One of the more interesting discussions to come out of Miley Cyrus’ controversial performance at the Video Music Award (which I gave links for two weeks ago) concerns cultural exploitation: When is it OK or not OK to steal or borrow from an ethnic culture not your own?
White people (like me) have trouble wrapping our minds around this topic, because we’d prefer to ignore power imbalances and express everything in terms of universal principles. When you do that, examples of whites “stealing” from black culture (like Elvis, Eminem, and even Paul Simon) look just like blacks participating in European genres like opera or classical. If you want to get stupid about it, you can make your principles so sweeping that whites shouldn’t make tacos and only Greeks should teach Plato.
I’ve been looking for an analogy that would bring the power dynamics back into the equation, and I’ve finally got one that works for me.
Imagine you own the only restaurant in a small mostly-segregated town where whites are generally richer than blacks. A black family opens a new restaurant in the black part of town, but it doesn’t affect your business much because white people don’t want to go there and blacks don’t have enough money to eat out much anyway.
But they do have one fabulous dish that’s like nothing on your menu. You go there and try it, and it’s every bit as good as you’ve heard. And you immediately have a bunch of motives to imitate it. First, just as a lover of food and a creative chef you can’t help thinking: “I could do this! It would be great!” Second, as a businessman you think: “My customers would love this!”
There’s nothing wrong with either of those motives. But take a step back and ask why your customers would love to order the dish off your menu, but they won’t go to the black restaurant for it. Well, in a word, racism. If the town weren’t racist, they’d get the dish from the family that invented it. If you can figure out how to make it better, you might win some of those customers honestly. But as it stands you’ll get those customers just by being white.
So what you’d be doing by imitating the dish is lowering the cost of racism. Without your imitation, your racist customers would have to do without something they want.
And while you might argue you’re providing your white customers a bridge to black culture, it would be a toll bridge, and you’d be collecting the tolls. So you’re profiting from racism, and the money that you make (and the black family doesn’t) is a tangible measure of your white privilege.
The same considerations probably don’t apply if the black restaurant imitates your strudel or goulash. They may be able to profit if they make it better than you do, but they won’t profit just by being black.
So the question to ask when you’re borrowing from some other ethnic culture is: To what extent am I participating in a field that is open to everybody, and to what extent am I collecting a toll from racism? And if I am collecting a toll, is there some way I can share that profit with the community I’m borrowing from (i.e., Paul Simon popularizing South African groups) rather than keep it all for myself?