The point is that “cultural appropriation,” as a diagnosis, is decidedly unhelpful. The metaphor suggests that a person of one culture is taking something that belongs to people of another culture, and effectively endorses the imperial regime of intellectual property, one founded not in moral considerations but in economic ones. (Casting culture as intellectual property is neoliberalism at its worst.) In fact, the most common form of ntoma is a wax print, which we sometimes call a Java print, because the first designs were made in Indonesia. If cultural appropriation were wrong, Ashanti people shouldn’t be wearing it. Nor does adding in a test of group dominance or power inequity clarify things: If the Trinidad-born pop star Nicki Minaj wears Asian attire, should we be burning up our computers — or some region of Reddit, anyway — in an effort to quantify the relative power of the implicated cultures and “subject positions”?
Specific instances of what people criticize as cultural appropriation may well be wrong, but the term encourages us to call out a property crime when something else is going on. If I take a practice that is freighted with significance for some group and mock it or trivialize it, that’s contempt. (That’s why it’s usually not a good idea to wear, say, clerical garb because you like the look.) The key question in the use of symbols or regalia associated with another identity group is not: What are my rights of ownership? Rather it’s: Are my actions disrespectful?
What makes some forms of dress racist is that they display disdain or disrespect for people of another racial identity (that’s the mark of individual acts of racism), or contribute to the continuing oppression of a group (the mark of institutional racism). In itself, dressing up across the color line doesn’t have to be either of these things. But, alas, I know it often is.
What should you say to your aunt, then, if you have reason to think that what she’s done is indeed racist? I suggest that rather than talking about cultural appropriation, you focus on what it is about the picture that is disrespectful to the group in question. If you say that what she’s done is racist, she will hear you as saying that she is a racist. You’ll most likely be drawn into a conversation about how you could possibly think that of her. Instead, you might ask her how she thinks black or brown people would be likely to feel if they saw her selfie. One challenge of a racially divided society is learning, as Robert Burns put it in “To a Louse,” to “see oursels as ithers see us.” But bear in mind, too, the poem’s other point: A louse may be burrowing in anyone’s coiffure, even our own. So be gentle. One day, on the far side of the generation gap, you may find yourself being corrected by your own niece.
I work in the entertainment industry, and my boss often asks me to procure free tickets to events for him and his family. I didn’t mind at first, and the vendors generally don’t, either. But it keeps happening. It seems unethical to “ask” me during work hours to use the influence and connections that come from my professional position to request free stuff for his family. (Of course, he makes much more money than I do.) I don’t feel I can say no to his requests, but I want them to stop. I feel like I’m being compelled to do things I don’t want to do, but maybe I’m being overly sensitive in an industry where workplace behavior can be so much worse. How can I handle this situation without alienating my boss? He’s a cheapskate, but he’s also a pretty nice guy. Name Withheld