Twitter has already moved on to the latest shiny new racist distraction coming from the White House. Unaccustomed as historians are though to living in the present, I’m still dwelling on the past. Specifically the flashpan outrage that accompanied Rihanna recent East-meets-West themed photo shoot with Harper’s Bizarre China. Last week, I pointed out that the recent popular application of “cultural appropriation” stood as a sad caricature of legitimate complaints about blackface–both the specific act and general spirit present in other behaviors in the same vein. I noted that using “cultural appropriation” as a blunt instrument to enforce rigid cultural borders (even if only against majority groups) also worked specifically counter to progressivisms putative goal of productive multiculturalism. In doing so, it has roots in older cultural policing practices: going native.
I’ve written about the stigma on “going native” here in the past, specifically with reference to what might be called the appropriation of East Asian culture (especially) by white Americans. In brief, the idea was one popular among advocates and opponents of 19th century imperialism who worried that too much exposure to “lesser” (non-Euro-American) cultures might infect and degrade the imperializing populations. It, in essence, inverted the proper flow of cultural transmission, one which was always from whites to non-whites. The evidence for this was the assumption (or, as we would say now, the appropriation) of native culture by white colonizers.
If that profoundly racist and conservative rationale for white people not dressing, speaking, singing, dancing, or acting like people of other cultures seems profoundly antithetical to (and even a potential source of) the contemporary woke and progressive rationale for avoiding cultural appropriation, that’s probably fair–so far as it goes. Because in practice, the very behaviors that were being policed by 19th century imperialists are those behaviors that agitated progressives are worried about now.
The most obvious example pertains to dress. As it so happens, the same policing of Rihanna’s dress that made such transient headlines before has near parallels among the women of far flung imperial outposts. In 1911, the Irish writer Beatrice Grimshaw reflected on her experience living in Papua New Guinea:
This question of dress is a burning one among island ladies. The native loose robe, hung straight down from a yoke, is very much cooler, and the doctors say, healthier, than belted and corseted dresses such as European women wear. But there is nevertheless a strong feeling against it, because it is supposed to mean a tendency to “go native,” and the distinguishing customs of the race acquire, in the island world, a signiﬁcance quite out of proportion to their surface importance, because of the greatness of the thing they represent. Therefore, the white woman, unless she is suffering from bad health, and needs every possible help to withstand the heat of the climate, sticks to her blouses and corsets, as a. rule, and sometimes “says things ” about people who do not.
Grimshaw clearly sides with common sense when it comes to ladies’ dress, but she recognizes she is in the minority. It doesn’t matter if the clothing is consistent with the host culture (as Rihanna’s is) or if it is medically or environmentally sensible (which, of course Rihanna’s wasn’t); what matters is the “greatness of the thing they represent.” Divorced from the language of “going native,” Grimshaw’s words might just as easily have found their way on to Twitter, where the “distinguishing customs of race” are considered off limits not because it makes sense but because it has symbolic significance all out of proportion to its real import.
Not everyone was so forgiving with regard to dress as Grimshaw,* but always the focus was on safeguarding the borders of cultural integrity through a prohibition on sartorial miscegenation. Consider this study by Nicholas Thomas and Richard Eves about other reports from the South Seas:
[Martin of Nitendi] describes the acts of piracy of a white man living among an island people who attack and plunder a passing ship. Because of his acts of “reckless courage,” this man is accepted into the local society and achieves a measure of authority and influence that is surpassed only by the chief. As in many stories, he has assumed “native garb” and wears a girdle of tit leaves and nothing else other than a hat made of coconut leaves shading his “blood-shot” and “savage” eyes from the sun. This character, Jim Martin, was put ashore by a whaling vessel because of his mutinous conduct, and as a result he has dissociated himself forever from civilization, becoming one of the most desperate and blood-stained beachcombers that had “ever cursed the fair isles of the South Pacific.” Becke emphasizes that Martin’s previous identity as a white man has been erased when he writes “he had been a White Man.” Elsewhere, again emphasizing the “savage” state to which Martin has fallen, Becke describes him as a “wild, naked creature,” a description that also calls into question his humanity. He had indeed become “more a savage native than a white man.” The story ends with a punitive expedition in pursuit of Martin for the massacre of a ship’s crew. He escapes into the mountains but is eventually shot and mortally wounded by a soldier who had thought he was a “nigger.” When Martin is found wounded by the lake, his racial identity is called into question when a soldier asks him, “Who are you? Are you a white man?”
