6.10.2017

what i'm reading: words on the move by john mcwhorter

John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen. Wmtc comment guidelines warn readers not to correct another commenter's grammar or spelling.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does.

"what kind of dog is that?" part 2: in which we learn more but feel like we know less

You may recall, we decided to have Diego's DNA examined to see what breed mix he is. Here's what the folks at DNA My Dog have determined.


Supposedly Diego is 37-74% German Shorthaired Pointer, 20-36% German Shepherd, and 1-9% Collie.

I just don't get it. Diego looks nothing like a German Shorthaired Pointer. Other than his prick ears, he looks and behaves nothing like a German Shepherd. He does somewhat resemble a Smooth-Coated Collie, but that's a very small percentage. No Border Collie, although he exhibits some classic Border Collie behaviour? No Staffordshire Terrier or American Pit Bull Terrier, even though we see the bully boy in his face? No Boxer, no Mastiff?

Here's Diego.









Now look at images of images of German Shorthaired Pointers. Really?

If you comb through dozens of images of German Shorthaired Pointers, you can find one or two pics where the colouring bears a slight resemblance. But certainly it is not the norm. Can a dog be up to 74% of one breed and have almost no physical resemblance to the so-called breed standard?

We did the DNA testing strictly for curiosity and fun, but now I'm seriously confused.

DNA My Dog also includes behavioural descriptions of the breeds, and common known health issues -- none of which fits Diego.

In case you are just tuning in, this truly was strictly for fun. Not only don't I care what breed my dog is, I find the entire concept of breeds ridiculous. With the exception of a few kinds of dog bred for specific work, most breeding is just eugenics. Breeding for arbitrary, human-created standards has ruined the health and lives of so many dogs. I would like to see a complete moratorium on breeding -- which would certainly cut down on the vast numbers of dogs that are homeless or euthanized each year.

5.28.2017

in which we answer the burning question: "what kind of dog is that?"

At the beach! Diego's favourite place.
What kind of dog is that?

People ask this all the time. All our dogs have been rescues, but most had recognizable breed markers. We could answer "white Shepherd-Husky cross" or "Lab-Shepherd mix" or "Jack Russell-Fox Terrier cross".

Of course those dogs probably had many other breeds in the mix. When you think about it, unless a dog is actually the product of two purebreds, it's likely to be the product of dozens of different breeds. A mixed breed mates with another mixed breed, and their puppies mate with other mixed breeds, and so on. But people really want to hear two or three breeds! So I'd go with the obvious, and that answer would satisfy.

With Diego, I've never known how to answer. I've thought of making up a breed -- a Burnhamthorpe Terrier, for a street we live near, or a York Hound, for the Toronto North York animal shelter where we found him -- but I never seem to think quickly enough. Sometimes I say he's a Border Collie-Boxer mix. But mostly I say, "He's a mutt," or "He's a mix of many things. His own unique blend."

Because really, who cares? He's Diego!


With his beautiful sister Tala, so missed.

Well, now we're going to find out! We're going to put his drool to good use, and have it DNA-tested.



I first heard about DNA testing for dogs at the dog park -- a couple were having their rescued German Shepherd tested to see if he was actually a purebred. Yuck! But when we learned it was pretty affordable, we thought it would be fun to know what breeds might have left their pawprints on our Diego.

This morning we're taking a sample of his all-too-plentiful saliva and sending it off in the mail. I'll report back in about two weeks.

5.27.2017

authors i keep wanting to read but don't

My book list is extremely long, so long that I don't call it a reading list or a to-read list, because I will never read even half the books on the List. It's more like books I would read. A list to narrow down the universe of books to a smaller universe of books to choose from.

Working in a library has increased the likelihood that I won't read even a majority of these books -- or decreased the percentage that I will read. Where I used to stick faithfully to my List, I now read lots of books not on the List -- books colleagues or customers talk about, and more often, books on display. Being a librarian has broadened my reading, which I love. It has made the List less a goal and more a general guide. This is fine.

Recently I noticed that certain authors appear on the List more than once, but remain unread. These are sometimes nonfiction titles that become hard to find. I'm clearly interested in the author's topics, but by the time I am ready to read the title, it's gone. I could find the book online, I'm sure, but I just move on to another title. There are many novelists on the List, too.

I don't delete anything from the List. It's a running list I've been keeping since 1985. That is either impressive or insane, depending on your point of view. I have a system for marking what I have read, and another marking for books I own but have not read. (There is much less of that in recent years, another result of librarianship.)

I have read so many books not on the List, and it bothers me that I didn't add them, but I can't change the method now. I could, but I can't. (In the library, we are told to "track our reading" in order to be better readers' advisors. I don't find this useful, so I don't do it. Please don't tell.)

