I think both errors impose costs worth avoiding.
And while I am not ready to say that nothing objectionable is ever accurately described as "cultural appropriation," I suspect that, on the whole, abandoning that shorthand would enhance clarity, lead to better critiques, and minimize category errors.
Now, there are writers and digital journalism outlets that seek out the least persuasive complaints about cultural appropriation, mock them with animus, proceed as if they've proved that no complaint so characterized is ever legitimate, and thereby portray minority communities with legitimate grievances as malign cry-bullies or race-baiters. It's a cynical, ugly, and profitable model. Despite the distinctions I've drawn––and again, I trust you'll parse them and push back or add nuance or take exception wherever you think I've gone wrong––I too grow frustrated by the iterations of that model that I see on various right-leaning social media feeds.
For folks loath to fuel that ecosystem, but convinced that wrongheaded ideas about cultural appropriation are doing harm (and growing in influence, even if they are not yet mainstream), what pitfalls would you urge taking care to avoid when contesting them?
Jonathan Blanks: In your last email, you said that my blackface example wasn’t appropriation, but I think there are larger issues involved and, from that broader vantage point, I think both your sushi counter protests and my offensive costumes intersect.
I understand a frustration with the language in these debates and conversations. I’m not a linguist, but it seems to me that terms like “cultural appropriation,” “white privilege,” “microaggressions,” and many others have been attempts to improve upon the language that we use to discuss the manifestations of cultural conflict on both collective and individual levels. For years, the mainstream recognized “racism,” a concept seemingly basic and straightforward. But racism is, in fact, an over-broad term that can describe a clutched purse on an elevator, a lynching, segregation, obstacles to employment, and countless other examples in between.
The more nuanced terms, associated with “Social Justice Warriors”—“SJW” having become a pejorative among many on the right—are tools to specify wrongs or perceived wrongs, but those terms also frequently turn-off “anti-SJW” types that you and I find often in our social media and professional circles. The result is both SJWs and anti-SJWs talking past one another before they retreat to their respective echo chambers to kvetch about their opposites until the next controversy gets picked up in the media. The words they use may change, but the underlying conflicts endure.
The terms are less important to me than what they attempt to describe. At bottom, stripped of particular circumstances, what these arguments tend to come down to is a given grievance on a semi-collective level (cultural, ethnic, racial, or other minority) and whether that grievance is justified, right? The key to the argument, then, is determining how legitimate the complaints are and how might they be reflective of broader problems in the dominant society––and what, if anything, to do with or about that reflection. A lot of that has to do with the competence and the authenticity of the person who is alleged to be intruding upon another’s traditional cultural space.