A few days ago I was somewhat taken aback to find a judgemental, authoritarian attack, a racially-motivated anti-sex-worker post appear on my Twitter timeline, re-tweeted by a friend.
The retweeted post was this:
Hey white sex workers.
Dreads are not your urban, hippie, or punk accessory.
It’s cultural appropriation. And for you to be making coin of your stolen look while actual black sex workers are fetishized/ignored/devalued for the same thing makes you fucking worthless.
I don’t habitually jump into arguments like this, but it behooves us to try to call out this sort of hateful invective when it pops up on our timelines.
So I replied as follows:
Hey human beings.
Wear your hair any way you fucking want.
It’s your hair.
By so doing I was deliberately echoing the aggressive and hateful language of the original tweet, trying to make a counter-argument in a pithy way.
This post is my attempt to advance that counter-argument in detail, and a challenge to the whole “cultural appropriation” idea.
First, let’s look a bit more at the original tweet.
“Hey white sex workers” – a hail to a group who the poster is then going to address as homogeneous on the basis of their career and skin colour. That’s not an especially promising start. There is no such thing as a “typical” white sex worker- every single human being is different, with different circumstances, and fall more or less closely into a huge number of overlapping groups. It’s a bit of a sticky wicket to start ascribing motives for behaviour to a large number of heterogeneous people on the basis of one or two groups they happen to fall into to a greater or larger extent.
“Dreads are not your urban, hippie or punk accessory’ – factually speaking that seems dubious. They could be exactly that. Or they could be any number of other things. A practical response to their family spending three years in Nepal, which they’ve grown used to now. A way to fit in for an inner-city kid whose social group mostly has them. An attempt to recreate a favourite character from a roleplaying game. A tribute to the way grandfather (who came from the Caribbean) wore his hair. A loving thing done for them by their black partner. One can think of many, many reasons why a person might choose a particular hairstyle. So far, I’m not seeing why that’s anyone’s business but their own.
“It’s cultural appropriation.” – I’ll deal with this at length below, let’s move on for now.
“And for you to be making coin of your stolen look while actual black sex workers are fetishized/ignored/devalued for the same thing makes you fucking worthless”.
The poster is now making accusations to a whole heterogenous group of human beings – specifically a group of human beings who share one circle in the Venn diagram of human beings (making a living as a sex worker) but who fail to fall inside a second circle in the Venn diagram that the OP falls into (being black; from context in this case I suspect specifically African-American in the USA) and instead fall into another one: being white, presumably in this case white Americans. The failure to qualify this latter point is an interesting symptom I noticed the last time the whole cultural appropriation thing cropped up on my timelines. There’s an unstated assumption that the local situation is universal. There’s more than one cultural gradient in the world, and anyone who lives in America and is tweeting and posting video clips is right up an one end of a pretty huge one. In fact there are millions upon millions of cultural gradients, privileges and disadvantages, all co-existing all of the time. It’s fine to pick on prominent ones for your own situation- but appreciate your own position on other gradients too. In short, have a bit of empathy and be kind.
I may be wrong- the poster may be Canadian, say. I’m not that closely attuned to accents. But the point stands. The situation for British or Irish or Spanish or Lithuanian sex workers might be entirely different. Many cultural gradients. The whole thing is hugely multi-dimensional and every individual sits in their own place on every one of the relevant cultural scales.
They are accusing that group of making coin off their stolen look – i.e. making money as a sex worker. Of course they are making money as a sex worker, by definition. They’re in that circle because you’re drawn it to include them. All sex workers make money at least in part from how they look, it doesn’t mean that they’ve stolen the look in order to make coin. There are as many reasons for an individual to choose their hairstyle as there are individuals in the circle.
That’s not to say there isn’t an issue here. There is, and it is huge and structural and a massive, massive problem for humanity which we need to sort out as one of the most pressing issues of this or any other age. The discriminatory treatment of black women in the USA for wearing their hair in certain ways is vile and needs to be tackled.
But the issue is one of racist discrimination against people with a certain skin colour (in general) being forced to change their hairstyles (in specific).
I fail to see how we solve that by forcing people of a certain skin colour to change their hairstyles.
Culture as Stealing?
The only way a look can be stolen is if a specific individual starts a genuinely new fashion and lots of other people copy them against their wishes, and even then I’d argue that it is swimming against the whole existence of culture – all culture has been appropriated, appropriation is what creates culture.
