Cowbirds or warblers?

“You know white folks.  They be doing some shit and then they say they ain’t.”  Heard on the sidewalk outside the Giant food store this afternoon.  Two young men were talking while one was unchaining his bicycle.  He was the one who spoke.  From the few other words I heard as I passed by, it seemed as though some man had been following him around as if suspecting him of intending to do something wrong. The cyclist must have confronted the man, who then denied that he had been stalking him.

Before going out to the store, I had been working on this post about instances of cultural appropriation mentioned in yesterday’s post. The young man’s words captured a point raised in an article I had just been reading about the 2020 controversy over Alison Roman’s Foodie imperialism. She was charged with

… a complicated little dance of power and desire: The mainstream is white, so what is presented in the mainstream becomes defined as white, and — ta-da — what you see in viral YouTube videos somehow ends up reinforcing a white norm, even though the historical roots of a dish or an ingredient might be the Levant or East Asia. You might say whiteness works by positing itself as a default. You might also say that this sucks.

Sounding like “all lives matter,” Roman tries to dodge this point.  “The sad thing about my cultural background is that I don’t really have one.”  As interviewer Naveet Alang comments, “When whiteness is allowed to function as if it weren’t that, it hurts us all.”

The two instances of cultural appropriation mentioned yesterday were: the Atlanta “Braves” and Flemish country western music.

Because of recent controversies over the names of the Washington D.C. football team and that of the Cleveland baseball team, I knew that there had also been questions raised about the name of the Atlanta baseball team, “Braves” referring to indigenous warriors.  This controversy seemed abstract to me until I watched the World Series game the other night.  I had never before witnessed players and fans chopping their arms, supposedly imitating a tomahawk strike.  Nor had I heard before a stadium echoing with thousands of people chanting in supposed imitation of indigenous warriors.  Both sights and sounds I found disturbing.

How can I enjoy Belgians singing American county western music, take pleasure in the fact that they seem to love the culture of another country, and at the same time feel uncomfortable with Americans acting and chanting parodies of the culture of people our ancestors drove to the margins of this country and to the grave? How can I quote positively the motto of the State of Connecticut?  “The one who transplants flourishes.”  The Yankee transplants who adopted this motto flourished on the land they took from indigenous people, many of whom they massacred.

For at least five years I’ve been thinking about writing a post about cultural appropriation and mis-appropriation.  Obviously I still haven’t worked out where to draw the line between creative appropriation (e.g., Flemish country western music) and exploitive mis-appropriation (e.g., the Atlanta Braves).

I start with a long-time resentment of the cultural appropriation that goes on every year on March 17, when everyone wants to be “Irish.”  When I was younger, I not only didn’t wear green on March 17, sometimes I would wear orange.  Of course, most of the March-17-Irish had no clue of the significance of wearing orange on March 17, much less on July 12.

I did find a story that explains the difference betwen cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation, of Irish dancing no less. Morgan Bullock, the young African-American woman who does Irish dance, also gives a clear explanation.

My understanding of the term is that it means when you’re taking something from another culture and claiming it as your own without recognizing where it comes from and that couldn’t be further from what I’m doing.  It’s important for people to recognize that there’s a difference between appropriation and appreciation.

I started thinking about blogging on the topic of cultural appropriation when there was a flap over the tourist ad campaign centered on “The Maharani of Manhattan.”  Reena Gupta summarized the problems with this campaign in her essay, “India without Indians: Why the Incredible India ad sells audiences a lie.”

When Indians do fleetingly appear in the ad, they are what researchers Lee Edwards and Anandi Ramamurthy refer to as “never fully present”. As unknown characters whose sole purpose is to welcome, dance with or even sew (a very questionable-looking peacock jacket, by the way) for the white woman at the centre of the story, their presence is almost ornamental. They exist only to enrich the life of the white tourist at the centre of the story.

Then, when I was still getting the daily print edition of the New York Times, the page three high-fashion ads started to show Jennifer Lawrence in Dior creations that tried to steal the look of Mexican women.

That provoked an even louder backlash for obvious reasons.

Continuing the 2018 trend towards corporate appropriation of local and regional cultures, Disney went so far as to patent the Swahili phrase “hakuna matata.”  Outside of East Africa, few people heard about that theft.  Kahawa Tungu argued:

There has been concern over the loss of cultural heritage through the use of intellectual property rights whereby third parties end up owning a piece of a group or community’s culture.

Those against the pilferage of African culture over the years want Kenya and the entire East African Community to enhance protection of words that form part of our heritage by applying for expungement of already granted trademarks that contain heritage.

After I moved to Philadelphia in 2019, there was a flap over a new Philly restaurant Char Kol.

And to see the same white people who gave me a hard time about being Korean now taking advantage of and profiting off my culture and food in this manner without employing Korean staffers — it feels like I’ve been robbed of my background. It feels like Korean food is only cool when white people do it, but when we do it, it’s not cool. It’s not trendy.”

Cowbirds are a parasitical species.  They don’t have their own nests,  Instead they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds where their chicks hatch earlier and bully the other chicks for food.  Cowbirds nearly wiped out the Kirtland’s Warbler, a species of songbird that lives mostly in northern Michigan, whose population fell to less than 200 singing males by the late 1980s.  An early post told the story of the unintended consequences of efforts to save the Warblers.

So far I’ve not been able to formulate a clear moral criterion to distinguish between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation in all instances.  Perhaps the criterion is more ecological.  Does the appropriation in question threaten or degrade the ability of a group or members of that group to flourish, materially and spiritually?  Are we being cowbirds or not?

P.S. These issues are not new.  My first exposure to issues of cultural appropriation were the attacks on William Styron for writing Nat Turner while white. and Sophie’s Choice while goy.  I haven’t read the novel at the eye of a recent storm, American Dirt, written by an gringa trying to speak for a Mexican woman.  It’s been criticized as not well-written in addition to being parasitical so I’m not sure it’s worth the effort.




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