I’ve kvetched about my difficulty of getting my children’s book, “Mr. Das and His Fifty Cats,” published, apparently on the grounds that a white guy like me isn’t allowed to write about an Indian man and his love of animals (the story is fiction but based on fact). Such writing is “cultural appropriation”, Jack! And criticizing it or rejecting it on those grounds alone is an insane example of performative wokeness.
Well, reader Arthur from Australia read about my travails and took action:
I shared your saga of getting your cat book published with Phil Somerville (Australian cartoonist). He said this gave him the idea for the cartoon below.
I hope you enjoy it.
Somerville is a well-known Aussie cartoonist (his website is here and his biography is here. Have a look at his cartoons, which are very good.
I put his cartoon below; I enjoyed the hell out of it as it’s hilarious and is a snarky take on my own situation. I hope you like it, too. But first you have to embiggen it. Click to enlarge the cartoon below (click twice in succession, with a pause between)
As you may recall, several years ago I wrote a children’s book called Mr. Das and his Fifty Cats. In 2022, I mentioned it (and my travails finding a home for it) here, where I gave a brief description:
“Mr. Das and his 50 cats” [is] a fictional work that is actually based heavily on a real person: Birendra Das, one of India’s most famous sweetmakers (his business, K. C. Das and company, is famous in Kolkata). I stayed with Mr. Das in Bangalore (now called “Bengaluru”) to do “field work” observing his life and his cats, and found that he indeed had around fifty cats, whose names I learned. Around these facts—and the knowlege that Mr. Das took all of those cats in as strays—I wove a fictional tale about the cats invading the factory in times of famine and eating all the milk, cream, and yogurt. (Indian sweets are heavily laden with sugar and dairy products.) The story of how that led to the closure of Mr. Das’s sweet business, and then how the cats fixed the situation in the end, is the subject of my book.
I quite liked the story, as did others, including parents of small children and school teachers to whom I vetted the book (the story is meant for kids from about first to fourth grades). I got a lot of good suggestions before it arrived at its final incarnation.
Eventually, on the advice of my agent (who doesn’t handle non-science books), I sent the manuscript to a well known agent in England, who worked with a very famous illustrator. They both liked the book a lot and agreed to provide illustrations, which, given the fame of the illustrator, would almost guarantee publication.
I got a few illustrations, but then: radio silence. This lasted for months, and every six months I’d email to ask what was going on. I’d get some reply that finding a publisher was still in the works. Then, more radio silence. This went on for several years, and I grew increasingly depressed.
Sensing that some of the delay was due to a common issue—a white guy writing about an Indian scenario—I asked my Indian friend who had introduced me to Mr. Das to write a brief preface for the book describing Mr. Das and promoting the story. That, I thought, would defuse any notions of “cultural appropriation” that might arise. I also had Mr. Das write (through his nephew, since Mr. Das doesn’t speak or write English very well) giving his permission for me to publish the book. That made me very happy because Mr. Das is in his mid-eighties and I wanted this remarkable man to see the book about him appear before he passed on. I wanted people to know about Mr. Das and his overweening love of animals. His life and actions are absolutely unique—and heartwarming.
I emphasize again that everyone who read the book (though without illustrations) seemed to like it. The delays seemed to be due to other reasons.
Yesterday I found out that this intuition was right: I was guilty of cultural appropriation, and so the book wasn’t even shown to publishers by the agent. I got this email, which I’ve redacted to omit names and identities. It was also copied to the illustrator. I have bolded the sentence that hurts:
I am so sorry for the silence on my end. This has been a painful and difficult situation.
I was concerned that you and ILLUSTRATOR’S NAME REDACTED (who has already had an issue with a book cancelled for reasons that had nothing to do with [his/her] wonderful work, but everything to do with our current publishing culture) would be seen as creators trying to appropriate another culture. I’m sure you’re aware that this is an enormous issue in book publishing these days, and it has only become bigger since you sent me this book.
Over the last year or so, I showed it to several people in the business who all felt it was not a good idea for white authors to be writing about this character in this time and place.
I was at a loss as to how to tell you this and I am deeply, deeply sorry that I allowed my anxieties to keep me from being honest with you sooner. To be clear, I did not submit it to publishers, but asked opinions of others in the children’s book world. Thus, if you wish to approach other agents, you can honestly say that this book has not been submitted to editors, which gives you a better shot if you find an agent with a vision for how to get it published.
So the book wasn’t even vetted to publishers because I’m white. I emphasize again that Mr. Das and his Fifty Cats is a humorous, and affectionate book, respectful towards both Mr. Das and Indian culture, which I love. But in fiction these days—particularly young adult and children’s fiction—you can’t write about one culture if you belong to another. Mr. Das is Indian and I am white: that’s all publishers need to know to reject a book. The contents, apparently, don’t matter.
Now I don’t blame the agent, as he/she is working commercially, and if a book won’t sell because it involves “cultural appropriation,” why even show it to publishers? (Though I thought it should have been vetted.) But because of this misguided and toxic climate of “cultural appropriation,” readers will never get to learn about Mr. Das, who is portrayed as the real, empathic person he is, though the part about his cats is fictional. (Can one culturally appropriate Indian cats?)
So I’m quite down about all this, and I also think about all the great books of the past—both adult and children’s fiction—that wouldn’t have been published had they been vetted for “cultural appropriation.” It hurts doubly because not only do I think that cultures are enriched by appropriation, but also because that ludicrous sanction was applied to me.
Now I do think that giving harder looks to books by minority authors is a good thing—an idea that’s developed in the last decade as we realize that the work of these authors may have been unfairly overlooked. But that’s not the same thing as rejecting books about one culture written by authors from another. If those books are disrespectful of that culture, then yes, they shouldn’t be published. But mine wasn’t.
