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Thursday
Oct062016

Multiculturalism and Cultural Appropriation

The influx of immigrants from war-torn areas of the Middle East and Africa and the eruption of terrorist attacks in Europe and America has opened up  a question of whether multiculturalism “works.”  At the same time, members of minority cultures within the U.S. or Europe, who have experienced or are still experiencing discrimination and prejudice from the majority culture have become vocal about those from other cultures, particularly the majority White culture that has oppressed them, “appropriating” their experiences for the sake of fashion, entertainment or literature. The two issues of multiculturalism and cultural appropriation are related.

For the sake of this article, we will define multiculturalism as an approach to cultural diversity within a society in which an attempt is made to value the identity of separate cultural groups and to allow or even promote preservation of cultural practices, often, but not always brought from other societies, without pressure upon minority cultural groups to assimilate to the larger society by abandoning their traditional values or practices. Germany and the United Kingdom represent countries in which multiculturalism has, until recently, been embraced. France, on the other hand, has rejected the approach and promoted assimilation into the overall traditional French society. In the U.S. there is not an “official” position on multiculturalism, but in many state’s requirements to print official documents in multiple languages, in training of government employees on “cultural sensitivity” and in the very laws that guarantee the rights of individuals to dress, pray, or attend religious services as they wish, at least a watered-down form of multiculturalism is implicitly embraced, while many pressures for assimilation into the dominant culture remain.

Cultural appropriation has been an academic topic for many years but recently it has taken center stage in the entertainment and literary world as Asian, African-American, and Latino groups have voiced objections to members of other (usually the White European background) cultures appropriating their  music, food, hair or dress styles, or portraying fictional characters in film or literature either without sufficient knowledge or sensitivity to the meaning or experiences of the minority culture’s history, particularly histories of oppression, or simply because they are not members of that minority culture. There is an assumption that without being a member of that culture, one cannot know enough of the experience to portray it accurately. Some even go further and claim that for members of a privileged culture that oppressed another to try to portray members of the oppressed culture empathically or sympathetically, when they remain the oppressors, is immoral.

Multiculturalism and cultural appropriation are charged topics, creating strong feelings among those who debate them. What they have in common are three characteristics: First, they both focus upon the value of cultural identity, the preservation of practices and ideas that are within the traditions of a cultural group, allowing or even promoting identification with that group. Second, they both take place within a larger society in which the culture in question  is a subgroup.  Third, they are being examined in the midst of, and in turn are affecting, cultural issues within the dominant cultures having to do with ethnic, racial, cultural and nationalistic identity that are being played out on the political stages of Western democracies. These three issues are at the root of the debate about the merits of both concepts.

If different cultural groups, within the overall fabric of a diverse society, continue their own cultural practices and value systems (multiculturalism) and  also defend those practices and values from adoption by the dominant society (cultural appropriation), then the overall society will resemble a collection of cultural siloes, each one different from the other with no unifying principle save the value of each culture preserving and defending its own identity. It is not clear what such a society would look like or to what extent it would embrace an overall national or societal identity. The reason it is not clear is that we have no instances of this except those in which the subcultures are subject to discrimination, prejudice, economic deprivation and harassment by the dominant culture. The closest to this may be some Asian-American cultures within the United States, although probably only because prejudice directed toward them by the dominant society is less malignant than toward most other minority cultures. Although both David Cameron in the U.K. and Angela Merkel in Germany have declared multiculturalism “failed” or a “sham,” Kenan Malik, writing in Foreign Affairs,  has pointed out that, because of such factors as prejudice, discrimination, poverty, etc. directed at the nondominant cultural groups, no true test of the multicultural concept has yet taken place in the Western world.

