the web to these examples, I have somewhat unexpectedly found myself reacting with a finger upraised and an attitude of, “Whoa whoa whoa.”

I have previously referenced a set of essays by Eula Biss compiled into the amazing collection Notes from No Man’s Land, but I’m now going to do it again, this time a different essay.  In it, Biss examines the time before “white” was all whites (if it is today)—in particular, the time when immigrant populations of Italians and Irish were viewed hierarchically as lower than other white folks, and were each treated as a minority.  In her essay, Biss explores how those two populations eventually integrated into white society on the backs of African-Americans, but in the process, she also nods toward the appropriation and integration of Irish and Italian traditions, cultural experiences, food, etc, into the overarching culture.  With an appropriate asterisk that that particular story relies on the disadvantaging of another group, which I hope need not always be the case, I have found myself continually fascinated by what that particular story of assimilation (as opposed to integration—and here, we should be having a discussion about whether “assimilation” is the pursuit, but let’s table that for a second) says about the necessity of allowing your cultural identity to become, essentially, open source.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, the celebration of the arrival of Christianity to Ireland, a staunchly Irish holiday.  It is, arguably, one of the most beloved holidays in the United States, raucous and butch, and is viewed, even as it is quintessentially Irish, as also quintessentially American.  Anyone and everyone is encouraged to wear green, to celebrate.  Mardi Gras, a historically French Christian celebration (of which there are a variety of other variants in other cultures) has migrated far from its roots and been embraced as a larger cultural indicator.

The privileged culture that we are all currently so preoccupied with, the one wrapped up in the short phrase “white, rich, educated,” is an amalgam of a vast set of cultures, many of which came to that single signifier of “white” through a long, argumentative, and bigoted set of treatments following immigration.  Appropriation (and many, many other factors) led to a broadening of the boundaries of that singular group.  Which I find fascinating.

This is not, of course, to say that such is the same (or the goal) for the cultural traditions of folks who currently sit outside of the “white privilege” sphere.  And in that statement, I mean to bundle up a whole lot of caveats, and to recognize that this is extraordinarily complex and touchy.  But while my initial reaction to the Native American Cry, Trojans and the Asian Julius Caesar was similarly annoyed to Hillman’s and others, I find myself more and more preoccupied with the idea that bluntly stating that one culture’s traditions should not be appropriated by another set of people is a difficult and slippery slope.

When Hillman posted about Tiger Lily (on Facebook, in case you go hunting on her blog), one commenter posited that perhaps there was some sort of logic in the choice—that Wendy, being upper-class British, might naturally gravitate towards, and populate her fantasies with, the type of white women with whom she surely had more engagement.  This theory was dismissed, the railing against the Hollywood machine commenced, and the truth is that that nuanced and interesting dissection of cultural appropriation through cultural appropriation is probably not the reason—the reason is likely that Rooney Mara, the girl with the dragon tattoo herself, has a bigger name than someone else who is Native American.  Johnny Depp certainly wasn’t cast as Tonto to make any larger or more complex argument about cultural appropriation.  And I take all of that—and yet I’d like to leave the gate open just a bit for the moment when someone does want to engage that type of nuance, that there be room for that.  That people judge things, at least a bit, after and not before.

To the connected, but different, issue of arts experiences appropriating other cultural traditions utilizing scripts, people, etc of inappropriate cultural backgrounds, I really have to say I’m worried about the lack of nuance with which many in the field are approaching the conversation.  Importantly, I am not saying that either Wooster Group or Lantern’s productions were not racially insensitive—I’m saying that the simple sampling of other cultural traditions alone cannot make them so.  Paula Vogel has done that.  Cirque du Soleil has done that.  Lion King did that.  Jose Rivera does that.  Jay Z does that.  Kurosawa did that.  Ai Weiwei does that.

In his open letter to the Lantern staff and production team, artist Makoto Hirano lists many issues that he feels devalue the actual Japanese cultural touchstones that the Lantern production appropriated.  He calls them out for having a fully non-Japanese cast, and then for having those non-Japanese people perform traditional Japanese things including bowing to each other, traditional kneeling, utilize Japanese instruments, etc.  He closes out with an admonition to consult an expert when doing something like this—a very important, and I think correct, admonition, although he says it more in the spirit of “so they can tell you you shouldn’t do it” and less in the spirit of “so they can work with you to do such appropriation with respect.”

He calls them out for having Brutus use a Chinese sword while everyone else has Japanese swords.

He calls them out for having all the white folks attack and kill the “only black person on stage.”