I posting this for three reasons. First, I want to publicize what’s going on in young-adult and children’s fiction these days. Second, I wanted to show how it affected me in particular (I worked very hard for two years to write a children’s book). If the book had been rejected because it was bad, well, that’s one thing. But it was rejected (or not sent on to publishers) simply because of my skin color. There is nothing disrespectful about India or Indians in it.
Finally, I’m hoping there is someone out there willing to take the chance on publishing, or helping publish, this book. I am proud of it and don’t want to give up, especially in these circumstances. All I ask is that people don’t tell me to self-publish the book, as it needs an illustrator (illustrators are usually chosen by publishers after a book is accepted), and that would be hard (and expensive) to find.
It’s ironic that an Indian author would, I believe, have no trouble writing a story about an American who took care of fifty cats, but the reverse situation is considered racist or bigoted. This situation needs to change. While we do need to consider the work of minority authors more carefully, that doesn’t mean that books should be rejected solely on the grounds of “cultural appropriation”. Such as the tenor or our times.
I’m not especially down on Canada these days, even though yesterday I criticized their frequent equation of indigenous knowledge with modern science. But then I read the article below on The Free Press, which describes a new bill—one likely to pass—that prioritizes Canadian content coming from big, commercial social-media sites like YouTube and Amazon. I’m not sure why the government is doing this, and no proponents of the bill would explain to reporter Rupa Subramanya the rationale, but it must have something to do with preserving Canadian “culture” and protecting existing Canadian media from competition.
It’s also a form of censorship, since someone has to decide exactly what “Canadian content” is. Perhaps our many readers from up north can explain more. The article blames this bill—and a related one that requires platforms like Facebook to pay Canadian news organizations for any of their content used (in America we have a doctrine of “fair usage” that stipulates how much you can use)—on Justin Trudeau, characterized as “a man who has, again and again, shown contempt for those who do not share his worldview.” Well, I’m not touching that statement, as I am abysmally (and sadly) ignorant of Canadian politics. All I can do is comment on what this story reports, assuming it’s accurate:
Here’s Subramanya’s summary of what the bill says:
Canada’s Online Streaming Act, or Bill C-11—which is now being debated in Parliament and would make online streaming services prioritize Canadian content the same way Canada’s television and radio stations are regulated. . . .
Canada’s Liberals insist the point of Bill C-11 is simply to update the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which regulates broadcasting of telecommunications in the country. The goal of the bill, according to a Ministry of Canadian Heritage statement, is to bring “online broadcasters under similar rules and regulations as our traditional broadcasters.”
In other words, streaming services and social media, like traditional television and radio stations, would have to ensure that at least 35 percent of the content they publish is Canadian content—or, in Canadian government speak, “Cancon.”
That means that if you log onto, say, YouTube or Amazon in Canada, you’d see a lot more “Canadian content” than you would if you logged on south of the US/Canadian border. Yet the U.S. doesn’t mandate “American content”, and it seems that any sort of mandate like this abrogates freedom of these companies to broadcast the content they want.
The bill is inching toward a final vote in the Canadian Senate as soon as next month. It’s expected to pass. If it does, YouTube CEO Neal Mohan said in an October blog post, the same creators the government says it wants to help will, in fact, be hurt.
Bill C-11, Mohan explained, would mean “that when viewers come to the YouTube homepage, they’re served content that a Canadian Government regulator has prioritized, rather than content they are interested in.”
That doesn’t bode well for creators, he said.
Here’s an explanation of the bill’s aims from the Canadian government site:
What are we trying to accomplish?
Once implemented, this Bill is expected to:
Create more opportunities for Canadian producers, directors, writers, actors, and musicians to create high quality audio and audiovisual content.
Make it easier for Canadian audiences to access Canadian and Indigenous stories.
Create one, fair set of rules for all comparable broadcasters—online or on traditional media—such as, requiring those who benefit from Canadian arts and culture to invest in it.
Make our diverse Canadian voices, music, and stories heard across Canada and globally through a variety of services.
Create a more inclusive broadcasting system that is reflective of Canadian society and that serves Canadians from all walks of life.
It apears to be like a national DEI provision, increasing the diversity of what one can access online by boosting Canadian content. In other words, it’s trying to “create a media that looks more like us.”
The explanation below of why this bill would hurt Canadian artists or creators like Justin Bieber doesn’t completely make sense to me, but I’m addled with insomnia:
. . . . users often give a thumbs-down to content that the algorithm steers them toward and that they don’t want to watch—and that leads the Search and Discovery systems at YouTube to limit visibility of that content. “[G]lobally,” Mohan said in his post, “Canadian creators will have a harder time breaking through and connecting with the niche audiences who would actually love their content.” (According to Mohan, more than 90 percent of the “watch time” on content produced by Canadian YouTubers comes from outside Canada.)
Bottom line: had Bill C-11 been the law of the land back in early 2007, Justin Bieber would probably have encountered more Canadian viewers who didn’t want to watch him, many would have given him a thumbs-down, and YouTube would have limited the number of viewers who ultimately saw him.
Why do they argue that Bieber would be less popular with Canadians than with other people? And even if YouTube did limit his viewers based on “likes”, wouldn’t the new bill actually help Bieber since YouTube content would now be more Canadian than before? (Bieber presumably counts as “Canadian content”.)
But this is that’s why I think this bill is fundamentally misguided: it tilts the freedom of Internet providers towards Canadian content, which must be at least 35% of the total content, and of course there’s going to be a “Canada censor” who decides what constitutes “Canadian content”.
A bit more about the bill, which makes it clear that it’s meant in part to shield Canadian media from market forces:
As it turns out, Conservative senator Leo Housakos told me, it’s not Canadian creators who need a boost—it’s Canada’s sclerotic legacy media. Bill C-11, he said, is meant to protect the likes of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and conglomerates like Bell Media and Quebecor, all of which can be counted on to toe the Liberal Party line.
