The Myth of 'Cultural Appropriation'

Michaels, Walter Benn
Date Written:  2017-07-02
Year Published:  2017
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX21586

Arguing that certain people don’t have the right to tell certain stories is a distraction from the real menace: inequality.



The story of what happened at Haymarket doesn't belong to anybody, which means anybody can tell it, and its interest today is in reminding us not of our "heritage" but of the fact that American workers (black, white, Native American, Hispanic) continue to be the victims of exploitation. And by that I mean not just the greater and greater share of American wealth accruing to the top 1 percent. According to a recent analyses, most Americans are not just farther behind the rich, they're farther behind themselves: They're poorer now than they were 25 years ago. In other words, what they've had (and are having) stolen from them is not their culture, their identity, or even their pain, but their money.

It's in this context that the innumerable recent battles not just over who can tell which stories but also over who can and cannot have campus buildings named for them, whose speech is offensive but protected and whose speech is just hate - all the skirmishes of the current culture wars - should be understood. The students at elite American universities come overwhelmingly from the upper class. The job of the faculty is to help them rise within (or at least not fall out of) that class. And one of the particular responsibilities of the humanities and social-science faculty is to help make sure that the students who take our courses come out not just richer than everyone else but also more virtuous. (It's like adding insult to injury, but the opposite.)

Identity crimes - both the phantasmatic ones, like cultural theft, and the real ones, like racism and sexism - are perfect for this purpose, since, unlike the downward redistribution of wealth, opposing them leaves the class structure intact. Thus, for example, one can completely support (as I do) the actions of Middlebury College students in demonstrating their opposition to what they called Charles Murray's "white nationalism" while at the same time noting that it's not white nationalism that's making poor people poorer; it's capitalism. And when it comes to fighting capitalism, the Middlebury student body (median family income $244,300; about a quarter of Middlebury students come from the top 1 percent; three-quarters come from the top 20 percent) is not exactly in the revolution's vanguard.

The problem is not that rich people can't feel poor people's pain; you don't have to be the victim of inequality to want to eliminate inequality. And the problem is not that the story of the poor doesn't belong to the rich; the relevant question about our stories is not whether they reveal someone's privilege but whether they're true. The problem is that the whole idea of cultural identity is incoherent, and that the dramas of appropriation it makes possible provide an increasingly economically stratified society with a model of social justice that addresses everything except that economic stratification.

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