A brief meditation on white twerking

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?

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  • Christine Thompson  On September 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    I think that’s the best test question I’ve heard for this phenomenon. Thanks!

  • Symone P. Harris  On September 29, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Reblogged this on There's No Backspace With a Pen and commented:
    Just something to think about.

  • Elithrion  On August 17, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    It is, perhaps, poor style to comment on a post that is years old, but I find the reasoning to be flawed.

    Imagine that both your restaurant serve a meat dish. Now, white customers interested in a meat dish will prefer yours over theirs because racism. So, you are profiting from racism with the meat dish. In fact, your entire restaurant profits from racism, and its existence is lowering the cost of racism (if it did not exist, your customers would have to go to the black family owned restaurant if they wanted to eat out).
    Which is fair enough – perhaps you should just generically transfer some of your profits to the other restaurant. Though, then one wonders whether transferring profits to the one family that was lucky enough to open a restaurant near the hyper-ethical you is reasonable, or whether it would be better to spread the money more widely.

    To make the long line of reasoning short, this seems to reduce to a general argument argument that racism is bad, and you should dedicate some money to combating it – especially if you benefit from it in any way – and seems to have very little to do with cultural appropriation.

    (There is also a side story: it seems like it’d be socially responsible to reward inventors of new dishes for their discovery. However, it’s not clear to me that the inventors should receive more rewards – separately from the above anti-racism payment – if they are also discriminated against. Are great dishes invented in restaurants that suffer from discrimination particularly more worth encouraging than ones in restaurants that suffer from poor marketing or location? Personally, I don’t think so. Mostly, this seems similar to the idea of patents or royalties, except enforced by your own conscience rather than the law.)

    I do think that there’s perhaps an argument to be made about appropriation being bad (especially if one values the preservation of culture as an end in itself), but I don’t think this is it.

    • jh  On May 11, 2016 at 10:44 am

      Perhaps you may think of it this way – cultural appropriation is exploitation. The dominant group is able to exploit the attributes, culture, whatever of the minority group and profit from it. Meanwhile, the minority group get’s to see the essence of their culture turned into taco-bell restaurants where white people can act as if they are brave for trying a muzak version of the authentic experience. (That’s always why I try to seek out where the locals eat and I seek out the “dives”. that’s where the authentic food/culture generally is.)

      This example was about one specific dish that was unique to the black restaurant. If the white owner steals that dish, even if he’s inspired by it to produce a similar dish, he makes it easier for his white clientele to continue a white only patronage. Pretty soon, the white person tells the black person, “Wow – your dish is so similar to the dish by white chef. Why don’t your people innovate like that instead of copying everybody?” Why couldn’t that white person mosey on down and sit at the black restaurant and buy that dish there?

      And yes – that argument is used all the time. People routinely state that blacks have never contributed to the US. In actuality – Blacks have contributed plenty both economically and culturally to the US – from exploited/cheap labor to food to music to poetry and intellectual thought to science.


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