That certainly seems to be what the bill’s boosters are indicating. In an April 2022 post, Valerie Creighton, president of the Canada Media Fund, created by Canada’s Ministry of Heritage, appeared to agree with Housakos about the need for shielding legacy media from market forces. Creighton seemed to echo Pablo Rodriguez, who had noted a few weeks earlier that 450 Canadian media outlets had closed over the previous 13 years.
“The entry of the streamers and platforms into the Canadian market has resulted in aggressive competitive pressure on the Canadian broadcast and distribution system,” Creighton said in her post. “Our companies cannot compete with the deep financial resources and wide distribution these platforms offer.”
A few more critics are quoted at the end:
This unwillingness to engage with the opposition—to take part in the messy, cantankerous democratic process, to make room for more voices, to entertain more ideas and arguments and counterarguments—has left many old-fashioned Canadian Liberals dismayed.
In a January 31 speech invoking the Roman thinker Cicero and the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, Liberal senator and award-winning author David Richards lashed out at Bill C-11: “We have lately become a land of scapegoaters and finger pointers, offering accusations and shame while believing we are a woke society. . . . what George Orwell says we must resist is a prison of self-censorship. This bill goes a long way to construct such a prison.”
Margaret Atwood, the acclaimed author of The Handmaid’s Tale, tweeted her support of Richards’ speech: “Needs a listen.”
Pattie Mallette was similarly put off by the government trying to steer its citizens, the people who were supposedly in charge, in the “correct” direction. Referring to Bill C-11, she said: “I feel like it’s almost an insult. It’s like Canadians don’t make good enough content for people to see, so we have to create a handicap to make sure that people are seeing your content.”
If this bill is characterized correctly, I find it censorious and, indeed, a form of “cultural appropriation”—preventing foreign cultures from intruding too strongly into Canada’s culture.
In today’s paper, she answers a question about whether it’s bad to culturally appropriate clothing, with a special focus on Asian clothing. All I can say is that I’m in trouble if that appropriation is bad, because when I’m in India, and sometimes in the U.S., I wear Indian clothing. In India it’s simply far more comfortable than “Western” clothing like heavy blue jeans, and it’s also a lot easier to get light cotton kurtas (shirts) and drawstring pants washed by the local dhobi (washer); they are cheap to clean and they dry fast. And I like the look of kurtas, too, and have several silk ones—including some given to me by Indian friends.
I have never been called out or criticized for wearing Indian clothes. Indeed, in India I think the locals appreciate my “appropriation.”
That said, I’m clearly DOING IT RONG, at least according to Vanessa Friedman, because I haven’t deeply educated myself on the clothes. I wear them because I like them and they’re comfortable. (I also have two New Zealand All Blacks rugby shirts in case a Kiwi wants to go after me.)
But I think Vanessa is deeply misguided, and sets herself up as a Pecksniffian arbiter of what’s proper.
Let me say first that yes, in some circumstances I wouldn’t wear clothes from other cultures. I wouldn’t dress up as a Mexican bandit at Halloween (though it shouldn’t be banned), nor as a Japanese samurai. This is mainly because there is no circumstance in which that would be necessary. The only time when I think it would be actually offensive to wear clothes of another culture is when you’re doing it to mock other cultures. Dressing up as a samurai would be deeply weird, and hardly “appropriate” in any circumstance, but it’s not a mockery of Japanese culture. And I have no problem with Western women wearing Indian clothes like saris—which I consider the world’s most beautiful women’s apparel—or the two-piece salwar kameez. It’s nearly always done out of respect and admiration for the garment, so why is that wrong?
According to Pecksniff Vanessa, it’s wrong unless you wear it exactly as it’s meant to be worn (hard with a sari) and if you have educated yourself on the “specific meaning” of the item.
Click the headline to read her misguided advice, and I see the article is archived here as well:
Here’s the question from an Inquisitive Reader:
I lived in Bangkok for a few years and traveled the region extensively. I love Asian-inspired fashion, but I now feel self-conscious wearing some of my Asian pieces as I am not Asian and don’t want to be disrespectful in any way. What do I do with my ao dai, Chinese jacket, Shanghai Tang items and more? — Mary, La Jolla, Calif.
My answer would be, “You go, Mary”, but Ms. Friedman finds this “problematic”:
The question of cultural appropriation is a highly complicated, fraught issue with no simple answers. You may remember that a few years ago a white high school senior wore a cheongsam to her prom, and it set off a firestorm of criticism in the United States — though in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, many social media users saw it as a cultural victory.
Note that the Chinese weren’t offended: it was Americans (including Chinese-Americans) who wailed. That tells you already that it’s the local Pecksniffs, people looking to be offended, that make people who wear clothes from other cultures feel bad.
And remember when, in 2015, the Met Gala celebrated the exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and though some guests understood the theme, others got their traditions and countries mixed up in a pretty egregious way?
There is a difference between wearing a garment as a homage and sign of cultural appreciation and wearing it as a costume or because you think it looks cute. And when it comes to Asian sartorial tradition, the stakes have only increased since the pandemic began, with its wave of despicable anti-Asian violence.
This can be especially tricky when it comes to fashion, which has long loved to dabble in what used to be termed the “exotic,” often without any regard for point of origin or meaning. See, for example, Gucci’s use of turbans that evoked Sikh dress as a runway accessory in 2019, not to mention the continued widespread use of the generic and derogatory term “Oriental” in reference to style and prints.
“Cute” is deliberately demeaning: people wear foreign clothes because they think they look good. I don’t wear kurtas because I think they’re “cute.”
People do not wear foreign clothes as a deliberate sign of homage or cultural appreciation unless they’re going to a special cultural event. They wear them because they like the way they look. If Ms. Friedman thinks that wearing Asian clothes somehow buys into anti-Asian violence or bigotry, she has no idea what she’s talking about. As for turbans, well, they’ve been worn by women for decades, and don’t especially conjure up Sikhs. But even if they did, so what? Gucci is not making fun of Sikhs, but adopting a garment out of admiration.