Seeing something someone else does and doing it too, or taking inspiration from it and putting your own twist on it. Language, cuisine, art, science, fashion, commerce, farming, sewers, internal combustion and the days of the week. All culturally appropriated, all the time, all around the world, by all human beings in every single aspect of their existence. You might as well forbid English people from using the word “British” because it is culturally appropriated from the p-Celtic language (Brythonic) that was spoken in these islands when the Angles and Saxons first arrived.
There are only so many ways to create a hairdo, and dreadlocks are a recurring theme in multiple cultures spanning the globe and dating back to antiquity, at least to circa 1000 BCE. It is a moot point whether this represents independent invention or cultural transmission of the idea; the point is that human beings have been doing this to their hair across many cultures since before the founding of Rome. We’d be foolish to assume that they don’t predate that- absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreadlocks
That’s reaching back to the sort of era where all humans share a common ancestor (The exact dates of which are model-dependent, but a reasonable estimate is circa 1400 BCE: http://steveolson.com/uploads/2009/04/nature-common-ancestors2.pdf). It’s not outrageous to trace back to the time of identical ancestors, when the refolding and recombination of family trees that happens as you go back through the generations means that amongst all individuals living at least that long ago, each present-day human has exactly the same of ancestors. (The IA point, which simulations put at circa 5500 BCE). I’d hazard a guess that some people somewhere in the world probably had dreads in 5500 BCE, despite the lack of archaeological evidence (hair doesn’t get preserved all that well in a lot of climates). And if they did so… the ancestors of the person making the complaint wore dreads, and the ancestors of the persons being complained about wore dreads, because they were THE SAME PEOPLE. So who has culturally appropriated from whom, exactly?
So what is actually meant here is that on the basis of skin colour, the original poster and those in similar circumstances in one particular culture in the modern world are being discriminated against. Absolutely vile, and something I again say we need to make every effort to remove.
But the tweet is itself guilty of all the things that are worst about the thought patterns which created that discrimination in the first place. Stereotyping human beings on the basis of skin colour. Requiring different behaviour from human beings on the basis of skin colour. Castigating other human beings for sex work, “making coin” from the way they look. The unspoken assumption on universality, in this case that the American situation is universal. (Maybe there’s a group somewhere where black people and white people are trying to get along and encouraging each other to adopt each other’s cool hairstyles. Let’s hope so, it sounds like a better place to live.)
But all of this I would probably have let flow by me – gently disagreeing with the specifics whilst sympathising with and doing my best to work towards an improvement in the discriminatory situation that lead to the tweet in the first place… were it not for those last few words.
“makes you fucking worthless”. If there’s any group under persistent attack for being worthless right now, it’s sex workers. That sex workers with one skin colour have it less bad than sex workers with a different skin colour is piss-poor, but it doesn’t make it OK to decide that the people involved are worthless. That’s just vile. No human being is worthless, especially not on the basis that they are of a certain skin colour, that they make money from sex work, and they happen to wear their hair a certain way.
The OP is presumably disgusted at the lack of awareness and solidarity from white sex workers for the plight of POC sex workers, on the basis that if anyone ought to understand the struggle, it is people with a fair degree of overlap on the Venn diagram. Which is probably entirely true. But to then attack those people in such dehumanising terms is not OK.
It represents is a victory for the sort of us-and-them, race-is-a-real-thing*, stay-in-your-box, authoritarian othering that got us into this whole damn mess in the first place. It’s saying that the bigots are right- there’s a significant difference between human beings on the basis of their skin colour, and human beings should act differently and expect to be treated differently on that basis.
(* ref: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Brief-History-Everyone-Ever-Lived-ebook/dp/B01D8ZZWHO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1534236261&sr=1-1&refinements=p_27%3AAdam+Rutherford short version- there isn’t a scientifically-defensible definition of race amongst human beings; the bigots are wrong. )
The Cultural Appropriation Distopia
Let’s move on to the broader point. Let’s say we accept that cultural appropriation is a real thing, that it is an undesirable thing, and that by great concerted effort we manage to reduce or eliminate it slowly, nation-by-nation, across the globe.
A few years hence; North America. It is unacceptable for a white sex worker in Detroit to wear her hair in dreads. The cultural appropriation authority assess that her degree of racial purity is inadequate to be allowed to adopt that style. Her friend, whose father has white skin and whose mother has black skin, is allowed to do so, but if she had a white great-grandfather that would tip the scales into nope.
