McWhorter on “cultural language appropriation”

May 29, 2021 • 11:00 am

John McWhorter has two qualifications that make him able to judge whether it’s okay for white people to use black argot: he’s black and he’s a linguist. In his latest column on his Substack site (click on screenshot), Mcwhorter argues that it’s not only fine, but a form of flattery for members of one race to use the language of another, so long as it’s not used disparagingly. Click on the screenshot to read:

The “Elvis” simile comes from the claim, which may be justified, that Elvis used a black style of singing in his early music, but never gave credit to his influences. (McWhorter believes, as I do, that the black originators actually produced better music.) But he also argues that the comparison doesn’t hold water.

First, some of the language that white people are said to “steal” from blacks:

A little while ago, a Saturday Night Live skit depicted a multiracial group of teens communicating in what was depicted as “Gen Z slang,” with the doctor they were talking with having to “translate” his thoughts into it to communicate with them.

A lot of people didn’t like it, because the slang in question was mostly of Black English origin. The complaint is that the skit was denying the black roots of these terms, and instead ascribing them to Americans in general – i.e. (shudder) white persons. As in, yes – the problem was cultural appropriation.

. . . The SNL skit included, among others, yobestievibesfeels for feelings, salty for irritated, bro / bruh and no cap for “I’m not kidding” (as in, these are actual whole gold teeth, not golden caps on teeth).

McWhorter considers two arguments, and numerous sub-arguments, that terms like that should not be restricted to blacks.

1) Is there a historical precedent where people interact richly but keep their speech varieties completely separate?

He knows of no such cases.

2) Is there a case that even if this is the way it has been, that it would be a moral advancement if we tried to put a stop to it now?

McWhorter considers several arguments for the “moral cessation”, including the parallel with “music theft”, and says that the counterarguments are stronger, including the enrichment of art and language of every group by this kind of appropriation:

But overall, who among us wishes white people had never taken up ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock and roll? I assume there are some who could really wish there had never been Benny Goodman, Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, or Eminem and I mean that. But this would be a radical proposition held ever by only a sliver.

Black jazz, is, to my mind, still the best by far, but it was taken and changed into different forms by others, and some of those white artists, like Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Stan Getz, brought something new to the genre. As far as I know, they did no harm to blacks or black culture. Goodman, in fact, was the first major white bandleader to integrate his groups, taking on people like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. “White” jazz is the most common form of cultural appropriation—a form of borrowing that does nobody any harm, but enriches everyone but the Pecksniffs.

McWhorter also points out that whites have been taking language from African Americans forever, even in the antebellum South, and, of course, this form of linguistic borrowing is good for everyone: it enriches our communication.

Take another oppressed group (well, at least they were once considered oppressed): the Jews. I know of no Jewish person who is insulted, including me, when we hear a non-Jewish person use Yiddish argot like “chutzpah”, “oy vey”, “schlemiel”, and “kvetch.” Indeed, I’m pleased and flattered to hear it! It means that those words were useful, and are considered not insulting but a tribute to the colorful language that is Yiddish. I can’t really see any difference between that kind of “cultural appropriation” and words like “bestie and “vibes” (in truth, I thought these were Millennial words!).

McWhorter thinks we should give up trying to police the racial borders of language for two reasons. First, it never works. Second, and most important, appropriating words and phrases from another culture is a form of flattery, and we all know this. Trying to keep the borders distinct is a futile exercise in tribalism. To quote the expert here:

In light of the above, I suggest we return to intuition here. Yes, even on race, sometimes intuition makes sense, and not just the intuition that white people are racist.

Namely, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whites talk increasingly more like black people in America as a sign that whites and blacks are more comfortable together socially than they once were.

Yes, racism still exists. But getting past it will happen in increments. What is the progress in insisting that the increments, when they reveal themselves, don’t matter?

And whatever your other discomforts are with “Gen Z” using some black slang, your question must be whether it should be socially proscribed in light of what I have noted above as issues that cannot be waved away. Is the discomfort something you could honestly back with a confident pox on linguistic sharing amidst the broader context of what we are actually seeing?

24 thoughts on “McWhorter on “cultural language appropriation”

  1. If these types of concerns about racial injustice, which are well-intentioned of course, were expended on things that would actually make a difference, we might make some real progress as a society. Instead, such efforts end up being counter-productive, making progressives look foolish.