As for “Oriental,” well, yes, I wouldn’t use that term, but we’re talking about clothing here, not words.
Further, according to Friedman, you have to think deeply and do some sartorial study before you don your garment. Just to be sure, she asked an Asian American
I asked Jodie Chan, a fashion professional and the producer of the short film “Invisible Seams,” which tells the stories of New York’s Asian garment workers, what she would advise. First, she said, intention and understanding matters, so educate yourself as to the meaning and history of a garment to ensure you are wearing it as it is meant to be worn.
“While clothing is universal, some pieces can carry specific meaning and should be researched and treated as such,” Ms. Chan said in an email. “If you want to wear a kimono/yukata or robe piece suggestive of a kimono, for example, it is very important to consider how you wear it — always the left side over the right side, as the other way is for the deceased in Japanese culture.”
Well, yes, if you want to be accurate, but really, if it’s on the wrong side, are you mocking or making fun of Asians? Jodie Chan, by the way, is a Vice President of Marketing at Carolina Herrera, which purveys Western clothes, and if you want to see lots of photos of Ms. Chan appropriating Western dress, go here. Apparently she has the right to culturally appropriate clothes (more on that below):
Another expert finds some stuff problematic:
Susie Lau, a fashion editor and influencer better known as Susie Bubble, said that context was also important, noting that if she saw a qipao dress worn as a sort of sexy waitress look with exaggerated cat-eye makeup, “that is immediately problematic.”
But, she added, “I believe culture should be shared, exchanged and disseminated with the most positive of intentions,” and sometimes that is done through clothing.
Does she not know that wearing foreign clothes is almost invariably done with positive intentions? Does she not know how the world works?
I have to say that qipao dresses, form-fitting and often slit way up the side, are intentionally sexy, and what’s the issue with pairing them with “cat-eye makeup”? I don’t know what Lau is talking about with the “sexy waitress look”, but quipao dresses aren’t exactly modest clothing.
Oh, and there’s one more thing that’s problematic:
Finally, consider who made the piece, and thus who is benefiting. Is it an Asian designer or a Western name profiting from another country’s culture?
Can we ditch the idea of “who’s profiting from another country’s culture”? For crying out loud, all over Asia, including Japan, people wear Western clothing, usually made locally, not in America. Japanese salarymen wear suits and ties, many women get their fashion from the West, and blue jeans (Levis), invented in America, are worldwide. Do Friedman, Chan, and Lau decry the widespread cultural appropriation of Western clothes by Asians: indeed, by people throughout the world? No, of course not, because it’s okay when they do the appropriation.
It cannot be wrong for an American to wear a qipao if it’s not wrong for a Japanese woman to wear blue jeans, or a Japanese businessman a suit. That’s all ye need to know.
What we have here are cowed Americans worried sick about whether they’re offending people from other cultures, and they’re made to feel that way as a power play by people who are pretending to “protect” their culture. But this is not offensive because in the case of “cultural appropriation,” as with language, intent does matter. And I’ve never seen a case (except perhaps at Halloween, and I can’t think of an example) where the intent was mocking or malicious.
Every country is involved in cultural appropriation—of food, of dress, of hairstyles, or machinery—and so on. This is, I think, all to the good. But there are those Pecksniffs who want to put a barrier around their culture and check the Purity Passport of every person who wants entry. Frankly, I’m sick to death of those people who, in their fervent desire—indeed, sometimes a vocation—to be offended, call out things that are good or well meant. If you want to see the apogee of the Deliberately Offended, read about “Kimono Wednesdays” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts a few years back.
How can you not like Kat Rosenfield when she’s named “Kat,” is Jewish, and has the ability to write a trenchant but also funny review of a book on how white people are not allowed to either like big butts or (if a woman) have one, for it’s a form of racist cultural appropriation. Twerking is out too.
The book under consideration is called Butts: A Backstory, and you can click on the cover to go to the Amazon link (yes, the title and graphics are clever):
You can read Kat’s Unherd review by clicking on the screenshot:
Kat gives the book a mixed review. The bit about the documented racialization of oversized derrieres, particularly in the 18th and 19th century, is pretty horrifying, especially the story of the South African black woman Sarah Baartman, who was exhibited as an inferior specimen of human for her rear pulchritude. But if big butts were racially denigrated then, author Heather Radke says that they’re welcome now among some white people, and gives examples like Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, and so on. “Twerking,” too, has been taken up by whites. And it’s the white appropriation of the butt fetish that is, well, problematic:
To be fair, it surely is not Radke’s intention to inculcate racial anxiety in her reader: Butts feels like a passion project, deeply researched and fun to read, offering a deep dive into the history and culture of the human rear end, from the Venus Callipyge (from whose name the word “callipygian” is derived) to Buns of Steel to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s seminal rap celebrating all things gluteal. It is a topic ripe for well-rounded analysis, so to speak. But having been written in the very particular milieu of 2020s America, Butts unfortunately falls victim to the contemporary vogue for viewing all matters of culture through a racial lens. The result is a work that not only flattens the butt, figuratively, but makes the book feel ultimately less like an anthropological study and more like an entry into the crowded genre of works which serve to stoke the white liberal guilt of the NPR tote bag set.
At this point I was starting to fall in love with Rosenfield, but she kept on stoking the ardor with her insistent anti-wokeness:
The concept of cultural appropriation has always struck me as both fundamentally misguided and historically illiterate, arising from a studied incuriosity about both the inherent contagiousness of culture and the mimetic nature of human beings. But when it comes to the remixing of thing such as textiles, hairdos or fashion trends across cultures, the appropriation complaints seem at least understandable, if not persuasive: there’s a conscious element there, a choice to take what looked interesting on someone else and adorn your own body in the same way. Here, though, the appropriated item is literally a body part — the size and shape of which we rather notoriously have no control over. And yet Radke employs more or less the same argument to stigmatise the appropriation of butts as is often made about dreadlocks or bindis.