And in those two bullets, when I first read the letter, I paused.  Because I sensed, in them, a whole lot of assumptions on Hirano’s part that might or might not be true.  Perhaps the directors and designers didn’t understand the significance of giving Brutus a Chinese sword.  Perhaps they did—perhaps they were making a statement about his status as the betrayer of Julius Caesar, an uncomfortable man in a play of characters who, by and large, pick an angle and pursue it to its logical conclusion, someone who instead acts differently, doesn’t quite understand all that is going on around him, is a bit of an alien in the landscape.  Indeed, if you read Hillman’s post on the Lantern production, she both highlights the artistic leads’ more complex comments on why they chose to do what they did, and dismisses them because they, in her words, “see these cultures as visual art available for their use, not as an inextricable part of the heritage of real, living people”–a statement that I think reads a whole lot of motivation into a few quotes, but again, I haven’t seen  the show.

Perhaps the directors weren’t cognizant of the image they would be making on stage, of everyone white ganging up on and murdering the only black man on stage.  Given, however, that that black man was the guy playing Julius Caesar and that Philadelphia is an extremely black/white racially charged environment, I would instead guess that that image was meant to be uncomfortable, to make people question, in that moment, the unjustness of murdering a man who you don’t understand, who is different than  you.  Again, having not seen it, the set up reminds me of nothing so much as Amiri Baraka’s The Dutchman, where that exact discomfort was exactly the point.

I think where I get caught up is in the sort of starting assumption that this type of crafting, unless done one very particular way, is immediately and without exception wrong and racist.  Hillman calls out the fact that the use of the signifiers in the Lantern production is “using artifacts of other cultures – both groups currently marginalized in the US – while shutting out the people of those cultures from the artistic process because they believe their artistic vision is MORE IMPORTANT.”  And in  reading those statements, which I’ve seen a whole lot across the web about these and other issues of appropriation, I feel a frustration in me start to rise.

Appropriation comes with all sorts of hang ups.  The sampling of other cultures for the purpose of easy symbolism, exoticism and/or profit (and boy is there a lot of that, and it’s all mortifying) can sit so close to the sampling of other cultures for the purpose of true homage, celebration, and exploration.  To put a blanket embargo on such engagement, without nuance, seems to me to be short-sighted and reactionary—particularly, actually, when I hear such judgment from white people.

My daughter went to a Purim party a few days ago.  She (not a Jew) dressed, as many of the Jewish girls did, as a princess to celebrate Queen Esther, a woman whose heroism she and I both knew nothing about until a week ago.  My host told me the whole tale of Queen Esther and her heroism, of the evil advisor Hamen, of the salvation of the Jews—and then told me that this story was a lot like all of the Jewish stories, starting with the Jews being in peril and ending with them being saved, but that this one, this one was different, was his favorite, because it didn’t involve a miracle.  He told me he liked it because it involved no parting of seas, just simply the intelligence of a woman who wished to save her people, and who was able to explain her culture to someone who was not like her at least enough that he didn’t consider them so different as to warrant persecution anymore.

I have watched a Hispanic male soprano sing the female parts of an Italian opera on the platform of a Metro station after work in a full suit and been brought to tears.  I have seen white sorority sisters step with pride and without irony, and be applauded.  I have watched a black woman perform a sun salutation followed by a set of Tai Chi poses with such exactitude and reverence that there was no doubt in my mind she was celebrating two cultures, not making fun of them.  I just heard two white musicians talking about how their music has been revolutionized because of their incorporation of 808-style drums into their music.  I have seen reverential appropriation and, of course, I have seen a whole lot of facile, racist crap.

I also understand that assimilation, Borg-like, isn’t perhaps the best way for all of this to go down.  But I equally think that fragmentation, the clutching to one’s chest of what is one’s alone, is problematic.

There is a bravery required in giving your culture a bit of a long leash.  There is a trust that is often broken, but that sometimes isn’t.  There is a constant fear that is occasionally met with generosity.  The point, I guess, is that I’ve seen both appreciation and advantage-taking, and so, I would imagine, have you.  And that I think the world gets better when we are able to grapple with our understandings and misunderstandings—that we are better when we are afforded opportunities to experience and engage with new things—that we should allow ourselves to at least start from a place of believing in the intelligent grappling with complex ideas rather than that blind, insensitive taking of something sacred.  We have so many problems to actually tackle, I just want to make sure that, where we can, we also see the light and celebrate it, even when it is clumsy, even when it is not perfect, rather than simply snuff it out, and turn our faces back into the darkness shouting about how we’re better than that person we’ve not bothered to engage.

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  1. says

    It is with a sense of urgency that I write in response to your argument that we be less judgmental when it comes to issues of cultural appropriation. Examining the history of US arts funding, programming, and cultural policy, it is clear to see that the United States has a longstanding history of deeming white Eurocentric art forms and arts organizations as the authority of “professional” arts and culture in this country. I am left with no choice but to interpret your post as a defense of this status quo; that these professional theatre groups defended their cultural appropriation by stating that their artistic vision “is bigger than that” (something which is included in Melissa Hillman’s post yet notably left out of your own) is as problematic as the statement “I don’t see color.” These sentiments are indicative of the privilege of not having to live every day thinking of issues of racism, prejudice, and cultural appropriation.

