The Myth of ‘Cultural Appropriation’

by cominsitu


by Walter Benn Michaels

Even our own stories don’t belong to us

Vanessa Place, Kenny Goldsmith, Kelley Walker, Dana Schutz, Sam Durant — these are all white people who in the recent past have made what they intended to be politically transgressive art, and succeeded. But not in the way they were hoping for. Dana Schutz’s painting of the dead Emmett Till was not meant to insult Till’s memory. Sam Durant’s “Scaffold,” a sculpture critiquing the execution by hanging of, among others, 38 Native Americans, was meant as just that — a critique. The point of all these works was resolutely antiracist.

Indeed, if one were to criticize them as political art, it would not be for expressing controversial positions. Just the opposite: Among the visitors to the Whitney Biennial or the Walker Art Center, the antiracism to which all these artists are committed is almost uncontested, and their politics could more plausibly be characterized as anodyne than outrageous.

So what got them in trouble? It wasn’t a belief in white supremacy; it was their embodiment of white privilege, the privilege that enabled them to treat something that didn’t belong to them as if it did. “Not Your Story” read a sign at the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, protesting “Scaffold.” “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” wrote Hannah Black in her open letter to the curators of the Whitney Biennial. The idea here is that when white artists seek to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” as Hal Niedzvicki (a former editor of the journal of the Canadian Writers Union) recently urged all writers to do, what they’re really doing is less imagining other cultures than stealing from them. And, as the Equity Task Force of that same union put it in protest of Niedzvicki’s editorial: “The theft of voice, stories, culture, and identity are part of a long-standing settler agenda for cultural genocide and cannot be treated lightly.”

Some version of this distinction — imagining other cultures versus stealing them — has been at the heart of virtually every discussion of these controversies. And while the prosecutors of theft have had their victories (Niedzvicki resigned; Durant apologized and agreed to the dismantling of his sculpture by a Lakota construction firm), the champions of imagination have by no means been silent. The number of old (mainly) white men suddenly recalling their love of Elvis Presley and singing the praises of cultural appropriation has been particularly impressive. Indeed, as an old white man myself, I can feel the pull: I like Elvis, too, and besides, without Arnold Schoenberg, no Anthony Braxton.

Unfortunately, however, enthusiasm for cultural appropriation makes as little sense as disapproval of it, and for the same reason: Both require that we distinguish between one version of our culture (what we actually believe and do) and another version (what we’re supposed to believe and do), and both derive the things we’re supposed to believe and do from our race. That’s what makes supposedly white people doing supposedly black things a problem; more to the point, that’s what makes the very idea of white people doing black things possible.

The logic is on vivid display in a TV ad for featuring a woman named Kim who pays her money, gets her DNA scan, and is thrilled to discover that she’s 23-percent Native American. Now, she says, while standing in front of some culturally appropriate pottery, “I want to know more about my Native American heritage.” If the choice of Southwest-style cultural artifacts seems a little arbitrary, that’s because, as the website warns you, the technology isn’t yet advanced enough to tell you whether you’re part Navajo or part Sioux. But, of course, that arbitrariness is less puzzling than the deployment of any artifacts at all.The point of Kim’s surprise is that she has no Native Americancultural connection whatsoever; the point of those pots is that they become culturally appropriate only when they’re revealed to be genetically appropriate.

As befits an ad, Kim’s story is a happy one. But it could have gone differently. The genetic transmission of an appreciation for Navajo pottery could just as easily have turned out to be a genetically traumatic relation to the catastrophe of the Long Walk. What if Sam Durant had gotten himself an saliva test and discovered that he, too, was part Native American? The bad news: Thirty-eight of his ancestors had been unjustly hanged; the good news: their hanging was part of his story after all.

The point of these examples is, of course, the absurdity of thinking that having the right ancestry gives you some privileged relation to things that were done neither by nor to you. But it’s worth also remembering the limits of our privilege in relation even to the things that were done by or to us.

The argument might be made that racialized minorities have an epistemic advantage in telling racism’s stories — they share the experiences of the people whose stories they are telling. Thus, in an open letter opposing the appointment of the sociologist Alice Goffman to a visiting position at Pomona College, the writers declared that offering the position to her instead of one of the black candidates encouraged “white women” to “theorize about and profit from black lives while giving no room for black academics to claim scholarship regarding their own lived experience.” The writers were, of course, aware that the particular appeal of Goffman’s research was that she actually had lived some of the experiences of her subjects. Their problem was that she hadn’t lived them the right way: i.e., she was white, and, as she herself pointed out, she could go home. But you really have to have forgotten the meaning of “micro” in microaggressions to believe that the lived experience of black professors of sociology is the lived experience of Goffman’s “Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto.”

