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The accusation torpedoes the culture itself

Culture thrives on exchange, trade and openness. However, “progressives” of all things are increasingly branding any mixing in art, literature, social sciences, film and even the kitchen as theft and exploitation. Anti-racism tilts into pigeonholing and ghettoization.

Is no longer possible for some today: A child dresses up as an Indian.

Patrick Lüthy / ETH picture archive

Starting in the USA, there is an increasingly heated debate about cultural appropriation. An example are the Indian costumes at carnival. It is said that such disguises convey a stereotypical image of the Native Americans by tearing elements such as feather headdress or war paint out of a cultural context and assembling them into a “clichéd Native American”.

The border between racism and normal diffusion

One could reply that this is about harmless children’s entertainment that shouldn’t be dramatized. But if you look at examples from your own culture, you realize that you are measuring with different cubits. With Swiss traditional costumes, the members of the association ensure that these are only worn on specific occasions and are not copied and commercialized for other purposes.

The same applies to military uniforms, badges or medals. You don’t “joke” with it. This applies all the more to religious symbols such as the cross and the signs of minorities such as the Jewish kippa. Violations are subject to accusations of blasphemy or racism. So why should one show less consideration for other cultures just because they are further away?

The question is where the line lies between disrespect and the normal distribution of cultural assets. One debate currently revolves around dreadlocks. Do white people who wear such pigtails commit “cultural appropriation”? On July 18, the Swiss band “Lauwarm” had to cancel a concert in Bern; Apparently a few listeners felt uncomfortable because of the white musicians’ Rastas and African dresses. The organizers apologized for their “awareness gaps” and said the audience should have been protected from such “cultural appropriation”.

So they took the position that dreadlocks and reggae music were reserved for black Jamaicans. Because their ancestors experienced exclusion and racism through colonization, which reggae addresses; therefore it is out of place for “privileged white people” to play this music or wear dreadlocks.

The biologization of differences

You can see it like this. The central point in the appropriation debate is the power imbalance. The dominant culture adopts everything from the minorities except discrimination, they say. But the dreadlocks have long since broken away from the Rastafari movement and apart from that were common in different cultures long before that. No one can claim a copyright on it. Bob Marley, who popularized reggae and dreadlocks worldwide, had a black mother and a white father. In general, a large part of music lives from the exchange between black and white, just think of blues, rock’n’roll, R’n’B, jazz or hip hop.

However, there is a tendency not only among racists but also among anti-racists to divide the world into black and white. This is all the more paradoxical as the latter see themselves as modern and progressive, but ignore the increasing intermingling and nuances of skin colour; there are only “privileged whites” and “oppressed blacks.”

This tendency is particularly striking in the United States, where anyone with even a drop of “black” blood in them is identified as African American. While gender is obsessed with respecting rainbow diversity and not reducing anyone to “male” or “female,” the binary logic of skin color is absolute. The racist categories that you want to get rid of come back through the anti-racist back door, culture becomes congruent with skin color.

Even addressing blackfacing is dangerous

This leads to the frowned upon blackfacing. In the past, apart from the Indian costumes, it was also common practice to paint one’s face black at the carnival. The particular sensitivity of African Americans to this practice has to do with the minstrel shows in 19th-century America, where black people were ridiculed as dimwitted but happy slaves who loved their owners in spite of everything. It’s understandable if African Americans don’t take this as a joke.

However, an incident that happened at the University of Michigan last fall gives food for thought. taught there Bright Sheng, a renowned composer. In his seminar, he used Shakespeare’s “Othello” to treat how material is transferred to different media, i.e. from the play to opera and film. In this context, he also showed – after a “pre-warning” – excerpts from the famous film from 1965 in which Othello is played by Laurence Olivier, who is made up in black.

Some students were shocked by the “blackfacing”. They sent an open letter to the university management, and the distribution on social networks did the rest. In the end, the alleged racist Sheng dropped out of his seminar prematurely, and his future at the university is unclear. Blackfacing is now so taboo in the USA that it is no longer even allowed to be shown in a historical context.

She’s not allowed to write about Latinas

Such vigilantes become particularly dangerous when they even wield the purist club when it comes to literature. In the USA, for example, there was a controversy as to whether the author Jeanine Cummings was entitled to publish the bestseller “American Dirt” in 2020. It’s about a Mexican woman who flees to the United States after a drug cartel kills her family. The accusation was that as a white woman she could not presume to write about a Latina. She received death threats and had to cancel her reading tour.

Incidentally, there are definitely biographical reasons for her choice of material, even if this question is not decisive: she is of Irish and Puerto Rican origin, her cousin was killed, and her husband lived illegally in the USA for years. But what remained is only the «Weisse» stamp.

It becomes even more absurd when the question of who is entitled to write about something reaches the social sciences. Jennifer M. Buck recently published an academic paper entitled “Bad and Boujee” on trap feminism, an African-American variety of feminism related to the hip-hop subculture. A shitstorm broke out over her because, as a white woman, she had presumed to write about this “black” topic. After massive pressure, her publisher withdrew the book.

Gallows as an artistic installation

There are similar tendencies in art. “Scaffold,” a seven-gallows installation by American artist Sam Durant, was shown in Minneapolis in 2017, on land traditionally owned by the Dakota, who suffered the largest mass execution in American history in 1862, killing 38 people. After a storm of protests, the work was destroyed in a ritual burning.

One critic remarked that it would never occur to anyone to artistically reproduce concentration camp gas chambers. That’s correct. But why do works always have to be destroyed, books withdrawn, professors dismissed and performances canceled in such cases? Isn’t it enough to criticize the content? This gives the arguments something archaic, reminiscent of exorcism, witch hunts and scapegoating. Also: mostly progressives – artists, social scientists, writers, singers, professors – are hit. Durant has studied American history and violence throughout his life. The real racists are somewhere else. That makes the attacks disproportionate, even absurd.

The end of acting

Political correctness even catches up with acting. Tom Hanks recently revealed he would no longer play the gay lawyer from “Philadelphia”; today no heterosexual should portray a homosexual. Helen Mirren is accused of playing – as a non-Jew – in a new film Golda Meir, the prime minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.

As you know, acting consists of playing another person. If ultimately everyone was only allowed to play themselves, it would no longer be film or theater, but self-portrayal. Conversely, one also wonders whether a homosexual should then no longer be allowed to play a heterosexual, which should hardly be in the interests of gay actors. The same applies to literature: If one is no longer allowed to write about people from other worlds, only autobiographies remain.

The absolute ban on cultural appropriation would be the death of the culture that has to do with self-transcendence. That even applies to the kitchen. Recently became the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver criticized, because his jerk rice differs from the original from Jamaica. Cooking is the prime example of a melting pot! Perhaps Rösti will soon be canceled due to cultural appropriation. After all, the potato comes from South America.

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