In the LA Times, author Viet Thanh Nguyen examines recent controversies around cultural appropriation, parsing the difference between appreciating another culture and stereotyping it. The piece comes on the heels of a commencement speech delivered at Bowdoin College by US writer Lionel Shriver in which she wore a sombrero to denounce cultural "oversensitivity" on the campus. (Shriver is white.) Here's an excerpt from Nguyen article:
How to move forward? First, recognize the history of economic appropriation that makes possible cultural appropriation. Without such a recognition, we will continue to fight the wrong battle. Though it has been important for political progress in this country to organize around cultures and identities, these types of struggles won’t fundamentally change how some people benefit from an economic system built on racial discrimination and many others don’t.
Second, engage in careful and curious conversation with people different from ourselves, both in terms of demographics and ideas. When I say careful, I mean that it is possible to use one’s free speech and yet also be respectful and ethical. It is advisable not to insult people, as in the case of a white author wearing a sombrero to make her point about cultural oversensitivity. When I say curious, I mean that too many of us are not interested in the lives of others, if my experience with my airplane seatmates is any indication. Too many people would rather talk about themselves rather than ask questions of others.
Third, accept criticism. People of all sides revert to human nature by seeing the failures of their opponents and not their own side. Examining ourselves and acknowledging our mistakes and excesses is difficult, but without doing so, it is too easy to look down on others without realizing that we do many of the same things we accuse others of doing. When it comes to identity politics, this means acknowledging that people sometimes are too sensitive, and that includes white people.
Fourth, practice solidarity. Reject the politics of division that have existed in this country since the 17th century, when white property owners convinced poor whites that their interests aligned with wealthy whites rather than indentured and enslaved blacks. Today’s aggrieved white working class would be better off building alliances with working-class people of other cultures, and vice versa, rather than be seduced by the call to build walls. The reality is that walls won’t keep people out, and walls won’t keep profits in.
Image via NY Review of Books.