    An advocate for arts and culture must necessarily problematize the lack of ethnocultural diversity on our movie and television screens, our performances, our stages, our gallery walls, our books and scripts, and our museum exhibitions. Understanding and addressing this lack of plurality is a long overdue conversation that belongs in classrooms, research investigations, policy meetings, cultural events, social media, and dinner tables across the United States. When we perpetuate stereotypes, justify cultural appropriation, and defend it in the way that you have done, we send a message to our plural masses that their stories either do not matter or are open for interpretation without any attempt to understand those histories and cultural practices that do not belong to us.

    You write that we ought not to be so quick to judge instances of cultural appropriation yet I challenge that you are too quick to defend it. Indeed it is regrettable that in your post I read that we are wrong to exercise basic art and theater criticism. You wrongly assume that the white majority who choose to exercise this appropriation of marginalized cultures have either already teased out all of the potential problems with cultural appropriate in their art / performance / production (and therefore it’s defensible because they thought about it) OR that they are simply unprofessional (because they didn’t think about it) but that’s OK too. So it’s OK to make haphazard decisions on cultural appropriation but it’s not okay to talk about them in brief? There are standards for incorporating politically, ethnically, and culturally charged images in artwork. Asking that the work acknowledge historical context and consult experts like ethnographers, dramaturges, and the very community members of the culture whose lives are being interpreted for the masses is not only responsible, it is common sense.

    Holding casting directors accountable for whitewashing histories is another overdue and ethical petition. Are you actually defending the casting practices of “the Hollywood machine”? Does Hollywood need defending? And, if the time for calling into question more of the same whitewashed-casting practices is not before the film is made (when it is arguably still possible to affect change), then when is the appropriate time? Unfortunately what I take from this is your raising the question “Who gets to challenge blatantly ignorant, racist, cultural appropriation?” with a resounding answer of “NO ONE! (and definitely not white people.)”

    In pointing to the example of St. Patrick’s Day you are defending cultural appropriation by way of saying “Isn’t it great that we can all join in on the fun?!” We don’t have the luxury of glossing over the way the majority takes and bends traditions to fit their own wills. Are you not aware of the countless Irish-Americans who have come to loathe this day? Or are they simply spoilsports? The idea that a holiday steeped in religion has become an excuse for students to skip class, workers to throw caution to the wind, and anyone else choosing to celebrate to skip social norms and moral codes to drink green beer until they vomit in the streets is not a shining example of what we should be aiming for. I am tired of the assumption that I spend March 17 in a drunken stupor, or the idea that I’ll shirk all of my scholastic or work-related responsibilities to don green and sing “Danny Boy.”

    So, I implore you, let us please dedicate more time to these difficult discussions and less time silencing them.

  2. says

    A…curious choice to end a piece defending color-blindness with the ol’ light vs. darkness dichotomy. :) In general, though, I’m with you. The idea that cultural appropriation should be off-limits to white people entirely is highly problematic, in my view – not to mention completely unrealistic. I find it interesting that I never hear the same logic applied to, say, food. One of the best Mexican meals I’ve ever had in my life was at Frontera Grill in Chicago, a restaurant founded by a white chef named Rick Bayless. Is that a bad thing? I would guess that many of the same white folks who rail against cultural appropriation in theater or music would think nothing of whipping up a stir-fry after a trip to the Chinese grocery – and be proud of it, even.

    Where I have more sympathy for the cultural appropriation/colonialism arguments is when there’s a real power dynamic at play that results in exclusion of people of color at the expense of inclusion for whites. So the Rooney Mara example, for me, draws blood because there really are hardly any opportunities for leading roles for Native American actors in Hollywood, and to take away one of those opportunities for any reason – no matter how artistically valid – perpetuates the existing (and oppressive) power dynamic. But that’s Hollywood we’re talking about – millions of dollars and international exposure at stake. I just don’t think the argument holds the same weight for a community theater production that’s going to be seen by 100 people, and especially not in situations that are nonrival – that is, when giving a white person the opportunity to (respectfully) participate in a non-white culture doesn’t reduce opportunities for people of color.

    The bottom line, though, is that the debate about cultural appropriation is ultimately a distraction. Exoticism, taking things from others and profiting off of them, etc. feels gross only when it intersects with unequal power dynamics between racial groups in our country. Nobody cares that, for example, East Asians appropriate white culture all the time (and not always knowledgeably or reverently) because white culture is not disadvantaged in the global marketplace. My personal opinion is that cultural appropriation has high visibility which makes it easy to criticize, but low importance due to its position on the causal chain of power. In other words, while many instances of cultural appropriation may be symptoms of racism, I suspect it’s rare that they actually do anything to make racism worse. I think our collective attention would be better focused elsewhere.