I thought of this -- the authors that keep appearing but don't get read -- because I just started a book by John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics and writes about language. I noticed that many titles by McWhorter are on my List, and decided it was time to read one.

So. (I have just been reading about the word "so".) Here are authors who are on my List who I haven't read.

Frans de Waal
Carl Safina
Ann Douglas (this Ann Douglas)
Ann-Marie MacDonald (who I never heard of before coming to Canada)
Yxta Maya Murray
David Ebershoff
Trezza Azzopardi
Robert M. Sapolsky
Sally Denton
Kiran Desai
Ivan Doig
Edwidge Danticat
Mario Vargas Llosa
Siri Hustvedt
Margaret Laurence
Colm Toibin
Ted Conover
Helen Oyeyemi
Paul Greenberg
Barry Unsworth
Sarah Waters

This list does not represent all the authors on the List -- not even close. Only those I have never read who appear more than once.

what i'm reading: the new jim crow by michelle alexander

When I first heard the incarceration of African Americans in the United States referred to as a "new Jim Crow," I thought it must be hyperbole. So did Michelle Alexander, a fact she discloses in the introduction to her book. As Alexander researched the concept, the more she learned, the more she changed her mind. She changed my mind, too.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander builds an unassailable case that mass incarceration through the (so-called) War on Drugs is the third large-scale caste system that holds Black Americans in a second-class status. This is true even in a society that includes Oprah Winfrey, Clarence Thomas, and, of course, Barack Obama.

The first caste system was slavery. The second was the laws and customs of segregation, discrimination, and terror known as Jim Crow. The third and current system is mass incarceration. This includes rules governing local policing, key court rulings, the court system itself, the parole and probation system, and laws that discriminate against former inmates.

* * * *

The numbers are staggering. More African Americans are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. A greater percentage of African Americans are under correctional control now than black South Africans were during apartheid.

The US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of world's prisoners. Black and Latino Americans comprise one-quarter of the US population, but almost 60% of the prison population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white Americans.

In terms of the War on Drugs, one might think these disparities could be explained by differences in rates of illegal activity. One would be wrong. The data shows that people of all colours use and sell illegal drugs at very similar rates. When there is a difference by skin colour, the numbers skew towards whites.
Thus, the very same year Human Rights Watch was reporting that African Americans were being arrested and imprisoned at unprecedented rates, government data revealed that blacks were no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites and that white youth were actually the most likely of any racial or ethnic group to be guilty of illegal drug possession and sales.
The fact of incarceration alone is only one piece of the picture. Before incarceration, there is a series of court rulings that have gutted constitutional protections (especially the Fourth Amendment, the right to be free of unwarranted search and seizure), and make it impossible for citizens to argue racial bias in any criminal proceeding. There are draconian mandatory sentencing laws, which lead to the normalization of plea bargaining, in which people who have committed no crime plead guilty to some crime, in order to avoid a life sentence. There are huge financial incentives to municipalities to militarize their police forces, and to states for building -- and filling -- prisons.

After incarceration, the system prevents almost everyone who has been incarcerated from re-entering mainstream life. It is virtually impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to access housing, education loans, or jobs. In most states, formerly incarcerated people are stripped of voting rights and from jury rolls -- forever.

Former inmates, as Alexander writes, "will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Right now, about 30% of African American men are automatically banned from jury duty -- for life.

There is a terrible circular logic to the system. As a former US attorney general explained:
Law enforcement officials often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as a justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted. The disproportionate imprisonment of people of color was, in part, a product of racial profiling -- not a justification for it.

In the years following the release of the New Jersey and Maryland data, dozens of other studies of racial profiling have been conducted. A brief sampling:

• In Volusia County, Florida, a reporter obtained 148 hours of video footage documenting more than 1,000 highway stops conducted by state troopers. Only 5 percent of the drivers on the road were African American or Latino, but more than 80 percent of the people stopped and searched were minorities.

• In Illinois, the state police initiated a drug interdiction program known as Operation Valkyrie that targeted Latino motorists. While Latinos comprised less than 8 percent of the Illinois population and took fewer than 3 percent of the personal vehicle trips in Illinois, they comprised approximately 30 percent of the motorists stopped by drug interdiction officers for discretionary offenses, such as failure to signal a lane change. [These discretionary offenses are often an excuse to search vehicles or to arrest people for "resisting".] Latinos, however, were significantly less likely than whites to have illegal contraband in their vehicles.

• A racial profiling study in Oakland, California, in 2001 showed that African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be stopped, and three times as likely to be searched.

