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26 October 2018

Me in Media on Cultural Appropriation

A reporter with our student paper here on campus recently invited me to answer some questions about cultural appropriation via email. Here is the article. It's not bad. As is typical, though, very little of what I wrote ended up in the piece so here are my answers in full:
  1. What does cultural appropriation really mean and how is it connected to Halloween costumes
    Cultural appropriation is generally understood to be the way that one group, which is in a more socially powerful position over a second group, coopts cultural elements, like dress or music, from that oppressed or marginalized group. Halloween is a holiday when people are allowed, and even encouraged, to be transgressive. Otherwise "good girls" are allowed to dress sexy; guys are allowed to display their alter egos. It can be a lot of fun for many. Unfortunately, some take it as an excuse to do racism. Dressing up in blackface, for example, is never OK. It has its roots in Jim Crow-era minstrelsy. Short of this, and often without intentional malice, many also take Halloween as an excuse to do cultural appropriation. Dressing up as an Indian (i.e. Native American) Princess, for example, while it may not feel harmful, is an appropriation of a very, very poorly treated ethnic group. Moreover, people never accurately reflect the culture, taking stereotypical shortcuts that conflate varied ethnic identities and portray an inaccurate version of a group that exists only in the mind of the oppressor. Other examples of such costumes include Mexicans, Arabs, Asians, and Gypsies.
  2. How might students be aware of cultural appropriation on campus this Halloween?
    Students can help educate and police each other. Interpersonally, you can explain to your friend why she shouldn't dress up as Pocahontas. Student organizations can sanction members who dress offensively. Fraternities and sororities can refuse to admit people in such costumes to parties and other functions.
  3. What is the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange?
    Cultural exchange happens on a level playing field; cultural appropriation, by definition, happens between groups with unequal status. In a sense, cultural exchange almost never happens because one group is always effectively exploiting another. This is why something like blackface is never OK, because blacks continue to be more likely to experience measurable, negative outcome (i.e. incarceration, undereducation, lack of wealth, etc.) compared to whites. A black person in whiteface might be weird, but it isn't problematic because blacks do not hold an advantaged position over whites in the United States.
  4. What effect, if any, does cultural appropriation have on society as a whole?
    The important thing to keep in mind is that cultural appropriation is not--or at least not only--about offensiveness. This is a general misunderstanding. People should avoid cultural appropriation because it reflects and perpetuates structural racism. It's easy to dismiss individuals as being thin-skinned or not having a sense of humor about such things, but it is far more difficult to ignore the ways that particular groups of people are disadvantaged. Ignorance of these larger social realities is the truly dangerous thing. How can things get better if those who are advantaged fail to recognize that others are disadvantaged?

14 September 2018

The Birth of "Celebration of Life"

I got curious after my post yesterday and decided to look at the usage of some of these phrases and terms over time. Here are some Ngrams:

"Celebration of life" does indeed seem to be a neologism, showing up just before 1960 and increasing fairly dramatically in use just before 2000. There doesn't seem to be any noticeable decline in the use of "funeral." "Celebration of life" does, however, seem to be correlated with the rise of "positive thinking."

13 September 2018

Don't Celebrate My Life

My best friend from childhood killed himself this summer. We hadn't kept in touch really, but we would occasionally run into each other when I visited my parents in my hometown over the years. Regardless, his shadow casts very, very large over my formative years.

As seems to be a growing practice, his church held a "celebration of life" service for him. Not a "funeral," but a "celebration of life." When my mother told me this, I briefly remarked that I suspected that it was just a euphemism, but she disagreed, arguing that it was a categorically different event. I worry that this trend is part of (or at least parallel with) the positive thinking movement. (For an excellent takedown, see Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided.) I worry, too, that this is part of the death negative movement that has increasingly dominated American culture for generations. (For solid death-positive work, see Caitlin Doughty's Ask a Mortician). Funerals, wakes, and other traditional mourning rituals serve social and psychological functions. They make us happier in the long term but only by allowing us collectively to be sad in the immediate term. Celebrate the lives of the living; mourn the deaths of the departed.

When I die, I give you permission to mourn, to be sad, even depressed. The pain of loss is not something that can be wished away by focusing on the "good times." Our brains need time to process loss. It is time that shouldn't be avoided by taking a pill or thinking happy thoughts. We are radically social animals, and the ultimate rupturing of a social relationship is the permanence of death. This is why I hope that you will weep when I pass, that you will rent garments, as some translations of the Bible put it. I hope these things because they will help you ultimately to move past my death in a way that no celebration of my life could.


Just to be clear, I am neither depressed nor suicidal. I'm doing quite well mentally and emotionally.

If you are struggling, know that my world is better with you alive in it. Call (1-800-273-8255) or chat online with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You are loved.

29 August 2018

Exclusive vs. Inclusive Solidarities

Solidarity is a necessary part of healthy human existence. We are animals and need food, water, etc., but what defines us is our radically social nature so we also need to be connected to other individuals.

When that belonging is tribal, it insists on a kind of primary identity--a master status--that must do the heavy lifting of generating solidarity. For it to work sufficiently, it demands a lot and does so at the unvarying expense of the other. In other words, it's about exclusive solidarity: we feel cohesive by othering and even dehumanizing "them." For example, being an American citizen does this for many people. For it to work, "American citizen" must be defined by an other, most notably "illegal aliens." The political implications can be very harmful to undocumented peoples.

An alternative, and one that has until recently dominated modern life, is to allow people to have multiple identities, each doing relatively little of the heavy lifting of generating solidarity. The social benefit of this is that the diversity of identities is overlapping. This limits the externalized costs of generating solidarity and allows for more overall inclusive solidarity. For example, some are white and some are Evangelical Protestant, but some people of color are also Evangelical Protestants, prompting (at least in theory) such adherents to temper any animus toward those who are not white.

To put it succinctly, overarching identities do exclusive belonging and externalize the cost of that solidarity generation on the other; intersecting identities do inclusive belonging and limit the costs of solidarity generation.

Two major, open questions are (1) whether inclusive solidarity is as socially efficient as exclusive solidarity and, indeed, (2) whether inclusive solidarity is even socially sufficient.