Appropriating Confusion: A Reply to Briahna Joy Gray in Current Affairs

Earlier this year, Kenan Malik wrote an essay in the New York Times critical of the now-fashionable concept of “cultural appropriation.” The article caused some controversy. Briahna Joy Gray wrote a critique of Malik’s argument in the magazine Current Affairs. Malik’s response to that critique provides a useful way of thinking about the problems of the idea of cultural appropriation. First published on Malik’s website Pandaemonium, we are republishing it on Areo. 

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Maqbool Fida Husain was perhaps India’s greatest artist of the twentieth century. Often condescendingly described as the “barefoot Picasso,” his work linked ancient and modern traditions and helped transform Indian modernism.

Not everyone appreciated Husain’s work. His depictions of Hindu deities, often naked, outraged Hindu nationalists who questioned his right, as someone with a Muslim background, to depict figures sacred to Hindus, accusing him of “hurting religious feelings.” His Mumbai home and his Ahmedabad gallery were ransacked, many of his paintings destroyed. He faced a plethora of law suits, including ones for “promoting enmity between different groups.” The harassment spread beyond India’s borders. In 2006, London’s Asia House Gallery shut down an exhibition of his work after protests and the defacement of two paintings. Husain was forced to live his last years in exile, in London and Qatar.

Husain died in 2011. Were he still alive today, his Hindu critics may well be accusing him not of sacrilege but of “cultural appropriation” — the theft of images and ideas that truly belong to another culture and which he had no right to take without permission. And had they done so, they would probably have gained more support than they did with their fundamentalist arguments.

The idea of cultural appropriation has, in recent years, moved from being an abstruse academic and legal concept to a mainstream political issue. From Beyoncé’s Bollywood outfits to Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, there is barely a week in which controversies over cultural appropriation are not in the headlines.

In her Current Affairs essay, “The Question of Cultural Appropriation” Briahna Joy Gray joined the fray. She framed her article as a critique both of the concept of cultural appropriation and of critics of the concept, most notably me. Gray begins her essay by summing up many of the criticisms of the idea of cultural appropriation. She dismisses the idea of “a ‘pure’ culture” and acknowledges the difficulties in the concept of group cultural ownership and in the insistence that those who “appropriate” from another culture should receive “permission.” Nevertheless,  Gray argues, the concept of cultural appropriation remains useful, because “Certain patterns of cultural exchange do seem to entail a kind of ‘theft.'” Rather than using a “property rights” framework, however, we need to think of cultural appropriation in terms of two distinct issues: “first, an issue of cultural exploitation, and second, an issue of cultural disrespect.”

It is worth looking in detail at Gray’s argument because, for all her insistence that she is proposing a new way of thinking about cultural appropriation, she reflects the same confusions and contradictions that bedevil the conventional arguments about the issue. I would welcome both fresh critiques of the concept of cultural appropriation and critical evaluations of my own arguments. Sadly, Gray’s essay provides neither.

Chuck Berry
An early still of Chuck Berry

“In an economic landscape where some groups get rewarded disproportionately to others,” Gray writes, “the people who make the culture are often not the ones who see the rewards from it.” One of her key examples is that of Elvis Presley, partly because I too reference him in a New York Times essay of which Gray is highly critical. In that essay, I use the case of Presley to make two key points. First, I argue that cultural production does not take place on a level playing field:

“There are few figures more important to the development of rock ’n’ roll than Chuck Berry (who died in March). In the 1950s, many white radio stations refused to play his songs, categorizing them as ‘race music’. Then came Elvis Presley. A white boy playing the same tunes was cool. Elvis was feted, Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.”

The argument here is not dissimilar to Gray’s about “exploitation”: that racism and inequality necessarily shape the character of cultural exchange. So, why do I reject the idea of cultural appropriation? Because, as I observe in the following paragraph, if we want to challenge racism and inequality, viewing cultural exchange as “appropriation,” and seeking to restrict it, is not a useful approach:

“But imagine that Elvis had been prevented from appropriating ‘black’ music. Would that have challenged racism, or eradicated Jim Crow laws? Clearly not. It took a social struggle – the civil rights movement – to bring about change. That struggle was built not on cultural separation, but on the demand for equal rights and universal values.”

