In a piece for the New York Times Opinion section, Bari Weiss has come out in support of cultural appropriation. The article, entitled “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation,” makes the case that America wouldn’t be what it was without cultural appropriation, that our “melting-pot culture” is what allows American to be the icon that it is.
Look, let’s not waste more time on this than we need to. This is the act of a troll, one who has a huge platform and knows what to say to provoke people. Here’s why this argument is dumb as dog shit.
First off, Weiss clearly doesn’t understand the idea of cultural appropriation. One of her points is that Taylor Swift committed cultural appropriation in her “Look What You Made Me Do” video, but Beyonce is guilty of the same by naming her daughter Rumi. To anyone who watches the video, the issue is clearly more one of bad plagiarism with some appropriation on the side—Swift steals an aesthetic used by Beyonce, using the work of a woman of color like an accessory to prove that she’s cool and edgy. And it’s kind of weird to equate a music video with a child’s name, as though a child is just a work of art that can be judged by the public. But that actually takes us to the next point:
Weiss takes the idea of cultural appropriation to a bizarre logical extreme rather than engaging with the actual argument. Weiss says that critics of cultural appropriation are essentially proponents of “cultural purity,” that they’d advocate never even interacting with any culture outside of one’s own race. This is absurd, since nobody is advocating this. Nobody is saying that Weiss has to spend her “evening cordoned on the Upper West Side watching ‘Yentl’ and eating gefilte fish,” but she sets up that straw man and knocks it down anyway. To Weiss, there is no difference between interacting with another culture (i.e. eating a banh mi) and appropriating it (i.e. making your own banh mi shop and saying it’s authentic).
Third, It’s easy to support cultural appropriation when you somehow think that the abolition of slavery falls into that category. No, seriously: “Britain beat us to the abolition of slavery; the Isle of Man, New Zealand and Finland all decided to give women the vote well before the United States. Eventually, we got smart and borrowed these egalitarian innovations.” That’s part of the article. Weiss thinks it’s fair to say that the United States appropriated the idea of abolition of slavery from British culture.
She also says that Martin Luther King Jr. committed cultural appropriation by speaking “a mostly Latinate language,” as though his ancestors weren’t enslaved and then forced to learn that language.
You’ll notice that Weiss makes sure to consistently highlight people of color “appropriating” other cultures—people of color that she thinks should get more backlash because she doesn’t understand cultural appropriation. She never comes out and says this, but this focus is because she clearly thinks that white people get undue backlash for their appropriation, and that white people should be allowed to borrow from culture as much as she thinks minorities do. She ignores the struggles people of color have to go through to put out this art and this culture, as though people of all cultures have a perfectly level playing field when that’s obviously not true.
Don’t read this article. It’s just yet another writer whining because they can’t steal whatever idea they want and face zero consequences, another writer who thinks white people deserve accolades when they take an idea from a marginalized culture and abuse it like it’s an accessory they own, another writer who thinks these marginalized cultures should just shut up and be happy that white people are paying them any attention at all.