FELICIA NIMUE ACKERMAN
The writer is a professor of philosophy at Brown University.
In the issue of June 11, the Bookends column asked, “What distinguishes cultural exchange from cultural appropriation?” Rivka Galchen considered that cultural exchange “suggests you give something in return for having taken something.” Anna Holmes, noting of appropriation that “you usually know it when you see it,” offered the example of a hipster wearing a kaffiyeh “as a pose.” Cultural appropriation, she said, expresses “ignorance or aggression,” while cultural exchange suggests “generosity.”
Readers responded in letters, Facebook posts and the comments section of the Book Review home page. Most disagreed with the columnists. “The fact that both authors have such an admittedly difficult time providing a clear or usable definition of cultural appropriation,” a reader named Guy wrote, “tells me that it’s mostly a bogus concept designed to allow some people to claim the higher moral ground.” In a letter, Bernard F. Dick of Teaneck, N.J., called the distinction “one of those meaningless polarities beloved by academics who take delight in generating categories with criteria to determine which work falls into which slot.”
Many examples of possible cultural appropriation were offered, often skeptically. Michael, who identified himself as a former New Yorker, asked: “If a white man wearing a kaffiyeh displays cultural appropriation, what about an Arab wearing a suit? How about an American eating with chopsticks, or a Chinese eating with a fork?”
Several readers pursued the question of the kaffiyeh-draped hipster. Johnnie, from Carlsbad, N.M., pointed out that Holmes fails to mention that the kaffiyeh has become associated with expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause. “Maybe the kaffiyeh around a frat boy’s neck is actually doing some kind of deep work, not even intended by its wearer, to argue for the legitimate rights of Palestinians, or against Islamophobia. … The notion that just because it’s not ‘yours’ you can’t wear it is a strange idea.” On Facebook, Diane McClure referred to “the hippies of the ’60s” who adopted “the dress of gypsies, and sometimes of East Indians, just because the clothes are cool and cool-looking. Is that appropriation?” “Sometimes,” Sam from New York wrote, “a hat is just a hat.”
Many respondents mentioned what may be Exhibit A in the case against (or possibly for) cultural appropriation — the white embrace, often without acknowledgment, of African-American music. Thomas, of Washington, D.C., contrasted Paul Simon’s respectful relationship with South African music and musicians, and David Byrne’s with Brazilian music and musicians, with the actions of white music industry executives who for years cheated black musicians of royalties, and the radio disc jockeys who refused to play records by black artists while promoting white covers. Sam from New York said that the key issue was who profits. “We should care that Elvis made more money from ‘Hound Dog’ than Big Mama Thornton, the black singer” who first recorded the song. David from New York pointed out that “Hound Dog” was actually composed by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, both white Jewish men. “Perhaps stealing/sharing or appropriating/appreciating culture and art is not as black/white as some would think.”
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