WHITE GUILT AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: Social justice is a sort of umbrella term and encompasses many different themes. Cultural appropriation is more of a fringe racial justice issue, even though I argue that it really isn’t. So, out of respect for people working on important social justice issues (think poverty reduction, environmentalism, access to health care, labour laws, etc.), I would like to put some distance between the terms cultural appropriation and social justice. Furthermore, when I write “cultural appropriation”, I am referring to it from the point of view of those who believe that it antagonizes racism and should be abhorred.
Cultural appropriation is, in my view, a psychosocial symptom associated with white guilt. Sufferers of white guilt have painted themselves into a corner, resulting in them grasping at straws in their search for ways to reconcile the racism and exploitation of both historical and contemporary whites.
Cultural Appropriation isn’t, in my opinion, a social justice issue. It’s more like a socio-political fetish. Like the Jew who requests a concentration camp scenario from his/her dominatrix, or the person of colour who asks to be treated like a plantation slave, cultural appropriation is just the eroticization of your worst fears; that a white person or white owned business that makes use of some part of another culture is exploiting the appropriated group and hurting them. Cultural appropriation warriors, I argue, are simply scared that they, themselves, are racist. By shunning cultural appropriation, they exonerate themselves and plead their innocence to racism. They worry more about getting recognition and amnesty rather than making fundamental changes to their own actions or beliefs.
There are, of course, instances where something from a ‘foreign’ culture can be adopted in such a way that people, from the appropriated culture, feel mocked or belittled. Think blackface. But depending on the context, blackface is either racist or just people being insensitive assholes. It’s wrong to lump bona fide racists and garden-variety assholes in with people who, for example, deeply values another’s culture so much that they adopt aspects of it. Think starting a burrito business.
There is more to say, but I’m pretty sure my daughter isn’t in bed sleeping. I can hear her collecting toys from the bin in the hallway. The transition from crib to bed is not going as planned, so until I return, ponder the following:
Though the Civil Rights Era was originally thought to have held much promise for the improvement of race relations in American society, the guilt experienced by whites coming to terms with racism was turned into a type of “black currency” which ultimately led to a rejection of individual responsibility by blacks. This allowed whites and American institutions to accept responsibility for black advancement as a means to relieve the guilt and stigmatization associated with the racist past. However, this redistribution of responsibility has resulted only in the illusion of social justice, rather than a true advancement of the black minority.
– Kelly Ryan, from her review of White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era by Shelby Steele.
Cultural appropriation is a byproduct of this acceptance of responsibility and has since broadened to include every other minority group, and strictly speaking is an entirely unsustainable endeavor since it does almost nothing to improve race relations. If anything, it exacerbates them since it ostracizes and demoralizes people who embrace other cultures. By embracing other cultures, learning about them, and acknowledging differences/tensions, integration, that big word used a lot when people talk about refugees in Europe, becomes ever more possible.
In closing (I’ve got mad dishes to put away so I best be off), I’d like to share a personal anecdote.
I lived in Korea for a good chunk of my life (2002-2012, 2014-2016), and during my time there I fell in love with Korean food; especially Samgye-tang (ginseng chicken soup). It’s the fucking bees knees. I cook it at home. The family enjoys it. It’s delicious. It’s healthy. And if I ever move back to Toronto, I am confident that a Samgye-tang restaurant could do well. And despite all of the normal struggles an entrepreneur must endure, I fear the biggest hurdle will be fending off cultural appropriation warriors suffering from acute white guilt, and that scares me.