The book is insistent on this front: butts are a black thing, and liking them is a blackmale thing, and the appreciation of butts by non-black folks represents a moral error: cultural theft or stolen valour or some potent mix of the two. Among the scholars and experts quoted by Radke on this front is one who asserts that the contemporary appreciation of butts by the wider male population is “coming from Black male desire. Straight-up, point-blank. It’s only through Black males and their gaze that white men are starting to take notice”. To paraphrase a popular meme: “Fellas, is it racist to like butts?”
But if it’s racist to like big butts, why are so many white people either getting butt implants or taking pride in their derrieres? It seems that Radtke is conflating racism with cultural approprition. Both are “moral errors”, but really it’s only the first.
First of all, buttophilia is not a new thing; there have always been a subset of men who like an ample bottom, and there’s nothing wrong with that, for there’s a subset of men who favor any given female body part. (Rosenfield notes the theory that the bustles of earlier times were designed as a superliminal stimulus to appeal to those who favor large rears.)
But there’s also no doubt that there’s recent cultural appropriation, as in white rapper Iggy Azalea’s astounding increase in bum girth, one suspects through surgery. If a love of big butts is racist, there’s an awful lot of white people who favor them! Again, things that are really considered racist are not culturally appropriated, no matter who appropriates them. I suppose that Radtke’s thesis, although she mentions cultural appropriation, is that women who strive for big butts are, à la Rachel Dolezal, trying to be black, and that is somehow a form of racism. But that doesn’t explain why some white men like big butts.
It’s all a mystery, but Rosenfield still writes well about it:
By the time Butts comes around to analysing the contemporary derriere discourse, its conclusions are all but foregone: the political is not just personal, but anatomical. The book calls multiple women, including Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian, and Miley Cyrus, to account for their appropriation of butts, which are understood to belong metaphorically if not literally to black women. The most scathing critique is directed at the then-21-year-old Cyrus, whose twerking at the VMAs is described as “adopting and exploiting a form of dance that had long been popular in poor and working-class Black communities and simultaneously playing into the stereotype of the hypersexual Black woman”. The mainstreaming of butts as a thing to be admired, then, is the ultimate act of Columbusing: “The butt had always been there, even if white people failed to notice for decades.”
There is also the curious wrinkle in Radke’s section on the history of twerking, which credits its popularisation to a male drag queen named Big Freedia. The implicit suggestion is that this movement style is less offensive when performed by a man dressed as a woman than by a white woman with a tiny butt.
On the other hand, now that the fad is “healthy at any size,” how can there be an ideological stigma against large bottoms?
. . . Ironically, the author of this book is herself a white woman with a large backside, a fact of which she periodically reminds the reader. And yet, Butts thoroughly subsumes its subject matter into the cultural appropriation discourse in a way that implicitly impugns all the non-black women who look — at least from behind — a hell of a lot more like Nicki Minaj than Kate Moss, women who perhaps hoped that their own big butts might be counted among those Sir Mix-a-Lot cannot lie about liking. It is worth noting, too, that the women hung out to dry by this argument are the same ones who other progressive identitarian rhetoric almost invariably fails to account for: the more it indulges in the archetype of the assless willowy white woman, the more Butts excludes from its imagination the poor and working class — whose butts, along with everything else, tend to be bigger. It fails to account, too, for those from ethnic backgrounds where a bigger butt — or, as one of my Jewish great-grandmothers might have said, a nice round tuchus — is the norm.
And the last paragraph is great:
All told, Butts offers an interesting if somewhat monomaniacal look back at the cultural history of the derriere. But as for how to view our backsides moving forward — especially if you happen to be a woman in possession of a big butt yourself — the book finds itself at something of a loss. Those in search of body positivity will not find it here; Radke is firm on this front, that white women who embrace their big butts are guilty of what Toni Morrison called “playing in the dark”, dabbling thoughtlessly with a culture, an aesthetic, a physique that doesn’t really belong to them. The best these women can hope for, it seems, is to look at their bodies the way Radke does in the final pages, with a sort of resigned acceptance: her butt, she says, is “just a fact”. On the one hand, this is better than explicitly instructing women to feel ashamed of their bodies (although implicitly, one gets the sense that shame is preferable to the confident, twerking alternative). But after some 200 pages of narrative about the political, sexual, cultural, historical baggage with which the butt is laden, it feels a bit empty, a bit like a cop-out. It could even be said — not by me, but by someone — that Butts has a hole in it.* [see below]
In the end, it seems as if Radke’s message is that it’s not really racist to like big butts if you’re white, but you better not get one or engage in twerking. That’s reserved for ethnicities whose women naturally have large rumps; in other words, whites of a callipygean bent are engaging in cultural appreciation, and that’s wrong. But I’ve never seen a form of cultural appropriation that I’d criticize, and this one is no exception. Let a thousand butts twerk!
The evolution of Iggy Azelea’s rear, from an article in (of course) The Sun:
Rosenfield’s last line reminds me of a semi-salacious joke that my father used to tell me when, as a young lad, I was tucked in (he always had a witticism at bedtime):
“Jerry, there’s a good movie on. The ad says “Mein Tuchus in two parts. Come tomorrow and see the whole!”
The central tenet of identity politics is that an individual’s “identity”, primarily “race” and “gender”, defines and constrains an individual’s position in society, both in what that individual will suffer from in an unjust society, and in what that individual may do in a just society. A frequent rhetorical flourish in the assertion of this central tenet is that “lived experience” is the sine qua non of non-problematic expression– unless an individual has the same identity, that individual may not write about, depict, study, evaluate, or otherwise comment on someone who is of that identity, or the identity in general.