  2. The Elvis simile comes from the claim, which may be justified, that Elvis used a black style of singing in his early music, but never have credit to his influences.’
    Well, here are some things that black musicians said about Elvis:-

    ‘ He was the greatest who ever was, is it ever will be ‘ – Chuck Berry.
    ‘ If Presley copied me, I don’t care. More power to him. I ain’t starving ‘ – No Didley.
    ‘ Elvis he was unique. And he loved the blues. It was a pity he didn’t do more ‘ – B B King.
    ‘ Elvis was God given, there’s no other explanation. A Messiah comes around every few thousand years and Elvis was it this time. ‘ – Little Richard.
    ‘ A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the blacks’ music when, in fact, almost every solo black entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis. ‘ – Jackie Wilson.

    1. And Elvis DID give credit to his influences:

      “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in the shanties and juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place I could feel all old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.”

      He was being a bit modest there, since the novelty of his style came from its fusion of “white” and “black” styles. The A and B sides of his first single consisted of a “hillbilly” version of a blues song (Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama”) and an R&B version of a hillbilly song (“Blue Moon of Kentucky”). Elvis was equally influenced by white singers like Dean Martin, Mario Lanza, and Jake Hess—and that shows in his music, in the way incendiary rockers like “Jailhouse Rock” or “Hound Dog” (which is completely different from the original by Big Mama Thornton and rocks much harder!) keep company with hits like “It’s Now or Never” or “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”.

      So I’m a little disappointed that McWhorter trots out the old canard that Elvis was simply “aping a vocal and kinetic style that black people had originated” and “did better.” And then he praises folks like Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, and Eminem, to whom the charge could just as well apply! Why do Mick Jagger and Eminem get a pass while Elvis is confused with Pat Boone?

      Incidentally, Elvis said the real king of rock’n’roll was Fats Domino.

      1. I really enjoy Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog”, and prefer it to the King’s, but that is one song of many that cannot be considered appropriated, because it was written by a couple of Jews.
        Honestly, I don’t think you get the musical progression during the 20th century without the significant and disproportional influence of Jewish creative people.
        All those eggheads with thick glasses and tape recorders scouring the Appalachians for old music were a big influence as well.
        The number of diverse elements that had to come together for rock music to emerge does not allow for any one group to take primary credit, except perhaps Americans, because it is here that all of those elements got together.
        That is my opinion, anyway.

        There is a little Elvis in each one of us, with one exception.

  3. If one uses the invidious term “steal,” it’s clearly an attempt to drive a conclusion. Of course, you can’t steal language. You can only copy. While being a copy-cat might not be very creative, it’s hardly a crime.

  4. Screw these language pecksniffs, I say. The rich cultural interchange — including the exchange of countercultural slang — is one of the main things that keeps this crazy. mixed-up melting pot a place worth living in.

  5. Complaints about “cultural appropriation” virtually always come from lumpen-intellectuals in the groves of academe, or media noise-makers whose academic background is in Critical Race, Gender, or Flat Earth Theory—in other words, from communicants of Wordolatry. We can therefore thank the academic world for allowing this new form of theological discourse to become as widespread as it is.

  6. Leonard Feather had his “blindfold tests” in which he’d play a recording without any identifying information for jazz musicians and ask them to guess who was playing and to rate the recording. My feeble Googling did not retrieve what I recall as some blindfold test in which the race of the musician was part of the response. My vague memory is that musicians could not ID the race of the performer accurately.

    Consider a well-designed scientific test along these lines: I’d guess it would not be possible to ID race very well at all. Even if something did turn out to be statistically significant, there would be plenty of counter-examples, and strong counter-examples, too.

    This issue can get conflated with who originated jazz, who “owns” it, who can borrow it, who can play it authentically, etc.

    Cultural appropriation in the arts is about as antithetical to the arts as one could imagine.

  7. I’ve got complex, ambivalent feeling about Elvis. On the one hand, he was a dumb hick from Tupelo who went on to make meretricious movies. On the other hand, WTF, he was Elvis, man.

    But, any way you look at it, he was hardly the worst appropriator of black music. Hell, Sam Phillips at Sun Records was upfront about wanting to find himself “a white man who sounds like a black man.” And the whole Memphis music scene in the Fifties had its roots in a local DJ named Dewey Phillips who made a point of spinning tunes by both black and white artists. Also, I don’t think Elvis or Sam Phillips or anyone else ever made any bones about his first single, “That’s Alright, Mama,” being a tribute to the original by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (or at least never tried to hide that fact).

    Now Pat Boone covering “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” and “Ain’t That a Shame” — well, don’t even get me started.

  8. On the subject of jazz, nothing reveals the utter fatuity of the “cultural appropriation” bullshit than the vein of “cool jazz” that fuses classical and jazz idioms. The style was exemplified by American musicians of all colors, including John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Lenny Tristano, Keith Jarrett, Jimmy Giuffre, Charles Mingus. A good deal of this—do we call it cultural misappropriation?—also goes on in Europe, where there are (or were?) fine jazz bands in France and Denmark, among other places. One of my favorite examples is the terrific “ReWrite of Spring” by Lars Møller and his Aarhus Jazz Orchestra: it is a long re-imagining of Stravinsky’s “Sacre de Printemps” in a sort-of jazz style.

