This got my goat the other day.
Maybe it was because my sister sported dreads for a time. For the record, I was against this style choice (the ex’s opposition was based on opposition to cultural appropriation, mine from a sense of aesthetic and biology as her hair wasn’t wired for it). But if anyone gave her crap for it, I’d give them what for.
The meme above doesn’t make sense at a number of levels, and frankly, the creator undermines him or herself.
First off, it’s historically false. Leaving aside the truism that imitation is the highest form of flattery, if this meme was true, everyone would talk about Gershwin (who appropriated jazz) and how amazing he was, but never mention Duke Ellington. In fact, the vast majority of great jazz musicians are black despite the fact that it was Gershwin that helped mainstream the genre. Oddly enough, Gershwin may have been white, but he was also a Jew—another minority that waspy Americans discriminated against. The same goes with blues artists: under-appreciated by white culture, it took bands like the Rolling Stones to say, “Wow, this is amazing stuff, let’s do it!” By doing so, blues got its due from the broader, white culture. You can argue as much as you’d like about how it’s wrong that it took white bands like the Stones to popularize the blues, but we all benefit and now the Muddy Waters, Lightnin Hopkins, and B.B. Kings of the world are household names. No one gives the great jazz and blues artists an F. Quite the contrary.
Second, if cultural appropriation is always wrong, we live in a world of silos. The best that has been thought, said, and written is no longer accessible to vast swaths of people because they don’t have the right blood running through their veins. If this isn’t a recipe for rabid nationalism and race war, I don’t know what is. Human history demonstrates that progress and prosperity depend on the exchange of goods, services, and cultural folkways. As iron sharpens iron, so one person (culture) sharpens another. As an American, I’m thankful for my country’s contributions to the world: the constitution (white guys), baseball (white and black guys together), and jazz and the blues (black guys).
Third, African and Asian societies industrialized and created participatory, liberal democracies, and then the West came in and took all the credit…oh wait….this is not a path you want to go down.
Western culture has given the world democracy, the rule of law, human rights, market capitalism, modern science and medicine, and industrialization. All of these cultural ideas, though flawed in their own ways, have done more than any other to lift people out of destitute poverty and free them from the abuse of arbitrary power. The very people propagating the meme above are doing so using the technology and citizen rights of the West. And that’s the beautiful irony: Western ideas enable people to insult the very system that sustains their protest.
The fact of the matter is that the world wants to come to America because America is based on pretty universal, awesome, and Western ideas. It is not a perfect system (Churchill once said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’) but it provides prosperity and relative peace compared to all the other systems out there. So, by all means, culturally appropriate the crap out of our stuff. It’s great. And let’s do cross-pollination while we’re at it—MLK style, brotherhood of man and all that.