Paul Thomas

Cultural Appropriation

Aug 30, 2014 | Americana

Another week, another racism row.

Last week Taylor Swift’s new video was the issue. Rapper Earl Sweatshirt didn’t even need to watch it to know (and tell the world) that it’s “inherently offensive and ultimately harmful.”

Swift wears hip hop gear (hoodie, baseball cap). A black dancer twerks. Apparently this amounts to “perpetuating black stereotypes to the same demographic of white girls who hide their prejudice by proclaiming their love of the culture.” (And the thing about prejudiced white girls is there are a lot of them: the video has racked up over 50 million hits on YouTube.)

Sweatshirt’s tweet says more about him than his target.

Firstly, he takes the racism of Taylor’s fan base as a given, which seems kind of racist in itself. Secondly, he advances the Catch-22 style proposition that open appreciation of a minority culture is a façade concealing prejudice against that minority. (Generation Next racists are devious: rather than burn a cross on your front lawn, they buy your album.)

Thirdly, what are black rappers who in their videos self-identify as pimps and outlaws while flaunting their wealth, misogyny and anti-social attitudes doing if not perpetuating black stereotypes?

This week it was fashion designer Trelise Cooper. According to Di White, a Melbourne-based lawyer and journalist, Cooper’s decision to have models wear a Native American headdress was “super offensive…an attempt to profit off people’s hurt…a deliberate finger to indigenous cultures, Maori included.”

White ended her tweet barrage by declaring she was hacked off Kiwi sub-editors didn’t use the headline “Cooper’s crime against inanity.” There’s a reason for that: it doesn’t make sense. If White was trying to say that sending models down the catwalk in a Native American headdress is inane, fair enough, but why not say so in the first place?

We might have to re-examine what we mean by racism because the bar has clearly been lowered.

It’s no longer a matter of believing in the superiority of your race and the inferiority of other races and acting accordingly. Racism, it now seems, is displaying an awareness of ethnicity. The new giveaway is cultural appropriation – the predominant culture’s adoption of elements of a minority culture.

This is problematical because cultural appropriation is all around us. The haka is culturally appropriated on an almost daily basis. It could be argued that cultural appropriation is an inevitable by-product of the defining forces of our age: multiculturalism, globalism, consumerism, the internet, social media.

Without cultural appropriation popular music as we know it wouldn’t exist. From Elvis to Eminem via Mick Jagger white performers have been influenced by, borrowed from, imitated and, in some cases, shamelessly ripped off Afro-American musical forms and artists. It seems a bit late in the day to ban this process and a bit unfair to tell Swift she’s not entitled to do what most of the inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame built their fame and fortunes on.

It’s also worth noting that, partly as a result of this process, black American artists have reached an audience far wider and more numerous than their traditional demographic, to use Sweatshirt’s term.

Social media highlights the new racism by providing the media with a readily accessible sample of public opinion. For media purposes half a dozen harsh tweets amount to public outrage. Thus we’re at the point where racism is what a few people with Twitter accounts decide is racism.

You may believe that if it makes people think before they speak or culturally appropriate, where’s the harm? As events in the UK demonstrate, the potential harm is that we turn a blind eye to bad people doing bad things rather than run the risk of being accused of racism.

A government investigation of the so-called Trojan Horse plot to “Islamise” schools in Birmingham found that “fear of being accused of racism and anti-Islamic views allowed a small number of people with a shared ideology” to effectively take over several secular state schools.

And an independent report into appalling abuse - gang-rapes, abduction and trafficking - of at least 1,400 children in the Northern England town of Rotherham reached a similar conclusion.

As the Times reported, while the year-long inquiry found no definitive explanation for police and council staff’s failure to protect children and hold offenders to account thereby enabling gangs to act with virtual impunity for 15 years, the report’s author noted that “almost all” the offenders identified by the young, white victims were of Pakistani origin. However, staff had been reluctant to speak about the crime pattern or act on front-line social workers’ reports and victim statements “for fear of being thought racist.”

The harm is that abuse of the right to free speech deters free speech.