    1. … nothing reveals the utter fatuity of the “cultural appropriation” bullshit than the vein of “cool jazz” that fuses classical and jazz idioms.

      Heck, Miles and his nonet laid down the tracks that became Birth of the Cool at the apartment of Gil Evans, the white pianist who served as Miles’s longtime arranger and collaborator. Cat was even born in Canada, if you can imagine. 🙂

  9. The entire adaptive syndrome of humans centers on the absorption and exchange of cultural information, from early infancy onward, both within and between ethnicities. No single human group “owns” such information, any more than anyone “owns” the air. The information simply gets around, fliwing and changing freely through the global sea of attentive minds. Wokester virtue-signaling is fighting a losing battle in this matter.

    1. Thought for a second you might be jazz-fusion pioneer and Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist John McLaughlin, till I caught the spelling difference.

  10. Want to listen to contemporary white blues music? How about “Delta Kream,” the new album by the Black Keys–it’s Mississippi Hill Country Blues that Dan & Pat have loved since they were teens in Akron, and it’s lighting up the charts, especially the lead single, “Crawlin’ King Snake.” If this is appropriation, give me more!

  11. Like with real estate – “land” – there’s the problem of infinite regression. EVERYTHING comes from something else, earlier “stolen” from others. Like…. all land was owned by somebody else – natives, another tribe, another before that and lately Europeans and then the independence movements.

    Same with culture like music, dress or cooking.

    The idea of “cultural appropriation” has to be the most bone-headed ill-thought through ignorance that I’ve encountered in a long time. Thankfully, even in NYC I’ve never heard the term used in seriousness by anybody. 🙂


  12. Remember the pretty high school girl who took all the nonsense for wearing that classic Chinese slit dress to her prom? All of the woke idiots trashed the girl. Someone in China released a video showing every Chinese person shown a video of her wearing the dress approving of her wearing the dress. They were upset over the dress not being more popular because of racism. One person said it was not cultural appropriation but cultural appreciation. Woke people need to get out of their white egg shells more often.

  13. 1) Is there a historical precedent where people interact richly but keep their speech varieties completely separate?

    A slightly different approach to the same problem might be how long have people been complaining about “people today not speaking proper-like, like wot we did when I was a kid”. Such complaints almost always involve the meting of cultural groups and the evolution of language.
    The main reason that I hear echoes from Juvenal, Cicero and Horace in the first century of the BCEs is that I’m not sufficiently familiar with the Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform tablets of teachers telling off their apprentice scribes for using slang a millennium or two before them.

  14. If you love and listen to Jazz and Blues (and I definitely do) you know that years ago, across genres, many artists would cover the same beloved tunes. It’s known that Elvis’s soung “Hound Dog” was inspired by Big Mama Thornton’s Song. No, he didn’t specifically give her credit, but everyone knew.

    Other blues songs he covered (or blues inspired) “Fever,” “Blue Christmas,”
    “Got my mojo working,” and I so many more that I can’t remember right now.
    In my search I found an album called “Elvis sings the Blues.”

    Blues was a big part of music culture in the south. I don’t think it was stealing as much as just the way people absorb culture and imitate what they think is cool. Why do so many Europeans adopt American clothing styles and ways of singing with an American accent? What about the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac? They both adopted classic blues rhythms and styles of playing. It’s known that they song “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” by Fleetwood Mac is a “blues shuffle.” Are they stealing? Are they being inauthentic? If I cook Thai food at home because I genuinely love it, am I culturally re-appropriating? All of this is just ridiculous BS. Can you imagine if we told a black concert pianist that he or she was culturally appropriating European culture? This would not go over well. The racism test for me is if you can switch the subjects to someone of a different race and have it be okay then it’s racist.

    It’s good that we can acknowledge where the influences came from, and we should all understand that it’s artists like Elvis who sort of broke through the glass ceiling for all the other “colored” artists who could not have their faces on album covers if they wanted to be sold in white records stores. Rock and roll was once known as “race music” because it was originally sung primarily by black artists, but it was also taboo due to the many coded allusions to sex. Rock me all night long, well…that does not refer to dancing. Putting it down is another slang allusion to sex that many people didn’t understand. I heard a radio interview with a guy once who had no idea that Chuck Berry was black because he couldn’t have his face shown on the covers. I only know this because of family members who told me this!

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