The culture wars have been raging for a little while now, on all kinds of different fronts in so many different ways. We’re fighting about the idea of “white culture”, the cultural appropriation of Native Americans and black Americans, how to clearly and succinctly define what’s offensive about one thing while another thing is given a pass. The very idea of “culture” is such a nebulous concept that it’s hard for us in the US — the great melting pot country — to think about it in a way that conversations about culture make sense. I wanted to talk for a minute about culture as I see it, and why the flashpoints of the culture war matter.
So just what is culture, anyway? If we’re going to debate about it, we have to make sure we’re working from the same definition. Here’s one that I like: culture is “the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”. It feels simple, yet all-encompassing, and points to just why it’s so difficult to talk about culture as a concrete idea. When something can be used to talk about the entire breadth of an entire group, it can be hard to pull back enough to see it all clearly. Most of the time, we’re debating something we can’t get an objective perspective on because we’re way too close to it.
A specific culture is easier to identify when the nation, people, or social group that claims it is relatively homogenous or well-established. That’s why we have a fairly good image of, say, Japanese or Irish culture and we’re less comfortable on, say, African cultures or various minority cultures within the United States. Africa is a vast continent home to hundreds of different groups that have existed for varying lengths of time, in different environments, with different pressures exerting influence to determine the rate of cultural shift. Minority cultures in America are made up of patches consisting of the most distinctive bits of home and the things in our host country that exert the most powerful influence. The closeness of so many other cultures means there’s a lot of bleedthrough; black American culture has been influenced by Asian-American culture and vice versa. In such a dynamic, constantly shifting environment, without the anchor of a widely-known history or a stable social niche, minority cultures can feel fleeting and ephemeral. But they are very solid and very real.
Let’s talk about black American culture, because it’s the minority culture I’m most familiar with. My culture stretches back to the days of slavery in colonial America; the constant pressure of racism has been one of its most consistent influences. As a Black American, so many things about me are political: the music I like, the people I date, the places I live, the jobs I strive for and ultimately land. But it goes so much deeper than that. My skin, my lips, my name, my hair — my whole body — is political. That influence from the “dominant culture” — the American culture of US exceptionalism, self-made men, chain stores and cowboys — has shaped my culture in ways both subtle and explicit.
So much of black American culture is rooted in a response to the pain of our history and the ongoing mistreatment we endure from the institutions that are supposed to look out for us. Hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks, and braids that center our natural texture are an attempt to reclaim our self-esteem after centuries of being told we’ll never achieve an American standard of beauty. Our music — blues, hip-hop, rap, and rock — are expressions of the tension we hold within us and feel steady through our lives every day. Our dances can be linked through the decades all the way back to the celebrations and rituals of our ancestors, the meanings of which have been forgotten but the movement of which we have retained. Despite being ripped from our home and forcibly separated from our culture, our ancestors found ways to hold on to what mattered to them and express them in new ways.
Black Americans aren’t the only minorities who’ve done this. Native Americans are fiercely protective of their culture after being systematically dismantled by European settlers and ultimately perverted by descendants who want to identify with something “exotic” but also “real”. Asian-Americans balance the traditional beliefs of their native cultures against the pressures of American society to blend in properly. Latinx Americans bring their own history, experiences, preferences and relationships from Central and South America. I realize that these are all hopeless simplifications of these cultures, and that’s precisely why it’s so hard to have these conversations. To properly understand another culture, you have to understand so much about where it came from; not just the people within the culture, but their history, art, values, philosophy, and interactions with others. Just understanding the context of one aspect of it (like hair) could take much more study than the average person would be willing to put up with.
So, what about the white culture that the alt-right and other supremacist groups claim to care about preserving? Why is that such a bogus claim? Well, it’s because white culture simply doesn’t exist — not in the way it’s meant. Let’s refer back to our definition of culture: the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. What specific examples for custom, art, social institution or achievement could be classified as simply ‘white’ and refined no further? What kind of distinctly “white” expression is in danger of being lost? White Americans can trace their lineage back to a host of European cultures, the places that their ancestors emigrated from. There is English culture, Irish culture, German, French, Russian, Scandinavian culture. But “white” culture, everything that’s happened once the United States was formed? That is American culture, and it belongs to everyone who helped form it — from the European immigrants who formed the first government to the native Americans they displaced to the Africans they kidnapped and forced into slavery. American culture belongs to the Asians who were exploited for labor, the Latinx Americans who themselves descended from the messy, violent past of European settlement and native genocide, the Jewish and Pacific Islanders. If America is truly what we say it is, then the culture comprised of so many different groups is part of that — and that means no one group can claim sole ownership of it.