Paul disagrees. She begins by questioning her own competency to write about anything outside her experience:
Am I, as a new columnist for The Times, allowed to weigh in on anything other than a narrow sliver of Gen X white woman concerns?
and notes that to the “establishment gatekeepers in Hollywood, book publishing and the arts” the answer is, increasingly, ‘no’:
It’s the ultimate litmus test: Only those whose “lived experience” matches the story are qualified to tell the tale.
She explains what this means:
So what is this vaunted “lived experience”? You may recognize it by its longstanding name, “personal experience,” or less excitingly, “experience.” But “lived experience,” with its earthy suggestion of authority, says to other people: Unless you have walked in my shoes, you have no business telling my story.
It’s essentially a turf war. Only Latino authors can write novels about Latinos. Only Holocaust survivors can convey the truth of the Holocaust. Only disabled people can portray disabled people. Everyone else is out.
But she does not accept this constriction of creativity and commentary:
This is one point of view, and as with most points of view, some of it is valid. Clearly those who have lived through something — whether it’s a tsunami or a lifetime of racial discrimination — have a story to tell. Their perspective is distinct and it’s valuable.
But it is, crucially, only one perspective. And to suggest that only those whose identities match those of the people in a story — whether it’s the race of a showrunner or the sex of the author of a book under review — is a miserly take on the human experience.
Think about the great art that would be lost if we loyally carried out this rigid identitarian mandate.
There is in her piece one thing that I originally took to be a false step. Early in the piece, she wonders whether Jews are entitled to update “West Side Story”, since it is “fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives”. This statement, taken at face value, displays a shocking ignorance of the play on which it purports to comment. (A sort of ignorance which is, unfortunately, increasingly evident in the pages of the Times.) “West Side Story” is not “fundamentally about Puerto Rican lives”, anymore than it is about “Polish lives” or even “Veronese lives”– it is about human lives. As everyone knows, “West Side Story” is a musical retelling of “Romeo and Juliet”, set in New York in the 1950s. In “Romeo and Juliet”, Shakespeare, an early modern Englishman, mined “Italian” sources for a story set in the Renaissance based on tales that go back to Classical antiquity in Greece and Rome. To locate the heart of this story in any particularity of “Puerto Rican lives” is a profound misinterpretation.
Upon reflection, however, I believe she is merely parroting and parodying the complaints of the woke, and I read this passage as mockery rather than error.
Do read her whole piece, with its salutary thesis that “lived experience” is a “miserly take on the human experience.”
OY VEY! DOUBLE OY VEY! Helen Mirren has been cast as Golda Meir in an upcoming film on the late Israeli Prime Minister, and people are beefing about it. About ten years ago this wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but now the Pecksniffs are tut-tutting about the choice because Mirren isn’t Jewish. I vehemently disagree.
Now sometimes there is a need for authenticity—and authenticity without insult. While Mirren required extensive makeup to look like Golda, I would not sanction a white man playing, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. The history of blackface is too pernicious and racist to allow that.
But can a black woman play Golda Meir? I don’t think so, for it would affect the “suspension of disbelief” essential in watching any such movie. There has to be a degree of versimilitude to make the reader immerse himself in the movie’s reality. Could the Robert Redford of old play Truman Capote in the movie “Capote”? I don’t think so, for we know what Capote looked and acted like. Those images are burned too deeply into our neurons to make a Redford performance credible. Could a black man play Richard III? I’m not opposed to that simply because, although we know the King wasn’t black, we wouldn’t be preoccupied with the trope of “blacface” during the movie.
Can Helen Mirren play Golda Meir, even if she’s not Jewish? OF COURSE! So long as she looks sort of like Meir, and tries to adopt a sort-of Israeli accent, why should we beef? She is, after all, a wonderful actress. Does knowing that Helen Mirren isn’t Jewish (she may be an atheist, for all I know) really detract from the movie? Only to the Pecksniffs. Yet they are here infesting the Guardian: click the screenshot to read:
Here they go:
Maureen Lipman has criticised the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in a forthcoming film about the former Israeli prime minister, saying that the character’s Jewishness is “integral”.
In comments reported by the Jewish Chronicle, Lipman said she “disagreed” with Mirren’s casting. She added: “I’m sure [Mirren] will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”
But there are good reasons not to go there, and it involves external appearance, not internal religious beliefs. Richard Burton, after all, played Thomas Becket in the eponymous 1964 movie, and Burton wasn’t a Catholic or an Anglican, but an atheist. So what? It was a good movie.
Here’s why the Pecksniffs object, but with the inervention of sanity:
In contrast, the playwright and director Patrick Marber was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle article as objecting to the primacy of “lived experienced” in casting decisions, saying: “I fucking hate that expression. Because ‘lived experience’ is sort of a denial of what creativity is and denies the actor the fundamental challenge and right to become someone else to impersonate another human being from another time, from another culture from another religion and another sexuality and other gender.”
Marber added: “I think a Gentile can play a Jew and a Jew can play a Gentile. I don’t like it when someone plays a Jew and gets it wrong. [But] I don’t like quotas.”
How can you “get it wrong” when you play a Jew? There are so many Jews on the world, many of them atheists, that I don’t see how someone can “get it wrong.” But kudos for Marber. His statement about “lived experience” is precisely right.
And Sarah Silverman objects! Seriously? It’s not as if Jews have been underrepresented in the movie industry! And remember, Dame Sarah, both Paul Newman and Sal Mineo, neither of them Jews, both played Jews in the 1960 movie Exodus I remember this scene well:
I’m a secular Jew, and I don’t think that “lived experience” is necessarily for great actors like Mirren. All that’s important is that they convince us they were the character. Here’s Mirren made up as Meir, unrecognizable as the actress.
I found this article, from VICE, mentioned in a public tweet from activist and atheist Ali Rizvi, who was aping the “first they came from the bird names. . ” craziness. This time, though, it’s not bird names, but veganism.