Their friend whose grandparents were Japanese-American, African-American, Chinese-American and European-American is not allowed to adopt dreads, nor to wear a kimono. She is insufficiently racially pure. But nor is she allowed to bleach her hair blonde, or watch Chinese action movies- oh, pity for her! She is not racially pure enough to belong in any category! She’s not even allowed to eat German sausages. She’s allowed Cantonese food (the cultural authorities have decreed that her racial purity is adequate for that) but not Sichuan, because her grandfather came from the wrong part of China.
However, Canada has been very progressive and forward thinking, and has managed to reduce structural inequality to the point where white girls are now allowed to wear dreads. Hooray! World-wide celebration! But oh no! There’s still structural inequalities between the French-speaking Quebecois and the English speaking majority! No Parisian fashions for you, English-speaking Candian sex worker! No meeting up for a culturally-insensitive “rendezvous”! No matter what the colour of your skin, your personal circumstances or your personal preferences. There’s a cultural gradient, and you’re at the high end of it, no matter what other cultural gradients you happen to be experiencing. Black sex worker? White sex worker? Doesn’t matter- English-speaking, you’re at the wrong end of the gradient. Eating French food? Exploitation! Shame on you! You’re fucking worthless!
It’s an authoritarian, distopian, racist nightmare. Who decides on another human being’s entitlement to a certain style of dress or hairdo? What degree of racial purity is required? How disadvantaged do you have to be for it no longer to apply? How finely-balanced do the scales of cultural inequality have to slide before you allow free transfer of ideas? What do you do when multiple competing groups claim a single cultural idea? Are people of Indian descent in the USA allowed to wear dreads? How long ago before a particular thing is allowed as part of “your” culture? What determines what is “your” culture in the first place? Sex? Gender? Skin Colour? Place of birth? Does a person who was born in Africa have a greater claim to dreads than someone born in Carolina? What if they moved when they were six months old?
There are many huge problems in the world, and many of them are the result of endless in-group/out-group othering. Doing more of that, however well intentioned, is not likely to help. It’s perpetuating the thinking that led to the problem in the first place. And as demonstrated by this thread it most frequently manifests in exactly those contact areas of shared experience where one would most hope for building bridges – and slams down a wall. A metaphor I choose with care.
So, by avoiding wearing dreadlocks is a white person combating racism? No. They are subscribing to exactly the thinking that leads to racism- that there’s a them and us, and what’s for them isn’t for us, or for me. Wear dreadlocks and kick up fucking hell about black sex workers being discriminated against for that or for any other reason.
The “Not-Being-An-Arse” Corollary
There is a corollary here, which I call the “not-being-an-arse” principle.
We should strive to be kind to one another. Part of that is not to ignore discrimination being poured down on people and to do our best to address it. Part of it, for sure, is to be sensitive to the feelings of others.
Buying a piece of mass-produced plastic tourist tat patterned on Native American designs being made and marketed by a non-Native-American person and treating something that one culture has regarded as something of reverence as a disposable children’s toy could very well run the risk being an arse.
Buying a piece of hand-crafted Native American art sold to you by a Native American person. Is that being a bit of an arse? It entirely depends, doesn’t it? On the one hand, it might be that the huge structural inequality towards Native Americans means that that person has no other way of making a living and finds it demeaning… but is it helping NOT to buy it? If they are happy to sell it to you and you are happy to buy it, can it just be as simple as two human being conducting an exchange for mutual benefit, whatever the larger picture may be? By all means do whatever is in your power to help reduce the structural inequality. But whether or not to buy this piece of art, today, from this person- that’s surely not a matter for anyone but the two of you, and your personal tastes?
What if the buyer had a Native American great-grandfather? Does that suddenly make it OK? What if the seller had a European great-grandfather? Is that suddenly not OK? Who decides?
This applies to both sides of the equation. Attacking the person buying your art for buying your art because it is cultural appropriation is being an arse, too. By all means gently explain to a fellow human being what the situation is, what the circumstances are, the shape of the structural inequalities. Suggest what they can do to help. But having a go at the people who are interested enough to have stopped at your place to look at your art in the first place is slamming down the wall exactly where you should both be building a bridge. And with exactly the sort of person who is interested enough that have taken the first step across the bridge, to boot. Othering, us-and-them.
As Reginald D. Hunter opined “you can’t always make people come to where you at. Sometimes you have to go to where they at.” I’d say we should strive to do that.