Assimilation has been the target of considerable criticism in recent years, particularly by groups of minorities and immigrants. Assimilation carries the connotation of a “best” or “more advanced”  or more “modern” dominant society, (in the case of the post-enlightenment West it has been White European or White American, but in other times and other places it has been Chinese, Muslim, Roman, Mali) which other cultural groups should join in order to reap the benefits of the dominant group’s more advanced institutions. On a more basic level, assimilation means joining the dominant society because it is the one whose values and advantages drew immigrants to it (or in past years, that defeated or enslaved people were forced to join). When subcultures, particularly immigrant subcultures, eschew assimilation, it threatens the overall society because the accepted standards by which people behave and the values they espouse may be threatened.

The rock and the hard place appear to be that our choice is between a society in which there is not a single set of shared values or cultural practices to provide a national identity and in which cultural groups place a value on keeping their practices within their group versus a society in which minority cultures must not only share their practices with the larger culture, but also give many of them up in order to forge a single, unified identity under the umbrella of a culture that may have enslaved them or discriminated against them in the past. Hopefully, this is a false paradox.

Within the United States and in most Western democracies, there are a set of historical values that are identified with the country as a whole. The U.S. is a country of laws and the ultimate law is our Constitution. It is equality under the law that is the dominant shared value in America and, in addition to meaning that we all must obey the same laws, this value includes the preservation of freedoms written into our constitution, which include freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, the right to bear arms, to assemble to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure, and to judged by due processes of law. When these values are violated, as in racial disparities in the administration of criminal justice, or restrictions based upon religious affiliation, people speak out to proclaim such practices as un-American.  When new immigrant groups arrive in America, sometimes from countries or regions in which equality, diversity and protection from interference in religious practices or speech or personal expression has not been the tradition, they must assimilate to these primary American values in order to get along with their fellow Americans and, in fact, not to violate our laws.

Other practices and values, such as Christianity being the dominant religion, paying homage to our national symbols, celebrating religious holidays, eating Turkey at Thanksgiving or watching the Super Bowl, are traditions among many Americans, but not all, and changes in any of them would not change our national character. Some people may identify some of these traditions as essential to the American identity, but it is a fact that other people who do not follow such traditions feel just as American as they do.

It is an empirical question (which may have been studied) to what extent these latter practices, which I consider not essential to national identity, still enhance or solidify a sense of being part of one larger society. If they do, then the benefits versus the costs of such national identity is also an empirical question. If the majority of Americans share common traditions, practices, religion, celebrations, etc., does their sense of American identity result in acceptance of those who do not share these practices, because they still see such individuals or groups as “Americans,” or does it produce prejudice and hostility toward those Americans who do not share those traditions? Some of the hostility toward Muslims is characterized by rhetoric claiming that the United States is a “Christian country.” In the past, and still among fringe groups, there is a claim that the values that make up America are not only Christian, but “White.” White supremacists groups see themselves as defending the true American identity from Blacks, Jews, Muslims and liberal atheists. France, which attempted to discourage multiculturalism and insist on assimilation into “traditional” French culture, simply left out those who didn’t assimilate, so they became ghettoized, jobless, and despondent. When they attempted to display their own cultural identity, such as praying outside of mosques or wearing hijabs, they were prevented from doing so, often by law, with the claim that such behavior was a danger to national unity. So even if demanding assimilation into what are simply cultural traditions of the dominant culture within a country enhances a sense of national identity and unity, it may do so only among those who are privileged, who practiced those traditions in the first place, and may result in discrimination toward those who don’t assimilate.

Within the boundaries of our national values, as I have defined them, there is a lot of room for variation in dress, entertainment, sports interest, dialect, family relations, celebration of holidays, religious observances, etc. If our cardinal value is that we allow such diversity, and protect it by law (because the Constitution guarantees it), there remains the question of whether we are a more congenial and resilient nation if this diversity is shared rather than being siloed among subcultures. This may also be an empirical question and I do not know the answer to it. It does seem reasonable to assume that a core issue in sharing of cultures is one of respect for other people’s values and practices. Respect includes accurate representation, something sometimes not attainable by someone not from the subculture that originated the practice, although this seems to me to again be an empirical standard and not one to be decided a priori by excluding anyone not from a culture from adopting or portraying that culture’s practices. We have a history in America of White people portraying Black people, Native Americans, and Asians, but little of the reverse, and often the portrayals have been demeaning. Such instances have left a bad taste in the mouths of the minorities who were both insulted and left out of the entertainment industry that promoted such practices.