I suppose that anything these days can be found racist, like knitting and young adult fiction, not to mention bird names, but the idea that veganism was inherently white was alien to me. Perhaps that’s because I live in Chicago, which has a fair number of vegan restaurants run by African-Americans (many Black Muslims are either vegan or vegetarians). And a well known vegan retaurant run by blacks, B’Gabs, is just a few blocks from me. The fact that veganism is seen as “white people’s culture”, then, surprised me. But Anya Zoledziowski, who is of Polish Armenian descent, and identifies as a privileged European, has seen fit to chide all vegans for racially “appropriating food” (click on the screenshot below).
What’s her beef? (Is that an appropriate question to ask about such an article?) It appears to be that veganism is racist because black people see it as a “white person’s habit”. And, says the author, it seems that black vegans have been ignored, though I’m not sure how. Finally, vegans are guilty of “appropriating” cuisine from other cultures, though why that’s a sin still eludes me. (Throughout the article, Zoledziowski confuses veganism with vegetarianism: for example, much of southern Indian cuisine is vegetarian but not vegan.) But somehow, says the author, since the murder of George Floyd, veganism is going through a “racial reckoning”. A few quotes:
When Afia Amoako became a vegan five years ago, she said she didn’t see herself reflected in the community, which was dominated by wealthy white women.
They often touted recipes—”African peanut stew” or “Asian stir fry”—that rely on racial stereotypes, said Amoako.
“One, they don’t look like you, and, two, they are appropriating your food. Those are ways to turn racialized people away.”
First of all, African peanut stew and Asian stir fry (which I often make) do not rely on racial stereotypes. They are foreign dishes, and that’s all. They are not “appropriated” but appreciated. And if you’re turned off of veganism because some white people cook vegan or vegetarian food, you’re not a victim of racism but perhaps an exponent of racism. Why do vegans have to “look like you”? And what are “racialized” people, anyway? That term is new to me.
Not only that, but black vegans are wary of white ones:
“These white women, they are the gatekeepers of the vegan movement,” Amoako said. “We Black creators have been here this whole time.”
White women are starting to acknowledge Black and racialized vegans now, following a string of racial reckonings happening in several sectors and communities, Amoako said, but “I’m not gonna lie to you, some of us are still skeptical.”
Skeptical of what? That the “acknowledgment of Black and racialized vegans” (what’s the difference between “Black” and “racialized”?) is real?
The connection between racism and veganism grows ever more tenuous as the article goes on, as Zoledziowski must drag in vegetarianism to make her case. And “privilege” of course, makes its inevitable appearance:
In this post-Floyd world of racial reckonings, many vegans are starting to look inwards at their own privilege. White vegan influencers are urging people to follow BIPOC accounts as part of the #AmplifyMelanatedVoices campaign, while racialized vegans who have amassed large followings continue to post about Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Stories are surfacing in the vegan corners of the internet, highlighting vegan Black Instagram accounts and vegan Black-owned businesses.
The article then goes on to note that many “racialized” communities are “plant based”, but of course “plant based” is not vegan but vegetarian, at least in these examples:
In fact, several communities globally, most of which are racialized, are either plant-based or largely so. According to the latest counts, Brazil and India have the largest vegetarian populations in the world: about a third of Indians—375 million people—and 14 percent of Brazilians, or 29 million people, are vegetarian. Taiwan, Jamaica, Mexico, and Vietnam also have sizable vegetarian or vegan populations. And while that’s not to discount the growing popularity of plant-based diets in predominantly white countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany, and Australia, mainstream portrayals of vegetarianism and veganism are largely white.
. . . Almost one-third of Delhi, India residents identify as vegetarian today. A rich variety of lentil dishes—yellow lentil, brown lentil, and split chickpea dals, and mung beans cooked in different curries marked Siddharth Seth’s upbringing in New Delhi. Seth was raised vegetarian because his family identifies as Hindu and follows an interpretation of the religion that preaches nonviolence— Ahimsa—including towards animals. For Seth, who is now 40, vegetarianism was never a fad; it was just part of daily life.
Remember, the article isn’t about vegetarianism (which incorporates dairy food), but veganism (which spurns dairy). They have to drag Indian vegetarians into the mix to buttress their case. And most Indian vegetarians, as far as I’ve observed, are not vegans: they eat paneer (Indian cheese), yogurt, and milk-based sweets. As for American vegans, why is their diet not “part of daily life” as well?
I really can’t go on with this article. . . it’s just silly, but I’m highlighting to show how virtually everything on the planet can be seen as a racist act if white people participate in it. The most bizarre quote in the piece, and I’ll end with it, is this, which was uttered by Emani Corcran, who runs a black vegan Instagram site:
“Showing that many dishes from around the world are already plant-based is a huge step for people of colour who are maybe intimidated by veganism,” Corcran said. “That’s what influencers are supposed to do: show what you like to eat. I’m a woman of colour, so I like to eat what women of colour like to eat, and that’s what I’m going to show.”
Putting aside the silliness of people getting intimidated by veganism because it’s seen as white, I find the notion that one should eat what those with similar skin pigmentation eat as crazy. The fact is that most women of colour are not vegans, so why is she eating a vegan diet?
While the murder of George Floyd brought important focus on the persistence of racism in American society, it’s had the unfortunate side effect of allowing people to get away with racializing nearly everything. And that dilutes the message of movements like Black Lives Matter. My response to this article is to satirize its title: “Dear White Savior Zoledziowski: Get a grip.”
This is the kind of question that arises when you adopt full-blown intersectionalism. It’s apparently been decided that it’s okay to culturally “appropriate up“, i.e., Chinese people can wear jeans, and Africans suits, but it’s not okay to “appropriate down“, so that white people can’t wear cornrows or play jazz—at least not without explicitly acknowledging the borrowing and, as this article by Bianca Lambert, a freelance beauty writer, maintains, studying all the nuances of that borrowing.
