Shy and retiring actress Victoria Abril at Cannes Film Festival. Even three years on, she would be in trouble Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

July 1, 2020   5 mins

Florence Pugh has become the latest casualty in the war against “cultural appropriation”. The charming star of Macbeth, Midsommar and Little Women recently issued a nauseating apology on her Instagram account for donning cornrows and painting henna on her hands when she was a teenager.

Pugh recalled how she hadn’t heard of “cultural appropriation” until a friend informed her of its supposed meaning and “the history and heartbreak over how when black girls do it they’re mocked and judged, but when white girls for it, it’s only then perceived as cool”.

After acknowledging her “white fragility” and “white privilege”, Pugh expressed how “truly sorry” she was for the “offence” she caused and “profusely” apologised that it “took this long” for her to realise her transgression.

If you are au courant with the latest trends in pop culture, then you would know that Florence Pugh has not been the only celebrity embroiled in charges of appropriating and defiling the culture of ‘marginalised’ groups. Over the past decade, figures such as Justin Bieber, Madonna, Katy Perry, Scarlett Johansson and Jamie Oliver have all been accused of being “culture vultures”. Recently, The Simpsons have announced they will no longer use white actors to voice non-white characters. Other white voice actors have recused themselves from voicing black characters on cartoon shows, saying they should be voiced by black actors instead.

White people aren’t the only ones who have been condemned for such cultural transgressions. BeyoncĂ© was accused of “appropriating” from Indian culture because she wore a rather glitzy sari for Coldplay’s “Hymn For the Weekend”. The social media editor of Marie Claire lambasted Rihanna for allegedly “appropriating” the Chola aesthetic from Mexican culture for donning thin eyebrows — even though thin eyebrows have been used across the world, from southern Africa to 1920s New York.

One would be wrong to assume this nonsense is simply consigned to the absurd summits of celebrity culture, however — it’s trickling down to the whole of our cultural discourse. For instance, in 2018, American student Kenziah Daum was subjected to a vicious social media backlash, simply because she wore a traditional Qipao to a Prom night. In 2019, Indigenous musicians in Canada were at each other’s throats over the Cree artist Cikwes’s use of a traditional Inuit singing technique, because according to Inuit “spokespeople” she did not have “permission to
 take something that isn’t hers and make an album, and put it on iTunes, and have it for sale”.

“Cultural appropriation” is an academic concept that originates from the esoteric realm of post-colonial and decolonial studies, but has now become a pop cultural phenomenon and a mainstream political issue.

The argument is that exploitation of the cultures of colonised peoples by colonial structures is analogous to theft and plunder, like the lawless seizure of land, artefacts and treasures. As currently interpreted, it is also a form of erasure, emotional violence against the colonised subject, rendering them invisible, to cement total subjugation and control over all spheres of their subordinated existence.

Too often the argument has nothing to do with anti-racism or a critique of colonialism, but identitarian gatekeeping — the enforcement of customs of etiquette over who can use a particular cultural form in any particular context. This “cultural insiderism”, to borrow a phrase from Paul Gilroy, empowers self-appointed guardians to establish a cordon sanitaire around cultures and appropriate the right of license, hence entrench their own social power.

An irony of this argument is that most opponents of cultural appropriation proclaim, often radically, to be for diversity, immigration and multiculturalism, yet they are same people who bitterly resent the actual results of such a symbiosis. Tribally marking off permission rights over who can use what cultural form, or whose “voice”, and in what way is puerile.  It attacks the main benefits of living in a modern, culturally diverse, cosmopolitan society: freedom of expression, cultural innovation and experimentation and expansion of one’s horizons and liberation of the imagination.

No culture is pure, uncontaminated, hermetically sealed, existing purely within its own universe. “The history of all cultures is a history of cultural borrowing,” Edward Said observed, and that Said’s magnum opus, Orientalism, has often been invoked by the culture warriors to bolster their arguments is something he would be aghast at.

