On cultural appropriation

So the anarchist marching band I play in had a long workshop yesterday about cultural appropriation, and how we could try to decide when it was appropriate to play certain songs. We play a bunch of songs from Eastern Europe (especially Roma songs), plus some from Latin America and a few from the Black musical tradition of New Orleans, but our group doesn’t really include members from any of those communities.

I’m not really sure what to make of the workshop. The workshop leader, a Black woman, gave several examples of cultural appropriation (such as this one), but we as a group were already pretty well informed of this history. The workshop leader’s position was that “cultural appropriation” and “cultural theft” were equivalent, that they happened anytime someone adopts or uses elements from a culture of their own, and that it was never appropriate. Literally interpreting this (as I am wont to do), this means that white people should never play (among other things) rock music, in which she included punk music (although my understanding is that punk is one of those rare genres which are cool but were pretty much made up by white people). She told us that people who struggle against racism should engage in “cultural appreciation”, which she defined as playing music from one’s own culture, or participating in a performance of music from another culture, when this is lead by a person of that culture who has invited you to join in. These terms rule out almost all songs our band has ever performed, including all those we’re written or arranged ourselves.

I don’t really agree with this, and I’m going to add it to the list of similar blanket statements I’ve heard in other anti-oppression workshops: among other things I have been told not to buy CDs of music from other people’s cultures, not to eat food which comes from other people’s cultures, and not to engage in practices such as yoga which come from other people’s cultures. (Strictly speaking, I would personally have the right to eat Indian food, listen to Indian music, and do yoga one day out of four, but the rest of the time it would be European folk music, jogging, and mashed potatoes. Plenty of European classical music would be out – for example, Mozart, who took inspiration from Turkish music. Also, I feel compelled to point out that the South Asian woman who told me not to do yoga, did so over a dinner of Lebanese food.) For starters, literally every Latino I’ve talked to about this, including people I played music with while (briefly) living in Latin America, has enthusiastically encouraged me to learn and perform music from their culture. So I feel comfortable about doing that, but how can I make this decision in general?

Perhaps part of the problem here is my tendency to be overly literal. Also, I feel that sometimes leaders of workshops like this will deliberately make very broad, challenging statements which they expect people to think through and then react against or disagree with; this process is meant to challenge participants to question their assumptions. I can appreciate that, but the (few) times I’ve given anti-oppression workshops myself I’ve avoided this, because it often confuses people and/or makes them feel personally attacked, neither of which leads to productive conversations, as anyone experienced in conflict resolution will tell you. I find it far more useful to focus on specific examples of oppression, and talk about what could have be done differently. In our case, we asked our facilitator for examples of a song from another culture which it would be appropriate for us to perform as a mostly white group, or a process by which we could make this decision, but she didn’t respond to this point other than giving as a positive example a local jam band which contains many people of colour and plays songs from all over.

The workshop gave me lots of think about, plus lists of reference material which I’ll check out, but in the end left me feeling frustrated. Maybe this is just a question of communication styles, but I certainly wasn’t handed any clear answers to these questions yesterday. Fortunately, I do feel better able to talk with my fellow band members about this, and I’m sure we’ll continue to do so. I obviously don’t want to act like this woman, or one of these twits, but it’s usually not so easy to know when one has crossed the line. The conversation continues…

* * * * *

Also on the subject of race: check out this truly horrible interview with a representative of Indian Affairs on why they won’t rebuild the Attawapiskat school. How that idiot got to be anyone’s spokesperson is beyond me.