The article at hand is, of course, at PuffHo, and the answer to the question in the title is a clear “yes: it’s appropriation for minorities to adopt black culture.” But it’s apparently not wrong for blacks to adopt Hispanic or Hindu culture. Click on the screenshot to read:
Most of the article is the usual culture-protection and calling-out of appropriators, and not worth commenting on again; but the thesis of the article, why other minorities can’t adopt black styles, is in just two sentences below. First, though, here are some members of minority groups who have been excoriated for wearing cornrows. Indented bits are from PuffHo:
Then there’s actor Shay Mitchell, who’s of Filipino and Scottish-Irish descent. She received backlash on Instagram after wearing cornrows multiple times.
Most recently, YouTuber Nikita Dragun, who is Vietnamese and Mexican, made headlines for wearing gray box braids to show her “love and appreciation for all the gorgeous black women in my life and also to those that follow me,” she wrote on Instagram.
So is this appropriation? Absolutely.
But why? Her answer is conveyed by Lindsey Day, founder and editor of CRWN Magazine:
“The thing that’s interesting about an Indian or Japanese or Mexican person wearing American Blackness is that they’ve had the privilege of continuity in their own cultural traditions,” Day said. “They are playing dress-up in something that we’ve fought to regenerate after having centuries of cultural disruption and suppression.”
Dress-up? I don’t think so. People who wear cornrows or dreadlocks wear them because they think they look good, not because they’re donning part of a black Halloween costume. And what, exactly, is the “privilege of continuity”? The reasons for cultural appropriation, as usually enunciated, are that you are stealing aspects of another (and more oppressed) culture, and not giving them credit for it or being explicit about the sufferings of those from that culture (see below). What continuity has to do with it is obscure.
And continuity seems irrelevant, for you’re also called out for “appropriating” aspects of culture that have been continuous, like the jazz or hip-hop of black America or the kimonos of the Japanese. No, this is just another way to make one culture seem even more oppressed than others by confecting some specious and irrelevant “discontinuity.”
As I’ve said before, theoretically there are forms of cultural appropriation that are harmful to the appropriated groups. The example I often use, and dismiss, is Paul Simon’s use of the music of the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo in his “Graceland” album. Had he taken all the credit, given the group a minor credit, and not paid them well, that would have been invidious and unjustifiable cultural appropriation. But Simon didn’t do that: he acknowledged his debt to that group and in fact made them famous and well off. I’m hard pressed to think of any kind of cultural appropriation that is harmful at all, though I’m sure readers can come up with some examples. But in general, I think cultural appropriation is not only a sign of appreciation of another culture, be it “up” or “down”, but also enriches all cultures. It’s just in today’s “I’m offended” climate, it gives people a reason to parade themselves as victims and denigrate others.
And it’s not enough for a cornrow-wearer to simply say, “Yes, I’ve adopted a black hairstyle because I like it.” No, you have to do what they call the “emotional labor”. As Lambert argues, using the words of Keisha Brown, associate professor of history at Tennessee State University
“While acknowledging the origin of the style or influence is a good start, that is just the first step in moving from appropriation to appreciation,” Brown said. “Beyond mere acknowledgment of the influence or inspiration [and one’s privilege and platform], an individual should also strive to understand the origin, impact and function of said cultural practices.”
Sorry, but my response to that is, “You’re asking too much.” If you have to study the origin, impact, and function of cornrows or dreadlocks—which of course were worn in ancient Greece—before you wear them, and need to be quizzed or chastised if you didn’t, then we’ve come to a pretty pass. Imagine if you applied that to all of the many forms of music, food, clothing, and other things that have been adopted by one culture from another!
I maintain that it harms nobody for a Hispanic woman to wear cornrows simply because she likes them. The “damage”, as it is so often in these things, is merely the offense in the Pecksniffian beholder.
The photograph has not been previously reported. The picture was taken at an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala. It shows Trudeau, then the 29-year-old son of the late former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wearing a turban and robes with his face, neck and hands completely darkened. The photograph appears in the 2000-2001 yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private day school where Trudeau was a teacher.
. . . On Wednesday, Zita Astravas, the media relations lead of the Liberal Party of Canada, which Trudeau is the leader of, confirmed that the prime minister was in the photo. “It was a photo taken while he was teaching in Vancouver, at the school’s annual dinner which had a costume theme of ‘Arabian Nights.’ He attended with friends and colleagues dressed as a character from Aladdin,” said Astravas. Trudeau is planning on addressing the photograph to the media later this evening, according to the Astravas. The prime minister’s official director of communications did not return multiple calls.
This photo, posted by CanadaAndShow.com, is regarded as “arguably worse” because the Prime Minister is flanked by two men dressed as Sikhs. Canadian Sikhs have objected, as have many others:
It gets worse: Time also reports that Trudeau admits to wearing blackface in high school:
In a new revelation, Trudeau also admitted that he wore blackface “makeup” in high school to sing “Day-O,” a Jamaican folk song famously performed by African-American singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte.
“When I was in high school I dressed up at a talent show and sang ‘Day O.’ With makeup on,” he said.
The publication of the photo embroiled his campaign in scandal, with Canadian reporters asking why he had not been forthcoming about the image if he knew it existed.
Trudeau is about to be in a close election, with his Liberal Party tied in the polls with the Conservative Party. Given that this was so long ago, and because Trudeau has since shown great sensitivity to Canadian minorities and women by producing the most diverse Ministry ever, I consider him “reformed” of whatever racism was behind his costumes. I therefore can’t be arsed to damn the man or call for him to resign.
It is ironic, though, that during his tenure as PM he’s acted uber-woke, even wearing Indian clothes on a visit to India and making Indian hand gestures. (For that he was called out for cultural appropriation.)
But others may feel differently, and I respect those feelings though I don’t agree with them. Do you think he should resign, or do you think that, if he doesn’t, he will be defeated because of his acts? Weigh in below, especially if you’re a Canadian.