Peering out of my kitchen window, I see a man standing outside the gates to College Walk. He is holding a sign reading: “Google it!!! Jews Financed Black Slavery.” This man has been here before. He has accused the Jews of controlling the media, Wall Street, and America. This time he has apparently extolled Adolf Hitler. On the off chance it needed clarifying: This is anti-Semitism; this is bigotry; this is racism.
I’ve long believed that much is lost in the fight against real racism when the zeitgeist concerns itself with distractions like so-called cultural appropriation. Context is always key, and depending on intention and circumstance, there are of course ways to be culturally insensitive and even bigoted through acts of appropriation. But the headlines of this week also made me realize how much we potentially have to gain from “appropriation.”
Bari Weiss, CC ’07, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal about the controversy surrounding a speech given by American journalist and author Lionel Shriver in the Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver delivered remarks about the consequences of identity politics for novelists, and her speech—delivered while she wore a sombrero—was met with highly polarized reactions. The crux of her argument, as Weiss elegantly wrote, was that “to write in the voice of, say, a black woman if you are a white male writer, is rapidly becoming taboo—a form of cultural appropriation, to use the correct jargon.” But as Weiss astutely notes, “such theft is the job of fiction writers.”
Another Columbia affiliate had a similar sentiment to express in the past week while weighing in on a different controversy. Author and Columbia professor Adam Kirsch wrote last Monday on the outing of Elena Ferrante in the New York Times’ Opinion pages. Though readers have forever known that Elena Ferrante was a nom de plume, it was only last week that the world learned that her real name is Anita Raja. Her four Neapolitan novels, according to Kirsch, “feel so powerfully authentic that many readers have assumed it reflected Ms. Ferrante’s own experience.” But, he explains, “as it turns out, Ms. Raja’s history is very different from those of her heroines.” Where does that leave her novels? Did Raja appropriate the culture and history of those unlike her? Is there anything wrong, if she did? The act of appropriation is itself neutral—questions of context and intent determine whether the appropriation has a net positive effect, or conversely, could trend toward racism.
Kirsch argues that the Ferrante reveal “is actually a sterling example of the power of appropriation.” Raja, like Shriver, “was claiming the right to imagine the lives of people quite unlike herself.” Kirsch calls this “the paradox of literature, which is also the glory of humanism,” or “the idea that nothing human is alien to any of us, that we all have the power to imagine our way into another’s lives.”
But today’s so-called “social justice warriors”—many of whom are activists with admirable intentions—are very much focused on accusations of cultural appropriation, as the last few news cycles demonstrate. In her piece on Shriver, Weiss also chronicles the recent vitriolic critiques of Kendall Jenner. Her crimes? Having the audacity to walk down the runway in woolen dreadlocks and later pose as a ballerina for a spread in Vogue. Here, as ever, context must be key. Can it logically be argued that Jenner’s hair style or photoshoot was in any way malevolent? I’m troubled by the anti-Semite and his sign, not the idea of a non-Jew who decides to write a fictional account of growing up in a Jewish household, then shares his publication with his friends over a dinner of knishes and kugel.
Maybe I’m naïve or hopelessly optimistic about this campus, but I think that to some extent, Columbians beyond Weiss and Kirsch have learned to embrace the positive aspects of appropriation.
I’m taking a class called Supreme Court Seminar at the Law School, where 16 students are divided into two panels of the Supreme Court and alternate every other week. Each week, eight students represent the eight justices while two students from the alternate panel argue a case before the court. This past Wednesday, a white male played Justice Sotomayor. I know that some will find this offensive. I think it’s brilliant. For one hour a week, our professor challenges each of us to forget ourselves completely, wholly embodying another person with a set of ideas and beliefs that may be different from our own. When the students question the lawyers, they are tasked with doing so in character. Thus, regardless of how a student might personally feel about the case in question, their inquiries, arguments, and ultimately judgments must all be representative of the justice’s way of thinking—not their own. The class is not dissimilar in this regard from professor Carnes’ Reacting to the Past, the merits of which I wrote about in June for Commentary.
There can be no doubt that in two weeks, when I play Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I will appropriate the character of the “Notorious,” just as there can be no doubt that as a first-year in Reacting to the Past, I appropriated the character of an Athenian shoe cobbler named Simon and, in a subsequent reacting class, a cardinal during the time of Galileo.
Racism is not only real, but alive and well even today, even here. One not need look any further than the gates outside College Walk. When we waste our time debating imagined offenses, we diminish the power of meaningful conversations about real bigotry, and in so doing, we limit our ability to effect real change. It should go without saying that appropriation can carry the potential for bigotry.
But an instant and instinctive dismissal of all forms of appropriation ensures that we forego its many potential benefits. Occupying someone else’s headspace is the best way to learn. It removes, to the extent that is possible, personal biases, and demands of each of us, when we go back to representing ourselves, that we rethink and refine our positions on the basis that we are now able to critically engage with them from more than one vantage point. If all the world’s a stage, we may as well learn something.
Daniella Greenbaum is a Barnard College senior majoring in English literature. She tweets @dgreenbaum. Agree To Disagree runs on alternate Mondays.
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