Justin Bieber has new 'douche bag' dreads. Since getting his new do, Twitter has been awash with the mass hysteria that it does so well. Bieber's crime has been for 'culturally appropriating' a 'black hairstyle'. Bieber defended his new dreads by claiming, 'it's just my hair'." Indeed. This has come just days after a video of a black student confronting a white student over his dreadlocks went viral.
The war against 'cultural appropriation' has been raging for a while and like usual, our universities and colleges are at the vanguard of this politically-correct equality-fight. Last September, at the University of East Anglia, the students' union banned a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros to students on the grounds that this act of cultural appropriation was racist.
Sombreros type hats where originally worn by Mongolians in the 13th, then they were adopted by the Spanish who took them over to Mexico. Things that we see as authentically and absolutely tied to one culture, are very rarely the case.
Culture is never static. It ebbs and flows, changes and adapts. We learn from others' tradition, as we share ideas, customs and even hats. Throughout history huge strides in human progress have been made through cultural appropriation. The Romans appropriated much of Ancient Greek culture. Christian Europe was revitalised in the middle ages after embracing the science and teachings of Muslim Scholars. Christianity appropriated the Jewism Old Testament and Islam borrowed from faiths that came before it. All cultures on the world today are products of previous sharing, borrowing and appropriating between previous cultures. In a generation of mass migration and globalisation, the idea that you can freeze-frame customs and segregate cultures absolutely, is madness.
There is no social justice to be found in segregating cultures and ideas. It simply entrenches division. The foundations of liberalism, of personal choice, are being chipped away by a new moralism. What jewellery you want to wear, what hairstyle you want to wear, is becoming a political act. Cultural identifiers like a sombrero are now offered the reverence of a religious symbol.
Screaming self-righteous sanctimony at an idiot white guy dancing in a sombrero has nothing to do with defending or rescuing oppressed cultures. Turning every single cultural transaction as a crime or site of conflict is divisive. It stifles human progress and it stifles creativity.
We now assume that we can never understand a culture unless we are 'of' that culture. It is a conservative and sectarian approach that rejects the universalism of the human experience. By doing this, we mysticize and elevate the difference between us. Only woman can write about feminist theory, only black people can write about black history, only Native Americans can tell the stories of their people. We put up boundaries instead of taking them down.
We assumed white artists will never fully understand, love and appreciate 'black' music. Yet this not the case. See how punk rock's appropriation of reggae crossed racial divides and brought together alienated communities. See how white's embrace of the blues led to rock 'n' roll popularity forced previously white-oriented labels to sign African-American artists, and changed for ever the social interactions of black and white teenagers.
Ska music and rock 'n' roll gave young people a common culture that brought about new positive social interactions. I am sure this does far more in combatting institutional racism than a moral crusader shouting 'check your privilege' and hands off 'our' culture.
Iggy Azalea was lambasted for 'cultural smudging' after she became the fourth solo female hip-hop artist to top the Billboard 100. Racial prejudice in the music industry and in wider society may have helped Iggy Azalea's rise up the charts; as there is institutionalised racism within a music industry that seems to prefer its stars to be white. But why lay the blame for this at Iggy Azalea's feet? Because it's easy, and self-righteous fury has an addictive edge.
Attacking people for cultural appropriation is intellectual laziness. You will not break down structural racial inequality by shouting in the face of white man with dreadlocks. You will do nothing but prove your own pious sanctimony and anthropological ignorance.
Tackling systemic injustices in law, in government, and in the workplace, is tough. Hollering about every act of 'micro-colonisation' is easy, and it is also counter-productive. This constant demand for 'culturally correct' behaviour desensitises us to the distinction between practices of deep cultural significance worthy of our sensitivity, and simply everything else. There is a difference between under-cooked sushi, crap yoga, and Holy Scripture.
To cry "cultural appropriation" is to constitute a claim to moral authority, it is signal of your moral enlightenment. It is a power play. If you say you're hurt by someone's cultural appropriation you can assert victim status. Once you hold victim status, you can claim moral superiority as an 'oppressed individual'. This is how identity politics works.
Attempting to uphold the 'purity' of your culture is inherently regressive and conservative. It is an attitude within the realms of the worst kind of religion puritanism and the ethno-nationalism.
So next time you're in student halls and someone rails at you for cooking Indian, Thai or Congolese food in a 'culturally inappropriate manner' -- simply inform them that they are not a moral authority on the matter simply because they are offended. Don't let a self-righteous moral guardian tell you what is the 'true' or 'false' version of a culture.
Cultural appropriation is ever present in human society and has brought tremendous benefits to humanity. All cultures appropriate and are themselves appropriated. Great advances in science, the arts and technology have come from taking and borrowing from other cultures. Keep your new dreads, Mr Bieber, I think they look fine. Down let these new Puritans drag you down.
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