Even when the experiences really are shared — when something actually did happen to us — we don’t think that autobiographical accounts of people’s own experiences are necessarily more true than other people’s accounts of those same experiences, or that only we have a right to tell our stories. No one thinks that either Goffman or the men she wrote about are the final authorities on their lives. My version of my life is just my version; no one is under any obligation to agree with it, much less refrain from offering his or her own.

So even our own stories don’t belong to us — no stories belong to anyone. Rather, we’re all in the position of historians, trying to figure out what actually happened. Interestingly, even if the logic of their position would seem to require it, the defenders of a racialized past haven’t been all that interested in confining historians to what are supposed to be their own stories. Maybe that’s because history (at least if it isn’t cultural) makes it harder to draw the needed lines. You obviously can’t understand the political economy of Jim Crow without understanding the actions of both white and black people. And you can’t understand the actions of those white and black people without reading the work of historians like (the white) Judith Stein and (the black) Adolph Reed.

But it’s still pretty easy to see why black and Native American writers and artists are irritated by the spectacle of white people condemning racism in major shows at important museums or readings at major universities. It’s the privilege part: These are artists who do not themselves suffer from the racism that African-Americans and Native Americans do, but they’re the ones who are getting the shows and giving the readings. When the Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott says (in the Canadian journal formerly edited by Niedzvicki) that she once “applied for a short story contest with a piece about the complicated relationship between two Indigenous women and lost to a story written by a white American man that not only appropriated but outright misrepresented Indigenous ceremonies,” her irritation seems entirely reasonable.

More generally, you don’t have to be Tuscarora or believe in cultural appropriation to see as less than ennobling the spectacle of white people making careers out of their antiracism. One lesson that ought to be learned from all this is if any white artists out there still think that black artists not in museums will be grateful to white artists who got there by making pictures of people like the black artists, those white artists deserve whatever bad things happen to them.

But an even more salutary lesson — about the political meaning of the effort to figure out whose story is whose — is also available. Durant’s “Scaffold actually made reference not only to the killing of the Dakota 38 but also to six other executions, including the four men hanged in the wake of the Haymarket affair. They’d been part of a Chicago group supporting a strike at the McCormick Reaper Works and fighting for an eight-hour work day. On May 3, 1886, several men involved in the strike were shot by the police; on May 4, at a workers’ rally in Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown, the police started shooting, and 11 men (seven officers and four workers) were killed. After the trial that followed, seven “Infidels and Anarchists” (as the Chicago Tribuneliked to call them) were sentenced to death and four actually hanged. Are they part of Sam Durant’s story? If you think the answer is, well, he’s a white guy, so yes, or, he doesn’t belong to a union, so no, you haven’t been paying attention. Unions are an endangered institution, but they’re not a vanishing race.

The story of what happened at Haymarket doesn’t belong to anybody, which means anybody can tell it, and its interest today is in reminding us not of our “heritage” but of the fact that American workers (black, white, Native American, Hispanic) continue to be the victims of exploitation. And by that I mean not just the greater and greater share of American wealth accruing to the top 1 percent. According to a recent analyses, most Americans are not just farther behind the rich, they’re farther behind themselves: They’re poorer now than they were 25 years ago. In other words, what they’ve had (and are having) stolen from them is not their culture, their identity, or even their pain, but their money.

It’s in this context that the innumerable recent battles not just over who can tell which stories but also over who can and cannot have campus buildings named for them, whose speech is offensive but protected and whose speech is just hate — all the skirmishes of the current culture wars — should be understood. The students at elite American universities come overwhelmingly from the upper class. The job of the faculty is to help them rise within (or at least not fall out of) that class. And one of the particular responsibilities of the humanities and social-science faculty is to help make sure that the students who take our courses come out not just richer than everyone else but also more virtuous. (It’s like adding insult to injury, but the opposite.)

Identity crimes — both the phantasmatic ones, like cultural theft, and the real ones, like racism and sexism — are perfect for this purpose, since, unlike the downward redistribution of wealth, opposing them leaves the class structure intact. Thus, for example, one can completely support (as I do) the actions of Middlebury College students in demonstrating their opposition to what they called Charles Murray’s “white nationalism” while at the same time noting that it’s not white nationalism that’s making poor people poorer; it’s capitalism. And when it comes to fighting capitalism, the Middlebury student body (median family income $244,300; about a quarter of Middlebury students come from the top 1 percent; three-quarters come from the top 20 percent) is not exactly in the revolution’s vanguard.

The problem is not that rich people can’t feel poor people’s pain; you don’t have to be the victim of inequality to want to eliminate inequality. And the problem is not that the story of the poor doesn’t belong to the rich; the relevant question about our stories is not whether they reveal someone’s privilege but whether they’re true. The problem is that the whole idea of cultural identity is incoherent, and that the dramas of appropriation it makes possible provide an increasingly economically stratified society with a model of social justice that addresses everything except that economic stratification.

Walter Benn Michaels is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.