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Cultural Appropriation or Assimilation?

Don Rose 15 May 2018 No Comment

I’ve been wrestling with this issue of cultural appropriation and losing–probably eroding my lefty bona fides in the process.

   Take the matter of that poor teen who wore a beautiful, traditional Chinese dress to her prom and caught holy hell from hundreds of social media trolls for the sin of cultural appropriation, some actually calling  her a colonialist. (No protests from China.)

   The world has been exchanging indigenous clothing styles for generations. The French revel in exporting their haute couture.  Blue jeans, the most all-American of garments–invented 145 years ago by a German-Jewish immigrant–are worn all around the world, with Levis most prized.


   High-collared “Nehru jackets” had a vogue here years ago. No protests–maybe giggles–from India or Indian-Americans. So too those blue “Mao jackets” sold at Chinese restaurants and worn by some Yankees as a political statement. And lots of folks wear Mexican huaraches.

   Cultural appropriation? I thought imitation was the sincerest form of flattery.

   In this still unmelted melting pot of the USA we share and assimilate many aspects of each others’ cultures, from arts to eats. Jazz, rock’n’roll and hip-hop are African American creations absorbed by whites, Latinos and Asians. Yes, some African American musicians have resented it, but should we now mute the music of Stan Getz, Elvis or Eminem? (Well, maybe Eminem.) Should Rick Bayless, an Anglo, shutter his award-winning Mexican restaurants? Are Gentiles eating bagels appropriating my culture?

   In a major, complex episode, an artist’s painting of civil rights martyr Emmett Till in his coffin–based on the well-known, horrifying photo–engendered serious protests and demands for its removal from New York’s Whitney Biennial, largely because the subject did not “belong” to the white painter.

   Does this mean only a member of the specific oppressed group can protest injustice artistically? The late, great painter Leon Golub frequently depicted brutality against various ethnic minorities by the police or military. Should those works be taken down?

   In 1967 William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was criticized by many black writers and intellectuals, partly because it was a white person’s imaginative attempt to enter the mind of the leader of an historic slave uprising. (James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, however, defended book.)

   The question of whether a novelist is entitled depict someone of a different race, gender or ethnicity still rages. So what are we to think of the black novelist Willard Motley’s best-seller “Knock on Any Door”–later a movie with Humphrey Bogart–sympathetically dramatizing a white delinquent as a victim of society?

   How about the Irish Catholic James Joyce writing a pretty good book that enters deep into the mind of a Jew wandering through Dublin for a day? Should we Jews protest? (Jewish groups have protested Philip Roth’s portrayal of his coreligionists!)

    Is this all wicked cultural appropriation or creative assimilation, like Miles Davis magnificently improvising on “Concierto de Aranjuez,” by Joaquin Rodrigo, a Spanish classical composer, in an arrangement by Gil Evans, a white American conducting a mixed band?

   Hey–I own a nice guayabera, though it’s black rather than a colorful print like most of these traditional Mexican shirts.  Can I wear it this summer without catching holy hell?


Don Rose is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

image Los Shakers, The Uruguayan Beatles


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