Who decides if culture is authentic?

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Recent controversies over food, hairstyles and music have highlighted the complexities of race and representation. Ken Olende unpacks some of the issues surrounding the notion of "cultural appropriation" and argues that culture is constantly evolving.

Beyoncé managed to both delight and offend with her US Superbowl tribute to the Black Panther Party. Fox News got a police sergeant to say it was the equivalent to a white act coming out in “hoods and white sheets”. She was attacked both by the right for politicising a sports event and by some on the left for trivialising a political movement, by turning a revolutionary struggle into a sexualised dance routine.

This came as part of a row on race and representation. Who has the right to speak for or represent different cultures? Elsewhere on the spectrum is the row that has broken out at Oberlin College, Ohio, about serving badly produced versions of ethnic foods including sushi. One student complained that the food supplier was “blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines”. The argument leaves out the fact that university canteens tend to serve stodgy, badly prepared versions of Asian and European food — but also of British and American dishes — because it is cheap to produce. This suggests a lack of respect for all students.

Such disputes may come across as trivial or misguided, but those complaining about “cultural appropriation” start from the right place — a hatred of racism. The issue is complicated by the fact that distinct cultures do not really exist, and attempts to divide up ways people behave into simple dichotomies — say black culture versus white culture — soon run into problems of definition.

Beyoncé herself has also come under attack for wearing Indian dress in a recent video, as has white rapper Iggy Azalea. This does raise the issue of different groups appropriating each other.

The main racist dynamic we face in Britain is the continuing encroachment of Islamophobia, which is often dismissed as an issue of culture. All the history and complexity of all of Islam’s various historical cultures becomes simplified into a caricature of a society of backward misogynists who are prone to terrorism. Fundamentalist atheist Richard Dawkins has claimed in the past to be equally against all religion, but now concentrates on Islam. At the end of last year he launched another attack on Muslims, saying “To hell with their culture” and claiming they get a “free pass” because people in the West live in “terror of being thought racist”.

This nonsense echoes those people who claim that no one has been allowed to discuss immigration since the 1960s because of their fear of being thought racist. It is as if certain sections of society have not discussed little else. The result is to reverse reality, making the racists into the victims.

Cultures do not exist in the abstract. In the modern world they are all part of societies defined by capitalism and imperialism. People in Sri Lanka or Myanmar who have experienced violent pogroms led by Buddhist monks will be bemused by the idea that Eastern philosophy is particularly peaceful or tolerant.

The same stereotypes are often applied to different groups of people — the childish, musical, lazy and stupid Africans and Irish. Chinese, Jewish and Arabic people have all been stereotyped as crafty and untrustworthy.

Cultures are created, but they are not uniform. When people talk of British culture and values they mix together a range of different ideas. The values and experience of Eton educated members of the ruling class and a call centre worker have nothing in common, even if they do speak the same language. The experience of struggling to survive means that poor workers from different backgrounds, Jewish, Indian, African or Romanian, have much more in common with each other. Billionaires such as Lakshmi Mittal or the Hinduja brothers, though from an Asian background, have nothing in common with ordinary British Asians.

Marxists rightly insist class is central not because class suffering is more “authentic”, but because class struggle offers a way to escape all oppression and exploitation. This is where we differ from people who make lists of different kinds of oppression. Racism is constantly renewed by rulers such as David Cameron not simply because they are unpleasant, but because it reinforces their ability to rule. It is a prejudice that can superficially appear to fit with many ordinary people’s experience.

Resistance is about cultures in motion that constantly reinvent themselves. In his book Appropriating Blackness, US academic E Patrick Johnson looks at ideas of black culture. He argues that being black is itself a performance and one that happens in the context of relations with racist culture. This approach can give profound insights, though Johnson tends to see the issue as primarily a cultural one.

He notes that the idea of cultural authenticity implies the existence of its opposite. And that affects how people from the culture feel they should behave. He adds, “When black Americans have employed the rhetoric of black authenticity, the outcome has often been a political agenda that has excluded more voices than it has included.” He talks about how “blackness” is constructed both by black people and white and that in both cases it is contested. So black people disagree on what it means to be black.

The idea of blackness can be used to deny distinctions such as class among oppressed people — as in the hip hop idea that only the most alienated ghetto experience is in any way authentic, so the only “black” voice is that of the ghetto.

As an active, gay anti-racist Johnson notes the way that much of the movement in the 1960s was enormously anti-LGBT+. Resistance to the kind of crude racism that belittled black men by designating them “boy” made many black men respond by showing they were determinedly “manly”, often by rejecting as anti-black anything they felt was effeminate. This encouraged a feeling that LGBT+ politics were a white implant in the black movement. Johnson points to sometime Panther Eldridge Cleaver who epitomised this attitude. But other Panthers saw the importance of uniting the oppressed in struggle. In a 1970 speech the party’s co-founder Huey Newton argued that gays “might be the most oppressed people in the society”.

Newton was very suspicious of people who looked towards some sort of fixed culture as an alternative to struggle for liberation. In one interview he argued:

Cultural nationalism, or pork-chop nationalism as I sometimes call it, is basically a problem of having the wrong political perspective. It seems to be a reaction instead of responding to political oppression. The cultural nationalists are concerned with returning to the old African culture and thereby regaining their identity and freedom. In other words, they feel that the African culture will automatically bring political freedom. Many cultural nationalists fall into line as reactionary nationalists. Papa Doc in Haiti is an excellent example of reactionary nationalism. He oppresses the people but he does promote African culture.