Culture is Cultural Appropriation AND IT IS GLORIOUS
Culture is GLORIOUS. It is the amazing feat made possible by human language and the transmission of ideas from one person to another person, greatly assisted by leaps forward like writing, commerce, the printing press and the internet.
Culture is one human being learning something from another human being and storing it away, making use of it in their own way, in their own terms.
ALL languages are an amazing, ever-changing, always evolving collection of grammatical structures, verbal fashions, words taken from here and there and everywhere, ideas folded and changed and subtly shading in meaning over the years. Wherever humans come into contact, new language and new culture and change springs into being. It’s unstoppable. We can’t stop it. We shouldn’t even be trying to.
If we’re to stop cultural appropriation, this sort of thing has to stop. High status humans in positions of power shouldn’t adopt the vernacular- that’s failing to take account of the cultural gradient and appropriating from those at the bottom of the scale. The English aristocracy should still speak French. Pure, unchanging 1066-era French. The Angles and Saxons should get their hands off words yn Gymraeg, and stop using our “I did do” constructions all over the place. We certainly shouldn’t wear pyjamas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pajamas.)
More prosaically, the British kid who is a fan of Hong Kong Action movies should stop wanting to be Jackie Chan, and absolutely shouldn’t pinch the cool bits of Mr. Vampire to make their own first film when the inspiration has carried them through film school to their first directing role. They should take artistic inspiration only from the same sources as their fathers, and their fathers before them. (Except that you only need to go back a few thousands years before that’s the same set of ancestors as every human being on the planet).
I’m Welsh. I was born in Wales. I’m learning to speak Welsh. It’s glorious. Should English people be allowed to do so? What if they start competing in the Eisteddfod and start winning prizes (they do, by the way). That’s cultural appropriation in the existence of a long-standing structural inequality. (Reference the treachery of the blue books: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treachery_of_the_Blue_Books. )
Actually I have q guilty secret: despite being born in Wales, with Welsh ancestry on my Father’s side, my Mother is English. And a great-grandfather was Scottish. Am I Welsh enough to partake of Welsh culture? Should my English wife be allowed to do so too, given that she’s a colonialist?
Of course she should. And I should. And anyone else who wants to should. Welsh language and literature is enlivened by contributions from anyone, whatever their country of origin or native tongue or colour of their skin or whatever other dubious basis we are using to decide upon us-and-themness today.
Share! Revel! Tell you story! Make friends! Treat them as equals! Fellow human beings, hello! Have this! I’ll have your video games and your telescope! (“Your?” did you invent them? In what way are they yours?)
So hold up. By what reasoning can Welsh possibly be “my” language? I didn’t invent it. I wasn’t born able to speak it. I picked up some of it from where I happened to live by an accident of birth. Should that have any bearing on whether or not I should be able to learn it? If I’d been born somewhere else, I’d probably not be interested in it. If I’d been born in a city in the USA, I might be interested in some of the other cultural stuff bubbling around me every day. Like… hairstyles I think are cool. That my friends have. That someone picked up from somewhere. Maybe their black neighbours. Maybe their mother’s trip to India. Maybe their friend.
Lucas, the kid with black skin in Stranger Things shouldn’t be messing around with a white person’s game like Dungeons and Dragons. Even though he likes it. That stuff is the tool of the colonialist oppressor, yo. It’s not for you! (He’s a fictional human being living in America. He’d have every bit as much right to purchase and enjoy Dungeons and Dragons as his school-friends were he real… wouldn’t he? Shouldn’t he?).
British chefs should absolutely not have bastardised Indian cuisine to make Chicken Tikka Marsala, no matter how nice it tastes. Fusion cuisine is cultural appropriation to its very core- shut that down, or at least conduct racial purity tests to see which human beings are allowed to create it. Or eat it.
These are not really reductio-ad-absurdam arguments, because this is exactly the argument being advanced. It is the same argument as “white sex workers shouldn’t wear dreads”. It’s taking your own parochial world view and your own parochial situation and trying to extend it to other human beings against their will, in ignorance of their own personal situation. White sex workers in Russia, say? White sex workers in Poland, who might even be doing it in tribute to or solidarity with their own tradition of exploitation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_plait). There may be exactly no Polish white sex workers doing this. But they’d have every bit as much right to do so if they wanted to.
Dreads may be associated specifically with black people in one particular culture, at one particular time, with one particular structural inequality looming large and crying to be put right.
But claiming any sort of exclusiveness of culture to one sub-group of humanity is meaningless, authoritarian, othering, unkind and furthermore vastly ignorant of the glorious history of the whole of the rest of humanity outside the parochial bubble.