Gray acknowledges my first point about how racism shaped the reception respectively of Presley and Berry, but she willfully misrepresents my second point. To ask whether applying the cultural appropriation approach to Elvis would have helped undermine the racism that led to his work overshadowing that of many black artists is, Gray claims, an “irrelevant rhetorical question.” It is, moreover, a question “which is oddly reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s similarly disingenuous ‘If we broke up the big banks tomorrow would that end racism?'” In Gray’s view, “The answer to both is the same: no, but the fact that something doesn’t in and of itself ‘end racism’ doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.”

A key claim of opponents of cultural appropriation is that restricting such appropriation is a means of challenging racism and inequality. In what way, then, is it “irrelevant” to question that claim? Hillary Clinton was not responding to the claim that breaking up the big banks is a key part of challenging racism. In her talk, the issue of racism was thrown in merely as a distraction. That Gray cannot differentiate between a debate about how to challenge racism and the use of racism as a distraction is worrying.

It gets worse. “Malik,” Gray then claims, “believes that cultural appropriation is good because it gave us Elvis, even if that meant the eclipse of Chuck Berry, and even if that eclipse occurred for obviously racist reasons, i.e. because a white public wanted to have black songs performed by white artists.”

This is pure fabrication. The implication is that, for me, racism is a price worth paying for being able to listen to Elvis. I never suggest that, or go anywhere near suggesting that. It is, however, typical of the kinds of claims made in these debates: rhetorically-clever but evidence-free. It suggests that Gray is more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in having a serious debate.

Little Richard
Little Richard’s debut album, “Here’s Little Richard”

Gray relates the story of how, in the 1950s, “white pop singer Pat Boone was hired to produce wholesome, advertiser-friendly versions of black R&B songs like Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti.'” Bizarrely, she claims that “To frame the Elvis question as Malik does, then, is akin to asking ‘Well, shouldn’t Pat Boone be allowed to cover Little Richard songs?,'” adding that such a question “misses the whole point: it’s not that black songs should never be sung by white people, it is that there has been a long history of people pushing black creators to the margins while making millions of dollars off their work.”

This claim is bizarre for two reasons. First, because opponents of cultural appropriation are the ones who fetishize the question of who should be allowed to sing what. I question the campaign against cultural appropriation precisely because I question such fetishization.

Second, Gray has already quoted me pointing out that “Elvis was feted, Mr. Berry and other black pioneers largely ignored. Racism defined who became the cultural icon.” Three paragraphs later she ignores that quote and suggests that my argument “misses the point… that there has been a long history of people pushing black creators to the margins while making millions of dollars off their work.” Again, Gray seems to want more to make a rhetorical point than engage with any real argument.

It is worth adding that the relationship between the music of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, and of the way that each was received, is more complicated than my single paragraph in the New York Times might have suggested. Elvis cut his first single in 1954, a year before Berry did, and had made five singles before Berry’s first. That first single was “Maybellene,” a reworking of a Western Swing tune called “Ida Red” that had been first recorded almost twenty years earlier by Bob Wills and his Texan Playboys, an all-white band. Western Swing was a form of country music, but inflected with jazz. Leonard Chess, co-founder of Chess Records, Berry’s first record company, was apparently excited by the commercial possibilities of “a hillbilly song played by a black man.” It reached #5 in the charts; none of Presley’s first five singles had even made the top 50. It was not till “Heartbreak Hotel,” in 1956, that Presley hit #1, and his fortunes, not to mention the narrative about rock ‘n’ roll, were transformed.

It is undeniably the case that racism meant that white artists were promoted and black artists repeatedly ignored, and that white artists were often seen as pioneers while true black pioneers were frequently denied acclaim. Yet, as the early discographies of Presley and Berry show, crude notions of “theft” and “cultural appropriation” do little justice to the complexities of music and social relations.

William Tolliver Transcendent of the blues
“The transcendent of the blues” by William Tolliver

Music, Gray observes “is inherently appropriative,” and “thrives on creative allusions, sampling, and embellishing the groundwork laid by earlier artists,” adding that “I embrace that.” Nevertheless, “‘borrowing’ becomes a problem when a piece of art is given preferential treatment because of preexisting racial hierarchies of value – causing the work of people of color to be devalued, and artists to be undercompensated for their innovation.”

