The latest invidious and Pecksniffian raid by the Culture Police is this article in HuffPo by Brandi Miller, a columnist described as “a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.” (I presume that the “justice” means social rather than legal justice.) Click on the screenshot if you want to read about the multifarious ways that whites are practicing cultural appropriation by trying to “access” black culture via attending concerts by black musicians.
A few years ago, I went to a Chance the Rapper concert in Portland, Oregon. It was his biggest show of the year in one of the whitest cities on the tour. About 12,000 people packed into the stadium, most of them not black, and the majority of the room loudly sang the word “nigger” along with every track that played during the pre-concert and Chance’s performance. The majority-white audience clearly felt the freedom to abandon decorum and fully participate in blackness because they had paid $60 to be there.
. . . Now, as a black person, being in a space with 10,000 or more non-black people yelling/singing “nigger” is not a neutral experience. White people being that free is terrifying. If they feel free enough to yell the N-word as loud as they please, who knows what other things they may feel, believe or do when their inhibitions are gone.
Let’s stop right there. The word “nigger” is in many rap songs, but somehow it’s become taboo for white people to sing that particular word (this isn’t the first time that ludicrous demand has been made). But it’s part of the song. Is singing the words of a rap or hip hop song “fully participating in blackness”? How? And if it is, so what?
Look, if black people want white people to stop using that word, then they need to stop using it themselves. If they want to reserve use of that word for themselves, then they’ll have to put up with other people using it when they sing rap songs. Are we supposed to just hum when we get to that word? And as for the experience being “terrifying” for Ms. Miller, I simply don’t believe her. She’s making that up to cast herself as a victim.
It’s always puzzled me that a word considered odious when used by whites—and it is odious—is somehow innocuous when blacks use it. As a secular Jew, I don’t call other Jews “kikes”, “sheenies” and “Hebes”; this is not customary, and it would be seen as offensive if were used to greet fellow Jews. So if black people want to call each other by a slur, and use that word in songs, I really can’t see anything wrong with singing along. After all, you’re not being a racist if you’re singing along with a lively rap song: you are appreciating the music. This kind of Pecksniffery need not be countenanced, nor would I feel I was a racist by singing that word. I suppose it’s a good thing, then, that I’m not a fan of rap and hip hop!
I’ve about had it with this desire to build border walls around cultures. Yes, black people have been terribly oppressed historically, and still are, but they can’t demarcate their culture as their exclusive territory, by implying, as Miller does, that jazz can’t be be played by whites because “it’s participating in black culture”. Is she aware that jazz bands were one of the earliest forms of artistic racial integration in America? Liking black music is almost always a vehicle for mutual understanding, not hatred. So when Miller says something like the following, she’s trying to cast herself simultaneously as a victim and also claim that her culture must remain off limits for that reason:
This [cultural] experience is not unique or new. It has long been the operating posture of white people, particularly at festivals and concerts, to assume that minority culture itself is up for grabs. Blackness, though, is not something that can be sojourned into for the price of concert or festival ticket. With the approach of Afropunk, Lollapalooza and Outside Lands, all featuring prominent black artists, it may be time for a refresher course on the implications of loving and mimicking black culture while still operating in rampant anti-blackness.
I find that paragraph both risible and offensive, especially the claim that white people who like black music are “operating in rampant anti-blackness.” Really—we’re all racists? But I guess Miller thinks we all are, and so her hyperbole knows no bounds:
Outside of concert arenas in the real world, black people cannot have a bbq, mow a lawn, sell water or have a pool party without a white person feeling threatened. The reality is this: White people love to participate in black culture, but seem to feel threatened by black people who they don’t pay to perform for them.
Concerts and festivals become training grounds for this sort of problematic behavior and a place to practice defensiveness. They are freewheeling spaces, where, in the busyness and hype of everything going on, cultural appropriation gets a special pass.
Here she conflates real racism—calling the cops on people just because they’re black—with cultural appropriation, which is at worst neutral and at best an appreciation of another culture. The mutual interchange of cultures has been a good thing, and, as I’ve written before, I can think of very few examples where cultural appropriation has really been damaging. In the main, we’re all better for it. Each culture appropriates the others, and it’s simply not possible to devise a hierarchy of cultures and say that “appropriating upward” is okay but “appropriating downward” is not. Is a Chinese businessman who wears a suit appropriating Western culture? Or is that okay because Chinese are “appropriating up”?
You can’t get more divisive, or more engaged in maladaptive identity politics, than this:
Proximity to black people seems to transfer blackness for a few nights, but at the end of the day, it is the highest mark of privilege to systematically oppress people for hundreds of years and then to mimic, perform and market everything within their culture. Racial propriety is ejected in the name of letting loose and being free.
Some might try to argue that because black art is now mainstream, the culture belongs to everyone. The mainstream popularity of black art and life doesn’t transfer to the highest bidder, nor does it mean the end of oppression for black people. Black people are the authority on what should and can be done with our culture. [JAC: Really? Did Benny Goodman need permission to play jazz?] In 2018, white people cannot seem to fathom that there are limits to what they can do. They act as though, through small acts of claiming black culture, they are exempt from the harmful implications of racism on black people.
The cultural appropriation trope is simply divisive and xenophobic, and almost never a sign of racism. Yes, of course there’s still racism, and we need to root it out, but the hill you want to die on is not named “Mount Dreadlocks.”