America is somewhat unique in having a history in which all but a small minority of Americans have ancestors who immigrated from elsewhere (or were brought here as slaves). This seems to require that our cultural institutions represent diversity because our pasts are not all similar. Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lent, Passover, Tet, Ramadan, St. Patrick’s Day, and Kwanzaa.  This diversity is bound to increase in the future as wars and the effects of global warming cause more people to leave their homes in troubled areas of the world and seek new ones elsewhere, including the United States. It seems essential that we, as a nation, figure out what the core set of values that represent being an American are and how to instill them in people new to our soil. This means insuring that those values are expressed in the way new immigrants are treated (e.g. they are allowed to practice their religions, they are given equal protection under the law, they are not discriminated against in housing or employment, etc.). It also seems reasonable that we both  allow various immigrant groups to retain enough of their cultural practices to feel welcome and comfortable in our country and allow those of their practices that appeal to the wider society to infiltrate our wider culture.

Our great literature includes writers who were White New England Yankees, Southern poor Whites, Jews, Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, Irish-Americans, Italian Americans, Asian-Americans and Native Americans. Sometimes this literature is “ethnic” in the sense of telling the story of being a member of one of these groups within the larger society, sometimes it is just about fictional characters who happen to be whatever race, ethnicity or social class they are given by the author, whose aim is to tell a more general story of the human condition. Cut and dried policies of discouraging authors or visual or performing artists from borrowing from cultures other than their own or portraying characters or practices from cultures other than their own are counterproductive and can foster intergroup hostility that can prevent Americans from attaining a national identity that embraces diversity. At the same time employment, educational, or social factors that prevent cultural/ethnic minorities from achieving the means to express their own story themselves are the kind of discrimination that will perpetuate a lack of acceptance of the contributions of members of these groups and sustain ethnic disparities. Furthermore, uninformed, naïve, stereotypical, or derogatory portrayals of cultural/ethnic subgroups or their practices will further drive the diverse groups that make up this country apart. In the end, each work of art needs to be judged on these issues independently and for its own worth.

America is a diverse society and, in my opinion, is the better for it. The strength of our country is its value of the rule of law and individual freedom, not the folk, ethnic or religious traditions that happened to characterize the early White settlers to this country and are often confused with our national identity. Our diversity is growing and our national identity, our cultural practices and our art should not only grow along with it, but be shared within the greater society.

Reader Comments (1)

Only shared values can unify a country. In the United States, this is the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law which derives from that core document. Without shared values, there will always be conflict, warfare and chaos. Whatever other cultural traits an immigrant individual or subgroup chooses to keep is fine, but there is an absolute necessity to adopt the prevailing standards of lawful behavior. This vital shift is logically obvious as well as being easily demonstrated as imperative through countless historical examples where the attempted introduction or eventual reversion to non-integrated values caused great societal strife.

Offense to "cultural appropriation" is patently ridiculous, particularly when applied to the endeavors of science and invention. Most cultures have few qualms about adopting greatly beneficial or life-saving innovation into their society, regardless of its origin. The sharing of information, ideas, discoveries and original designs is what helps propel the human race more successfully into the future. The concept that "because I identify strongly with something, it must remain mine alone" is backward, primitive and extraordinarily limiting to our species. Attempts to subdue or criminalize imaginative people on free thought, enterprise and expression show a remarkable lack of insight as to how both subtle and remarkable examples of human ingenuity proliferate.

October 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Wheeler

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