If music “is inherently appropriative,” and should be valued for being so, as Gray believes, this is true whether or not there exist “preexisting racial hierarchies of value.” Racial hierarchies are not caused by cultural borrowing, nor will they be undermined by restricting such borrowing. The only consequence of viewing such hierarchies though the lens of cultural appropriation is to obscure the real problems that need tackling.

Similarly with the argument about “appropriating food.” Gray writes of the campaign to stop white Americans from selling burritos, that “Once you have a racial test for whether someone can vend burritos, you might need to rethink your theory.” Nevertheless, “massive racial wealth disparities” mean that “white people are disproportionately endowed with the capital that will allow them to open successful Mexican food restaurants”; hence the “world [is] full of Mexican restaurants where food is made by Mexican workers but the profits accrue to white owners.” The problem “is not that a TV chef like Rick Bayless makes Mexican food, it’s that Rick Bayless makes millions of dollars making Mexican food while Mexican people bus tables in his restaurants.”

If it is wrong to “have a racial test for whether someone can vend burritos,” it is so whether the vendors are making $1 or $1m. Whether or not racial tests are acceptable cannot depend upon how good businesses are at extracting profit. The question of wealth disparities is vital to address, but the way that Gray frames it obscures many of the key issues. After all, should it really be a cause of celebration if a Mexican restaurant owner, rather than an American one, “were to make millions making Mexican food while Mexican people bus tables in his restaurants”? If a white American restaurant owner makes millions selling “American” food (whatever that may be) rather than Mexican food, is that more ethical? And does the fact that white workers are also exploited by white owners have no relevance to this discussion?

The problem with this line of reasoning, as Adolph Reed has observed, is that it leads to the logical conclusion that “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.” The campaign against cultural appropriation narrows the ways in which we look at questions of economic exploitation and racial disparities. It is part of the process whereby, in recent years, political and economic issues have become reframed as cultural ones, or as issues of identity, making it harder to challenge both racial oppression and economic exploitation.

Historically, “race” was used as a means of obscuring inequalities within “racial groups” and to present the key difference as that between races. Jim Crow laws, for instance, were introduced in the American South at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century, as a means of dividing black and white workers. Economic depression in the 1890s had thrown factory workers, black and white, on to the scrapheap, and had turned farmers, black and white, into sharecroppers. Blacks and whites came together in many states to create “Fusion” tickets of candidates to oppose the Democrats, the party, in the nineteenth century, of slavery, landowners and white supremacy. Fusion Party policies were designed, in the words of one supporter, to protect “the liberty of the laboring people, both white and black.”

It was in response to the success of the Fusion parties that Democrats moved to enact Jim Crow laws, enforcing the segregation of blacks in public life. The aim was to persuade poor whites to ignore class inequalities and to see the real divide as racial. A century on, and it is in the name of anti-racism that many seek to obscure the reality of inequalities and to view “exploitation” primarily in racial and cultural terms.

Challenging racial inequalities requires us also to challenge the racial framework that buttresses those inequalities. Otherwise, as Reed observes, justice comes to be seen not as the erasure of exploitative social structures but merely as the possibility of “cultural fairness” within such structures.

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The second major issue that Gray raises is that of “disrespect.” There are, she argues, “cases in which nobody is necessarily profiting, but where it feels as if a particular culture is being misused.” She defines “misuse” as “acts which flatten or diminish the original meaning or value of the cultural product.” “If Native American objects hold particular spiritual and cultural meaning, using them purely for their aesthetic value implies a lack of interest in or empathy for the values of those who create the objects,” Gray argues. She adds that this “would apply equally well to those who intentionally used Christian religious objects without caring how Christians felt.”

How one uses a particular cultural product, and how one views the way that it is used, depends on context. There are certainly many cases of the racist use of cultural forms, from minstrelsy onwards. Much art, though, is disrespectful, even contemptuous, of cultures and traditions, and necessarily so.

