Arguments over the appropriation of culture have deep roots

College students in blackface. A white chef telling people how to eat Vietnamese pho. Students of color who consider bad sushi in the dining hall to be a cultural insult. A white writer writing about nonwhite people in a clumsy fashion. These are some of the incidents of “cultural appropriation,” as some would call them, that have provoked important questions: Who owns culture? Who has the right to speak for a culture? Are minorities too sensitive? Do identity politics encourage conformity in thinking? What happened to the right to free speech?

Extremists exist on either side of the debate. On one side, libertarians of free speech argue that anyone should be able to say anything. From this view, minority protests against stereotypes and appropriation limit the imagination, art and dialogue. On the other side, people are speaking up loudly about their cultures being hijacked.

Though some people are admittedly too sensitive about their culture, they are not all minorities. White people have proved that they too engage in identity politics. Whiteness, which has for centuries been unmatched in its dominance, and hence could be the invisible norm, is in something of a crisis as vocal minorities challenge it.

The sensitivity over culture cannot be understood in isolation from deeply entrenched histories of colonization, exploitation and inequality. When African Americans point to white people appropriating black music and profiting from it, it is not simply an issue of whether white people can enjoy and adapt black music. African Americans are also remembering how white people enslaved black people and profited from their labor, and how that racist system is passed down to an environment in which white people own the record companies, the concert venues and the radio stations. With this inherited power, they can exploit black musicians and promote white musicians.

When the inhabitants of poor, urban neighborhoods that have become hip bemoan gentrification, they are not simply being resentful against newcomers who are white, Asian or wealthy. These newcomers may believe they are making their neighborhoods more attractive, but many are unaware that decades of racial covenants, redlining and white flight created the segregated areas they are moving into. The appearance of the white hipster in neighborhoods that white people abandoned long ago remind the current residents that they don’t truly own where they live. Their lives are subject to economic forces they don’t control and to the desires of people wealthier than they are.

And it’s not simply people of color who feel this way. Many white people do as well. For much of American history, white people benefited from a society built at the expense of people of color whose land was taken or whose labor was exploited. Now, that economic system has left many working-class and middle-class whites behind. They see shrinking paychecks, lost blue-collar jobs, the hollowing out of industries and small towns, the destruction of pensions, and they may blame those who appear different from themselves: black people who seemingly don’t work hard enough or Latinos and Asians who seemingly work too hard and for too little.

Once the majority, white Americans are understandably scared about their inevitable decline into a minority population. The country is diversifying as California already has; Latinos have outnumbered whites in the state since 2015, and demographers predict whites will become a minority in the United States by 2060. While some white people scoff at the complaints of minorities, they seem implicitly to understand that being a minority has not always been a pleasant experience — hence their fear of becoming a minority. These white people demand their country back, a more prosperous America where they once owned the culture. They too fear cultural appropriation, except that in this case it means the loss of the privileges that were long a benefit of whiteness, privileges which people of color appear to be taking.

Thus we have the battle lines drawn in what pundits of the 1990s called the “culture wars.” We are still fighting those wars, but to think that we are fighting only over culture misses the point. We are also fighting over ownership, property, profits, rights and lives, as we have been for centuries. The cultural things we fight over — food, neighborhoods, music, literature, the flag, the national anthem — are symbols of that history. It’s no surprise that those who have earned large or small profits from that history see these fights in a different way than those who have been deprived because of that history.

How to move forward? First, recognize the history of economic appropriation that makes possible cultural appropriation. Without such a recognition, we will continue to fight the wrong battle. Though it has been important for political progress in this country to organize around cultures and identities, these types of struggles won’t fundamentally change how some people benefit from an economic system built on racial discrimination and many others don’t.

Second, engage in careful and curious conversation with people different from ourselves, both in terms of demographics and ideas. When I say careful, I mean that it is possible to use one’s free speech and yet also be respectful and ethical. It is advisable not to insult people, as in the case of a white author wearing a sombrero to make her point about cultural oversensitivity. When I say curious, I mean that too many of us are not interested in the lives of others, if my experience with my airplane seatmates is any indication. Too many people would rather talk about themselves rather than ask questions of others.

Third, accept criticism. People of all sides revert to human nature by seeing the failures of their opponents and not their own side. Examining ourselves and acknowledging our mistakes and excesses is difficult, but without doing so, it is too easy to look down on others without realizing that we do many of the same things we accuse others of doing. When it comes to identity politics, this means acknowledging that people sometimes are too sensitive, and that includes white people.

Fourth, practice solidarity. Reject the politics of division that have existed in this country since the 17th century, when white property owners convinced poor whites that their interests aligned with wealthy whites rather than indentured and enslaved blacks. Today’s aggrieved white working class would be better off building alliances with working-class people of other cultures, and vice versa, rather than be seduced by the call to build walls. The reality is that walls won’t keep people out, and walls won’t keep profits in.  

As for those of us who are writers, whose work is all about culture: No one told us our job would be easy. For centuries, though, the job was easier for white writers who could get published and who could say anything they wanted about anyone, anywhere. Now those people who were written about are writing back and speaking out. They demand a conversation, they criticize, and sometimes they are too sensitive. But they are not silencing anyone. The ones who are truly silenced are the ones who cannot get published.

The ones who can get published simply have to do their research, know that their audiences are more diverse, brace themselves for pushback, and understand that saying whatever one wants is not necessarily a sign of artistry. It is just as likely an artless provocation. It is possible to write about others not like oneself, if one understands that this is not simply an act of culture and free speech, but one that is enmeshed in a complicated, painful history of ownership and division that needs to be addressed responsibly — that is to say, with great artistry — in one’s writing.

If all of this seems too difficult, then you understand why people would rather fight over things like food, and why building walls may seem easier than building bridges.

Nguyen is the author of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and the forthcoming short story collection “The Refugees” (February 2017). His novel “The Sympathizer” won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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