Culture, of course, is not strictly defined by race or nationality. Any social group can have its own culture, provided that the community that creates it is tight-knit enough and lasts long enough to develop a set of attitudes and expressions that can be passed from person to person. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet belong to a culture; those of us who built careers in huge corporations belong to another. There’s comic-book culture, cinephile culture, wine culture, maker culture, gym culture, bibliophile culture. Our hobbies, professions and interests can each own their own specific culture, even though these tend to be fairly loose, obscure and relatively low-key. Most of us move through cultures all the time — the culture of our racial or national background at home, the culture of our professional career at work, various cultures online and in-person. Very few of us embody just one culture because as human beings we contain a multitude of thoughts, emotions and relationships.
So, if culture is so permeable, why is cultural appropriation such a bad thing? I have to admit, it took me a while to figure this one out. But I think I have it. Here’s a thought experiment.
Imagine you worked on something for a very long time that you felt was a direct expression of the deepest, most vulnerable part of you. It could be a novel, or a song, or a dance, or a computer program. Whatever it is, whenever you talk about it you’re shut down by most of your friends. Everyone you know discourages you from making it, telling you that it’s garbage or it doesn’t matter, or that it’s stupid and backwards. Over time, you’re forced to choose again and again — your friends, or your project. You want friends, but you can’t resist the call of what you’re creating. You can’t give up who you are just to be near people who don’t actually like you. So you become more isolated, and angry, and afraid, and that channels into your work too. And, after a long time of bruising work and rejection, your creation is complete, ready to show to the world.
Suddenly, those same people who were clowning you take a look at what you’ve done and decided they like it. So they take bits of it for their own — leaving out the symbolism you painstakingly weaved into each piece of your project. Some aspects of your creation are taken just because they look or sound nice, or because someone else decides they want it to mean something you had never meant. Over time, your work is everywhere, but the meaning behind it and the expression you hoped to put across is absent. The thing that meant so much to you is fragmented and distorted until it’s unrecognizable, subsumed by the people that never wanted you to make it in the first place.
That’s cultural appropriation. It’s taking an expression of someone else’s culture — something that wasn’t meant for someone outside of that culture, with no perspective of its history, meaning or importance — and deciding to use it in a way it was never intended. It’s stripping a deeply meaningful symbol of its meaning and making it a fashion statement.
I think this is why most objections of cultural appropriation come from minority cultures that have been persecuted by a dominant culture. Each culture will have different attitudes about cross-pollination or expressing an aspect of it within a different context, but for those of us with cultures that have been formed by enmity and repression, it’s a little hard to take when the culture of your oppressor decides that something that links you to your people is a fashion statement. The appropriation of a symbol associated with great pain and historical struggle can come across as further insult and belittling for the culture being taken from.
That can be a hard thing to grasp for people who don’t belong to a culture that’s been subjected to that kind of treatment, or where the wounds of history are allowed to heal. For many of us in communities of color, however, that’s simply not the case. History is very much alive through institutional equality and cultural diminishment; the same dominant American culture that dismisses our protests by finding fault in our culture steals the fashion, art, slang and self-expression generated by it.
This is a crude construction of culture, built by a layman so that other laypeople can understand a perspective different from their own. It’s by no means exhaustive or infallibly accurate, but hopefully it helps you understand what we think about when we talk about culture and why we say the things we do in debates and arguments. For those of us who have been marginalized for generations, our culture is a significant means of self-determination. It is a precious thing for us. For others who feel more comfortable with their social status, the pressure to belong or express a culture may not be understandable. I get that. Not everyone is going to take the cultures they belong to seriously, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be so flippant. Respecting the boundaries other people set for their cultural expression would go a long, long way towards building a harmonious relationship with them — and it may be the thing that encourages more open cross-cultural exchange.