This point is effortlessly made about European or Western culture, but it is also true of non-white cultures. Jazz is commonly thought of as invented by black Americans and appropriated by white America — yet, jazz itself appropriated from European classical music. That was cultural appropriation par excellence and we’re all the better for it.

Cultural forms can certainly be utilised in a racist and exploitative manner, the sordid history of blackface minstrel performances being an example. Black music historically has been derided as “race music” and demonised for being violent, salacious and primitive, while white artists were showered with praise when they play similar music. So it is true that intercourse of cultures doesn’t always take place on equal or equitable terms, but can be shaped by racism, inequality and oppression.

However, as Amiri Baraka once observed, the issue here is not that of cultural appropriation at all, but of material exploitation: “The problem is that if The Beatles tell me that they learned everything they know from Blind Willie [Johnson], I want to know why Blind Willie is still running an elevator in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s that kind of inequality that is abusive, not the actual appropriation of culture because that’s normal.”

The ubiquity of campaigns against cultural appropriation reveal how social struggles, anti-racism for instance, are increasingly framed in cultural terms, rather than political ones; how cultural radicalism has mutated from promoting cultural liberty and freedom of expression to cultural restrictionism; how politics itself has been culturalised, hence why the recent statue wars and the removal of “unwoke” TV episodes have dominated mainstream political discussion over the past few weeks.

A recurring motif one detects in the campaigns against cultural appropriation is a primitive and moralistic hostility to capitalism and consumerism. Often the outrage is over the commercialisation and commodification of cultural forms, that in turn are mass produced and sold for a profit. According to these cultural “radicals” this process is abuse. Cultures becomes diluted, reduced to musical tropes and clothing styles that have been evacuated of authenticity and soul by market forces.

But it is precisely this commodification that lays the basis for a new radical cultural freedom, allowing people to choose elements from a mixture of traditions and create a new culture for themselves. The same process also makes it easier for people to stray from their “original” identities and to integrate into modern society. Uncommodified cultures stagnate, closed to outsiders, and raise the costs for straying outside their walls. Humans make culture, not vice versa. Because of this, cultures are dynamic, evolving and always intermixing, so to erect borders between cultures and police them is not just inherently authoritarian but inane.

It is not a coincidence that many agitators against cultural appropriation are socially-conscious people of colour, second and third generations immigrants whose ties to their heritage is precarious. You may feel like a foreigner in your home country, yet might as well be a tourist in the country of your parents. The best you can do is take the bits of your heritage that you value and assimilate it in yourself to have any connection with it all. Even then it feels distant and instrumental.

I am empathetic to this myself as a British-Nigerian, the sense of alienation and deracination many of my cohorts will feel. But I see this deracination, this proletarian “rootlessness”, however paradoxical it may seem, as the basis for a new higher form of liberation. One of the hard truths of modern existence is that there is no such thing as a rooted, stable and authentic identity one can reconnect with after seismic processes such as colonialism, migration and globalisation.

Which is why I find the most irksome aspect of this argument the noticeable but seldom mentioned assumption that only white people have the liberty to break out of their “roots” and become universal, worldly, cosmopolitan, mobile and protean. But “people of colour” are particular, provincial, rooted in their ancient cultural and spiritual traditions.

The culture warriors aren’t even trying to expand cultural freedom and possibility for non-white artists. No, they want everyone to be provincialised, white people included. This to me can only produce inane solipsism and break down the possibility of having a shared universal conversation that transcends colour lines and cultures.

Crusades against cultural appropriation are not progressive, they are reactionary. Not only does it constrain exchange, inhibit the imagination, and threaten to deaden cultural expression and innovation, they undermine precisely what is valuable about a diverse and open cosmopolitan society. For the sake of art, culture and the human experience itself, let’s take a stand for true cultural freedom and unfettered imagination.

Ralph Leonard is a British-Nigerian writer on international politics, religion, culture and humanism.