Thomas and Eves note that “for those whites who live in the racial and cultural borderlands of the Pacific,” the possibility of going native is ever present but the possibility of redemption is all but non-existent. Insofar as the “process of degeneration is…conceived as a one-way journey,” going native has more overt similarities to the “weeaboo” slurs described in the link above. Even in this, however, there are parallels to current “cultural appropriation” discourse. This is true inasmuch as purveyors believe that appropriation entails a loss for the people of the native culture, one that must be somehow total and permanent (if for no other reason than because that is necessary to explain the scale of the outrage).
The real difference, if there is one, has only to do with which party is identified as aggrieved by the porousness of cultural borders. With “cultural appropriation,” the accusation is that when white people dress or act like non-white people, it represents a colonization of non-white culture by white culture. The ironic reverse is true with “going native,” in which the fear is that when white people adopt non-white culture it represents a colonization of civilization by barbarism.
Both diagnoses are inconsistent with progressive ideals of multiculturalism rigorously conceived in that they (a) assume that cultures are hard realities that have policable borders and (b) consider the breaching of those borders in some or all circumstances to be undesirable. The best theories of culture, however, roundly repudiate that first contention, presenting culture rather as a fluid manifestation of supra-linguistic modes of symbolic communication. If that is true, cultures are not racially or nationally contingent. In groups and outgroups are defined by fluency, the ability to operate culturally within those unspoken codes of conduct. The difference, as many advocates of Black English have noted, between white authors who write fluently in Black English and the minstrelsy that is intended to make African Americans look stupid.
The second contention–that racial permeability is bad in some, many, or all circumstances–not only is untenable under the definition of culture outlined above, it also distorts to a common, twisted purpose the logic of racial realism espoused by the racist extremes of the right. Proceeding from the same unscientific, academically ignorant premise that race and/or culture has a substantial, independent existence, they assume without cause that something is lost or damaged when that existence is diluted or contaminated. In other words, those who sing the songs of condemnation about cultural appropriation have retained the tune to the old “going native” hymns and merely updated the words to suit their new, equally troubling purpose.
Rihanna will be fine. She’s not white; the culture she appropriated isn’t black. Both of these things–not to mention outrageous fame and popularity–will insulate her from any lasting impact. After all, she has been called out by these same arbiters of contemporary cultural decorum before and been just fine. For the rest of us, though, serious thought must be given to precisely how long we are willing to leave unchallenged the idea that our cultures are treasures that we can hide in a box and take out to play with only in the presence of others who look like us. It’s inconsistent with the aims of American progressives, inconsistent with the conclusions of modern academics, inconsistent with basic common sense.
*It is worth noting that Grimshaw was not a great pioneer of acculturation. Her common sense approach to culture had clear limits as well. When she portrayed the negative aspects of “going native,” she too had clear reference to dress:
The Islands are not the place for the ne’er-do-well, and I would also warn the exasperating young man, who never did a square day’s work in his life, never got into trouble with his employers or his superiors, but always found himself misunderstood, unappreciated, and incomprehensibly “sacked,” with an excellent character, at the ﬁrst hint of slacking business—that the islands will not suit him either. If he comes out, he will not starve or go to the workhouse, because you cannot die of hunger where there is always enough vegetable food to keep the laziest alive, and you do not need workhouses, under the same happy conditions—but he will “go native,” and there are some who would say he had better starve, a good deal. There are men who have “gone native” in most of the Paciﬁc groups, living in the palm-leaf huts with the villagers—~but a white man in a waist-cloth and a bush of long hair, sleeping on a mat and living on wild fruit and scraps given by the generous natives, drunk half the time and inﬁnitely lower, in his soberest hours, than the coloured folk who unwisely put up with him, is not a happy spectacle.