Newton was clear about how to liberate culture: “We have to destroy both racism and capitalism.”

In some areas people who talk of cultural appropriation can end up simplifying issues themselves. There is an argument over who should wear cornrows, yet black people in the West who wear cornrows usually have little idea of their social significance among the African groups who originally wore them. For many African peoples braiding is an art form taught by the senior female member of the family to her daughters and close friends. But in many situations it has an enormous social significance that varies from one ethnic group to the next. It is not essentially fixed because people have tightly curled hair.

Sometimes styles of hair are a method of ethnic identification. Among the Yoruba and Temne peoples in West Africa young men have their heads shaved before they are initiated into new hairstyles of adulthood. Similarly Akan women traditionally wear new hairstyles from puberty.

Lalasho, a Masaai from Western Kenya, made the news a few years back because he was working as a hairdresser in the city of Mombasa, using the intricate braiding styles he had learned for his initiation into manhood. However, using the styles on wealthy women was totally taboo and he would be outcast if people from his region found out. This example shows the dynamic of class and race coming together. The women who want Masaai styles are not concerned with perpetuating traditional culture, but are taking pride in their African hair.

It was certainly the case that the shift to natural black hair styles in the 1960s and the rejection of the idea that African hair or features were in any way inferior was a major cultural breakthrough. But the dynamic is more complex than simply “authentic” and “inauthentic” ways of being.

There are similar problems with arguments that white people should just engage with “white” culture. In the 1940s and 50s black people in the US had developed rhythm and blues, which became popular among young white people in Britain. Songs such as Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” caught on and inspired the beat groups that would go on to develop rock music.

White teenagers could identify with people standing up and demanding to be taken seriously. But did they understand the cultural significance of these songs to black men in the US who were called “boy” on the street? In most cases they didn’t. Yet the world would not have been musically better if white young people hadn’t taken up R&B, and developed it as a musical form that expressed their own experience. Their understanding and appreciation were often partial or inappropriate, but what was outrageous about the treatment of the black musicians was not the people appropriating parts of their music; it was a music industry that set out to turn talent and rebellion into money as part of a racist system.

To the racist establishment Iggy Azalea may seem safer and more marketable than black artists, while still sounding a bit black, and this is true of far greater talents from Elvis, through Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse. But they also face a backlash for introducing the evils of jazz, rock or hip hop into wider society.

And the cultures that have created rap and black street culture were not universal, even among black Americans. Anthony Thomas, former Chicago DJ, said, “Like the blues and gospel, house is very Chicago. Like rap out of New York and go-go out of DC, house is evidence of the regionalisation of black American music. Like its predecessors, disco and club, house is a scene as well as a music, black as well as gay.”

So it is not simply a matter of coming to understand oppressed cultures better. These are not fixed. People’s experiences change as they interact with the globalised capitalist world. Culture is constantly evolving. Under capitalism everything is pushed towards becoming a commodity that can be marketed and made safe for money, but within the contradictions areas continue to emerge where resistance is possible.

This does make respect for the cultures of oppressed people something to value. But respect can take a number of forms. Pablo Picasso’s admiration of African art, which was central to the development of Cubism and modern art, was combined with an orientalist view of African societies. He later said that on seeing African art in a museum in Paris, “I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all they are not Cubists! Since Cubism did not exist… They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent.”

The idea that “primitive” people create, but sophisticated ones understand is not unusual. It has been common in the history of popular music, where innovations by black people are seen as instinctive, while white musicians are seen as more cerebral.

Another recent controversy in Hollywood shows that showing respect is not simple. Nina, the forthcoming biopic of jazz singer Nina Simone, has run into cultural appropriation issues that reflect wider contradictions. Zoe Saldana, who is relatively light skinned, plays Simone. Though she is “black” she had her skin darkened for the role and wore a prosthetic nose. Critics have suggested she is not really black because she has mixed Puerto Rican and Lebanese ancestry.

There is a real issue. Many darker skinned black actors with broader noses have difficulty getting work. But all this does is emphasise that “blackness” can only be understood in the context of racism. It was the racists and slavers who introduced the concept of “just one drop” of “black” blood making someone black.

The radical black writer Ta-Nehisi Coates commented of Nina, “It’s here that the term ‘appropriation’ bears some usage. We’re not talking about someone inspired by the deeper lessons of Simone’s life and her music. We are talking about people who think it’s fine to profit off her music while heedlessly contributing to the kind of pain that brought that music into being.” And this is a useful way of looking at it because it points to a systemic problem rather than one of misguided people.

For instance, some have complained that the film 12 Years a Slave showed suffering rather than resistance — and indeed it concentrated on Solomon Northup’s years as a slave rather than his later anti-slavery activities. But it was a major step to force Hollywood to confront issues it has been relentlessly ignoring through its history. And the film’s existence may make it easier for the likes of Danny Glover, who has been trying to make a film about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s victorious slave revolt in Haiti for a decade, but has been unable to raise the cash.

Hollywood’s previous interest in black lives came as a response to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, not the growing liberalism of the academy.The right like to dismiss “cultural appropriation” as political correctness gone mad. They are wrong. In the end the criticisms in “cultural appropriation” are too specific. As the mass struggles of the 1960s hinted, it will take a bigger fight to end racism and oppression.