Twitter is mad this morning. And as increasing irrelevant as I think activism on the platform is becoming, I find today’s outrage particularly outrageous. On Tuesday, Harper’s Bizarre China released photos (set for publication in August) from a recent shoot with pop star Rihanna, in which the Barbadian singer:
[i]n one photo…gazes down, a dainty Chinese fan in one hand and a bright red sash around her waist. In another, she poses in front of a traditional folding screen, the golden ornaments in her hair reminiscent of the royal fashions of ancient China.
The whole purpose of the piece was, by design, to show what happens “when western style icon meets eastern aesthetic.” Unfortunately, the magazine forgot to run that fairly benign vision by the Internet censors in advance. On cue, Twitter cried “cultural appropriation” and let slip the dogs of war.
Cultural appropriation, for the uninitiated, is the use of styles or artifacts of one culture by individuals not of that culture. That’s a broad and inoffensive definition that might make you think of white folks using chopsticks at a Chinese buffet or cooking tacos on Tuesdays (in the proud tradition of Moctezuma). In practice (or, in Twitter practice) the term has become an unevenly but aggressively applied synonym for racism of the career hobbling (but not necessarily ending) blackface sort. It is a kind of polito-cultural slur applied to anyone violating the sacrosanct borders of culture, particularly majority groups who don the visual style or who ape the artistic output of minority cultural groups.
Herein lies part of the most tangled and interesting problem with the accusations against Rihanna. On the one hand Afro-Caribbeans are an almost unrecognizably small minority in mainland China where the consuming audience for the photos lives. Yet, on the other hand, Sino-Caribbeans–the descendants of Chinese laborers brought to the Caribbean–are a significant and clearly visible minority in Rihanna’s cultural home. As an Afro-Caribbean in Chinese garb, is she a member of the mainstream taking on the culture of the weak and marginalized or is she a minority adopting the dominant culture where she happens to be at the moment?
That’s more nuance than Twitter is willing to get into and, quite frankly, it is irrelevant to my larger concerns. The first is the confusion–typical of the overreach of contemporary cultural progressives–between adoption and parody, between (in other words) white people performing hip hop and wearing FUBU and white people appearing in blackface. Blackface (like the yellow- and redface parallels) is a particularly disgusting bit of American history wherein white people made their faces up to look like caricatures of African Americans in order to propagate demeaning stereotypes about a people they were actively oppressing. That’s why blackface was (and still is) terrible–as are all Frito-Bandito style Halloween and Cinco de Mayo get ups.
But we can’t confuse this with white tourists in Tokyo wear yukata on Tanabata, with Monica Geller getting braids to manage her hair in Barbados, or with the very fact of white people drinking margaritas and eating Tex-Mex on Cinco de Mayo. Not only is that silly–raising perfectly legitimate ad absurdum questions about just how much appropriation is appropriate–but it fails to accurately identify what is wrong with blackface. The problem with blackface is not that white people made themselves look like blackpeople, it’s that they did it maliciously and without authentic understanding of (or even superficial desire to understand) the people they were parodying. An attempt to understanding, appreciate, and participate in a culture on its own terms has as little in common with blackface as a surgeon’s scalpel does with a mugger’s switchblade. Knifing people is wrong…depending.
That’s not too much nuance to expect from the general public, or it shouldn’t be. The point has not been entirely lost on Twitter. Rihanna’s defenders are absolutely right to point out that the designers, publishers, and audience are all Chinese:
By going straight to the source and finding a Chinese designer, her supporters said she had honored the culture and people from which the aesthetic was borrowed.
They ought to go a step further and point out the basically colonial attitude involved in being outraged on behalf of the Chinese for the appropriation of their culture. The anxiety over “cultural appropriation” is a peculiarly affluent western phenomenon, one that is overwhelmingly white. To the extent that white people feel the need to explain what minority cultures will find offensive in our behavior they perpetuate the kind of paternalisms they purport to resist. Outside of the paradoxically closed discourse of Western cultural progressives, the world is a much less insecure place. When I took kyūdō lessons in Japan, I was required to remove my western clothing and done the tradition kyūdōgi because failing to do so would have been inappropriate. It was a source of confusion when I had to struggle to explain to our teacher why I did not want pictures of me from the class shared on social media because I did not want to have to explain my non-western garb to any overzealous undergrads. Audiences in China, meanwhile, appear as likely to be befuddled by American outrage:
[T]here is a contrast between audiences in mainland China, who have largely complimented the shoot, and audiences overseas, who seem more conflicted.
On the Chinese micro-blogging platform Weibo, the majority of comments about Harper’s Bazaar cover appeared positive. “No wonder she is the Queen of Shandong (province),” one user wrote, using a nickname Chinese fans have given Rihanna. “She is a foreigner that is most suitable to the Chinese style.”
“It looks so good! Slay! The Chinese style compliments her so well,” another user wrote, while other Weibo comment threads are filled with heart emojis and exclamations of “wow” and “beautiful!”
For those in China who appreciate and consume American musical culture, seeing a pop music icon appreciating, even celebrating, Chinese culture is a tribute rather than an insult.
The almost willful lack of nuance with which angry progressives distribute accusations of cultural appropriation dulls the force of their argument about genuinely hurtful acts of performative racial violence like blackface. Beyond replicating old paternalisms in new but no less patronizing forms, it transforms banal acts of cultural fluidity into mortal sins to the end of confusing and alienating anyone who doesn’t understand the demarcating line of transgression between eating sushi and wearing a red sash while using a paper fan. “If I can’t get it right, I might as well stop worrying about getting it wrong. So why is blackface racist again?”
Just as importantly, bemoaning cultural appropriation undercuts their larger multicultural objective by treating culture as a bounded reality that is fixed and inherited like race. In that respect, they replicate a more specific form of colonialism. In the interest of giving that adequate space, I’ll address it more fully in a subsequent post.