What about the entire Indian sub-continent, where dreads have been a thing for a very long time?
Maybe taking a step back and challenging the idea that any cultural thing really truly belongs to any group of human beings would be a better idea.
Yes, it is bloody annoying when yet another white artist grabs inspiration wholesale from a black sub-culture and makes a million from it. But the problem is structural inequality that prevents the black artists from being commerically successful. Make it possible for them to do so on a level playing field! Absolutely, we should strive for that! But at it’s basic level, at least there’s some cultural contact. Some way of starting a conversation between the multiple groups, the different overlapping circles on the Venn diagram. Ways to start realising the commonalities, and the horrible differences, and ways to start addressing them together.
Would you rather than white kids were forbidden from listening to rap because it is “black music”? Or would you rather they listened to and started to think about the lyrics, about how life might be like on the streets of Compton? Watch movies about it. Learn about each other. Think “Man, that’s fucked up. We’d better do better than that”. Maybe the white kids and black kids in Detroit might realise that they have more in common with each other than either of them have with the billionaires who run the country.
No idea, no culture, no fashion has sprung into existence by immaculate conception. All of it comes from the unceasing churn and mish-mash of ideas across the whole of humanity, across the whole of human existence. NONE of it is exclusive to one human being, not even in cases of “invention” or discovery. All of it rests of the huge shining palace of human cultural achievement.
Einstein created the theory of relativity- in an environment constructed by other scientists. That’s why Newton didn’t create the theory of relativity. The necessary fore-runners to the idea simply hadn’t bubbled up through the hundreds and thousands of minds exchanging ideas; he didn’t have enough culture to appropriate. Instead he had to synthesise what was around him to create his theory, which was subsequently revised and extended by Einstein is a grand act of culture-in-all-its-finery at work.
Emmy Noether came up with possibly the single most profound theorem underlying all of modern physics. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noether%27s_theorem). She did so on the basis of the previous work by hundreds of scientists, and mathematicians, mostly men. Should we not use her theorem because she was a woman, and women are still shockingly, horribly discriminated against in STEM in many (maybe all) countries?
Or should we glory in it, revel in it, spread the word, celebrate her and it and simultaneously try to address the structural inequality?
The whole idea of cultural appropriation falls apart the moment you begin to examine it and think through the consequences.
Like- Emmy Noether could only do mathematical research because of innovations in farming in the Middle East which allowed people to shift from nomadic to sedentary living, and an increase in efficiency which left some people free to pursue activities other than simply finding enough to eat. The benefits of culture. Let’s celebrate it, not try to stop it.
We’re all human beings, and we share a single culture- human culture. It was created by all of us, we share common ancestors much more recently than one might think, and none of it came into being in isolation- it was ALL informed by other culture, all of the time, all of the ways. By any meaningful measure, every single human being on the planet has as much right to grab some bit of culture and run with it as any other human being. We should encourage it, revel in it, celebrate it! Invent stuff! New stuff! Old stuff with a fresh twists! Love stuff because it makes us happy, whether you’re a black kid who loves Anime and Manga, a Russian kid who loves Oceanic fairytales, an American kid who loves Tolkien and gets led to do a PhD in Celtic studies and come to Aberystwyth to learn to speak Welsh, a seamstress drawing inspiration from Han court clothes via Japanese cultural appropriation, or whatever the hell you like.
Let’s work together to remove the inequalities that prevent some human beings taking full advantage of it, especially when that’s done on as spurious a basis as skin colour or geography of birth. Let’s not reinforce the endless division of human beings into ever-smaller sub-groups of us-and-them, bickering over who is the most persecuted and who should be allowed access to which bits of human knowledge.
By all means choose not to wear dreads if you want to. Bleach your hair. Cut it, shave it, curl it, and work against people who discriminate against human beings on the basis of hairstyle and skin colour and everything else.
Be rightfully pissed off that people with brown skin get treated differently from people with white skin if they wear their hair that way- be angry, and to try to change that, and to use many means to get that point across.
But don’t call other people “fucking worthless” because they’ve made a different decision about their own hair. You don’t actually “own” dreads. You don’t own the style personally in any meaningful way. You don’t even own the style in any broader cultural sense that stands up to a moment’s examination in the broader context. You are making unwarranted judgements about fellow human beings on the basis of their job and their skin colour and their personal fashion choices.
Which I thought we pretty much agreed was a bad thing.