Regular readers know that I often find the concept of cultural appropriation unhelpful. That’s not universal by any means – don’t wear a native American headdress, jackass, don’t “talk ghetto” for laughs – but a lot of the specific allegations of appropriation that I see don’t make much sense. When people complain about the cultural appropriation of, for example, white people using ingredients from various ethnic cuisines, I think they’re mistaking the inevitable processes of culture for a sin. All culture is hybrid; all culture is absorbed from the influence of others. There’s no line where one culture ends and the other begins, and if there were, there would be no alternative to borrowing. No cultural practice emerges from thin air – not a lexicon, not music, not food, not morals, nothing. Cultural borrowing is inevitable. I’m not saying that’s good. I’m saying it’s true regardless of whether it’s good.
But there is a type of appropriation that I’m seeing more and more of that I do think is wrong, and preventable, and yet it’s one that seems largely excused, even embraced, by many of the same people who complain the loudest about cultural appropriation. I would call this political appropriation: when members of the dominant classes adopt political critiques that were developed by members of the marginal classes and use them against other members of the dominant classes. I’m here talking mostly about the phenomenon of white men leveling “white male” at other white men, particularly on social media. It’s become ubiquitous, particularly during this primary – I’ve been guilty of it occasionally myself – and I think it really is bad news in all the ways the discourse of cultural appropriation identifies. Every day, I see white dudes who would appear to most of the world to be the epitome of the angry white dude angrily accusing other white dudes of being white dudes. And I think it has non-trivial negative consequences for how we talk about gender and race.
Unlike some white people (mostly conservatives), I don’t find it offensive when people of color use “white” in a pejorative sense. Unlike some men (such as MRAs), I don’t think women making fun of men is offensive. In both cases, people who have traditionally occupied a subordinate social role are drawing from a long tradition of political critique – some serious and weighty, some satirical and insouciant, both often vital and necessary – that has challenged the status quo’s racism and sexism. When a person of color levels a political critique at whiteness, they are reaching into a deep archive of theory and argument about the way race functions in our society. When a woman makes a political criticism of men, she’s taking part in a storied tradition of feminist critique. And despite the fever dreams of the alt-right, these criticisms are very rarely actually anti-man or anti-white, in the existential sense, but instead attack the persistence and destruction of sexism and racism. Yes, there are radical thinkers out there that have genuine existential condemnations of whiteness and maleness, such as the Nation of Islam’s theory of the genetic wickedness of white people or certain radical feminist takes on inherent male destructiveness. Those ideas aren’t really my business. These opinions are, in any event, quite rare, and are invoked more often by conservatives looking to dismiss anti-racist and feminist movements than by most progressive people. Instead, criticisms of white men are usually a reflection of very natural frustration and righteous anger at the continuing power of racism and sexism to shape the world in 2016. That is, at least, my take, as a white guy who necessarily speaks from a limited and contingent perspective.
If you’re a white guy who feels aggrieved that a person of color or a woman has used “white” or “male” as an insult online, maybe you should ask yourself why people of color and women feel aggrieved, and how you could potentially work to change those conditions.
But something very different is going on when white men themselves critique white men as such. I don’t generally believe that the salience of political attitudes stem from identity; that way lies support for Margaret Thatcher as some sort of progressive champion. But I do think that political statements exist in a social and economic context, and that this context complicates how those critiques work. And when some white guy on Twitter with a bushy beard and dumb hat is going long on calling other white guys white guys, as happens literally every day now, I think you’re seeing the exact ugly consequences of appropriation that critics have identified: it’s the capture of cultural and social practices that were developed by particular people facing particular kinds of oppression by those who don’t face that oppression. When a white guy feels no compunction against leveling “white male” as a critique, he’s taking advantage of decades of work by feminist and antiracist thinkers in a way that drains that work of its particularity and thus its power. These casual appropriations of “white male” by white men always seem like insults of convenience to me, a way for these guys to borrow the power of a legacy of political anger that was not developed by or for them. Isn’t that precisely why we’ve become sensitive to appropriation, that kind of casual, entitled, unearned borrowing? What could be a better emblem of privilege than someone saying “even this, even this critique of me and people like me, crafted by people who are not like me in response to an unequal and unjust world, is mine to use as I please”?
Also, as I’ve often argued, these uses of feminist and antiracist politics inherently excuse the white men using them from racism and sexism. They’ll tell you they include themselves in their critiques – good lord, how often they’ll tell you – but it’s simply a matter of social reality that being in the position of the critic always elevates you above the critique. No matter how sincere these guys are when they say that they are indicting themselves as well, they necessarily have placed themselves in the role of judge rather than accused. Maybe worst of all, these insults are toothless. They don’t threaten anybody. Sometimes when I respond to white men calling me a white man on Twitter, they come back with some version of “haha, white male tears.” But I assure you, few things are less likely to inspire tears than another white dude calling me a white dude. I have received every insult imaginable on the internet, and few have as little power to harm me as a white guy calling me a white guy. The accusation is so inherently ridiculous, and so immediately rejected by so many people, that it can’t serve as a useful social tool. Radical critiques are like antibiotics; the more they’re overused, the less effective they’ll be. That’s particularly sad given that often this type of accusation is just a way for the person using it to locate himself on the right side. Like so many other examples of white male progressive behavior, what is ostensibly done in the service of other people is really done for the service of the white guy in question, for his self-perceived righteousness and his ego.
White people, critiques of whiteness are not for you. Men, critiques of maleness are not for you. White men, critiques of white men are not for you.
That does not mean you can’t engage in feminism or anti-racism. Far from it. You have a great number of tools at your disposal. If you think another white person is being racist, you can say so. If you think another dude is being sexist, you can say so. It’s only when you attack the identity of other white men while you maintain the privileges that identity confers that you engage in noxious appropriation. You might think you’re being radical; I think you’re looking for borrowed rhetorical power and to receive credit for your progressivism. Most importantly, you can do your best to live a righteous life – by treating women and people of color with respect, by working within our political system to attack injustice, by being a good person. I would argue that part of doing so, if you really embrace the critique you are claiming to be a part of, is to pursue feminism and anti-racism quietly. To work and live for real social justice in a way that does not seek credit. I have never seen so many people performing in my life as I do now, in 21st century American political life. The open and ugly question about the broad adoption of the language and norms of social justice is whether most people involved in it would bother if they could not bask in the glow of the attention they receive for doing so. White dudes shouting “white dude!” is always an attention-seeking behavior. Always.
We live in an era of professional anti-racism educators, of commodified political movements, of seminars on the Black Panthers brought to you by banks that defrauded black homeowners, of intersectional education sold at great cost to elite private schools, of college presidents hiring sensitivity counselors while jacking up tuition, of Matt McGorry. The question for those committed to social justice is no longer whether they can get attention or change social norms. The question is whether they can use the attention they’ve gotten to create actual, meaningful change – and if all the pandering and attention-seeking is a means of making that change, or just another example of the privileged getting in the way.