Chris Ofili Holy Virgin Mary
Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary”

In Chris Ofili’s painting, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” one of the Madonna’s breasts was created out of elephant dung, and she was surrounded by collaged images of female genitalia, cut out from porn magazines, made to resemble butterflies or angels. When shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, the painting was denounced by many Christians, including the then mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, as “sick” and as “desecrating somebody else’s religion.” William A Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, called for a picket of the show, claiming that Ofili’s work “induces revulsion.” Such responses were inevitable – the point of the painting was to challenge traditional portrayals of the Madonna.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was seen by many Muslims as blasphemous in its depiction of Islam, and it was. In its retelling of the story of the founding of Islam, in its portrayal of the Prophet and of his wives, the novel was inevitably, and deliberately, disrespectful of Islamic traditions.

MF Husain did not intend his paintings of Hindu deities to be disrespectful. But many Hindus certainly saw them as so, a disrespect made worse, in their eyes, by the fact that the artist was not Hindu himself.

The trouble with Gray’s use of the term “disrespect” is that, in common with much contemporary usage, it conflates a number of different issues: from outright racism, to the unthinking but not necessarily racist use of “exotic” cultural forms, to the use of certain images or objects in a sympathetic manner which nevertheless draws criticism, to the deliberately challenging of cultural and religious beliefs and rules. It also conflates, as does much contemporary discussion, respect for people, on the one hand, and respect for their cultures and traditions, on the other. Equality requires us to treat all people as autonomous moral beings with equal rights and dignity. It does not require us to treat all their ideas and beliefs and traditions with respect or deem all ideas and beliefs and traditions as being of equal worth.

The consequence of both these types of conflation is to make it easier for those who do not want their cultural beliefs to be challenged to dismiss all critiques as “disrespectful” or “racist.” It empowers the cultural gatekeepers who define what is and is not acceptable to say about their communities and beliefs. Their role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Far from aiding the marginalized, such gatekeepers protect the institutional power of religious and community leaders, often at the expense of the most powerless within those communities, whether women, gays, the irreligious or those deemed not to “belong.”

open casket
“Open Casket” by Dana Schutz.

Gray has little to say about such gatekeeping, but is nevertheless “uncomfortable” about its artistic consequences, such as the protests against Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till by those who thought it inappropriate for a white artist to depict an African-American victim of a lynching. “The idea that only black artists have the right to address Emmett Till’s murder through art seems wrong,” Gray writes. But, she argues, critics of Schutz “have a point” about “exploitation.” “Depicting Till is not a problem,” Gray argues, “but using Till to garner profit and acclaim would be.”

It is an argument flawed in the same way as those about appropriation in music or cuisine. The logic seems to be that depicting Till would not be a problem for white artists so long as they do not “garner profit and acclaim.” Would it have been better, then, if no one had viewed Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till? And for whom would it have been better?

Of course, I recognize that Gray’s point is less about the success of Schutz than about the racism that historically has denied opportunities for black artists. But framing the issue as one of the “cultural appropriation,” and of the illegitimacy of white artists making profits or garnering acclaim, makes it more difficult to see what are the real issues, and how to combat them. Preventing Dana Schutz from “profiting” or “winning acclaim” from painting Emmett Till will not challenge either racism or exploitation, nor protect the Emmett Tills of today. It will no more help the powerless and marginalized in America than the Hindu nationalist campaign against MF Husain helped the powerless and marginalized in India.

The political aims of campaigners against cultural appropriation are, of course, very different to those of the Hindu nationalists that targeted MF Husain. The former seek to challenge racism and exploitation, the latter are racist and exploitative. That is why the similarity in their arguments about cultural identity, protection and disrespect is so striking. Reactionaries, whether Hindu fundamentalists or Western identitarians, recognize the regressive character of such ideas. It is a measure of the confusion of our times that so many self-proclaimed radicals imagine, too, that a political approach that is deeply conservative, and draws upon ideas of culture that lie at the roots of racial thinking, can somehow challenge racism and exploitation.

Kenan Malik

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed from The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo and The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. He blogs at Pandaemonium (https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com)

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Kenan Malik

Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. His books include From Fatwa to Jihad: How the World Changed from The Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo and The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics. He blogs at Pandaemonium (https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com)

2 thoughts on “Appropriating Confusion: A Reply to Briahna Joy Gray in Current Affairs

  1. Once again, Kenan Malik speaks sense on this issue, from a perspective that is entirely in keeping with the best aspects of liberalism.

    This is not a left vs. right issue. It is about liberalism vs. illiberalism.

What are your thoughts?