Pedestrian stops, too, have been the subject of study and controversy. The New York Police Department released statistics in February 2007 showing that during the prior year its officers stopped an astounding 508,540 people -- an average of 1,393 per day -- who were walking down the street, perhaps on their way to the subway, grocery store, or bus stop. Often the stops included searches for illegal drugs or guns -- searches that frequently required people to lie face down on the pavement or stand spreadeagled against a wall while police officers aggressively groped all over their bodies while bystanders watched or walked by. The vast majority of those stopped and searched were racial minorities, and more than half were African American. . . . . 
Although the NYPD attempted to justify the stops on the grounds that they were designed to get guns off the street, stops by the Street Crime Unit -- the group of officers who supposedly are specially trained to identify gun-toting thugs -- yielded a weapon in only 2.5 percent of all stops. . . .

Rather than reducing reliance on stop-and-frisk tactics following the Diallo shooting* and the release of this disturbing data, the NYPD dramatically increased its number of pedestrian stops and continued to stop and frisk African Americans at grossly disproportionate rates. The NYPD stopped five times more people in 2005 than in 2002 -- the overwhelming majority of whom were African American or Latino.
Perhaps the most surprising portion of The New Jim Crow is Alexander's history of the War on Drugs. The "tough on crime" stance that began under President Nixon and intensified under Presidents Reagan and Clinton was born when rates of drug use and crime were low.

Today nearly one-third of African American men are likely to spend time in prison. Once released, they live in a state of permanent second-class citizenship. Alexander builds a case that the War on Drugs was not a response to higher crime rates, but a deliberate plan to dismantle the gains of the civil rights movement. If this sounds unlikely, I highly recommend reading this book.

Alexander has clearly done exhaustive research, but she doesn't exhaust the reader with statistics. Although the numbers are extremely convincing, they are woven into a compelling, readable narrative. It's a disturbing book, as it should be, and an excellent one.




-----
* Amadou Diallo was an African immigrant living in New York City. In 1999, when stopped by the police and asked for identification, he reached for his wallet. Police later said they thought the wallet was a gun. The police shot 41 times. Diallo was 22 years old, and unarmed.

* The Wikipedia article about the Diallo murder contains this:
On March 13, 2015, Capital New York and other news organizations reported that 50 of the 15,000 IP addresses belonging to the NYPD were associated with edits, dating back to 2006, to English Wikipedia articles, including this article on the Amadou Diallo shooting. These IP addresses geolocate to NYPD headquarters at 1 Police Plaza. Detective Cheryl Crispin, a NYPD spokeswoman, said that "the matter is under internal review."

5.26.2017

what i'm reading: leaving lucy pear

The year is 1917. A teenage girl from a wealthy family is pregnant, the result of rape -- by a man who her mother pushed her to pursue for marriage. Now the girl is being forced to surrender her baby to an orphanage. She has met the person who runs the orphanage, and she cannot bear the thought.

The girl devises a plan, a way she can leave her infant daughter to be found by a large family who will, she hopes, raise her as their own.

Ten years later, the lives of the woman who left the child and the woman who found the child intersect. But only one of them knows of their connection.

Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon begins with this tantalizing and emotionally charged premise, and as the story unfolds, it does not disappoint. Family secrets, desire, regrets, unintended consequences, and unfulfilled longing are set against a backdrop of Prohibition, labour justice, and classism.

In the larger world, Sacco and Vanzetti are scheduled for execution, despite global protests.* The political situation parallels our current world in many ways.

Through Solomon's clear and often piercing prose, we know what every character thinks and feels -- leading us to see the enormous chasm of perceptions, the impossibility of knowing another person's truth. The book is infused with empathy and compassion. It makes for a satisfying and compelling read.

* The Atlantic reproduces Felix Frankfurter's 1927 article about the case.

5.22.2017

arun gupta's perfect takedown of food-as-cultural-appropriation

I read this on Facebook and absolutely love it. The author, Arun Gupta, understands and acknowledges cultural appropriation as a fact and a legitimate concern (as do I). But he also believes the "reactionary left" spreading lists of ethnic restaurants run by white people
...essentializes the notion of culture as rooted in the very soil of a place and not something that can travel or transcend boundaries. This hints at fascistic notions of blood and soil as what constitutes the nation.

It is reactionary because the creators of this are implying there are timeless practices, rooted in a people, land and culture, that constitute only appropriate form of food. They want to fix all cultures as fossils in a museum, not allowing for adaptation, changing tastes, social roles, or fashion. It reminds me of how the National Front fetishizes a notion of the pure French nation.
He's unpacked the food-as-cultural-appropriation concept perfectly. Please go read the whole post.

I would be interested to know what wmtc readers who vehemently disagreed with my earlier posts think of Gupta's ideas.

5.18.2017

postscript: some clarifications and addenda to my recent post on cultural appropriation

Many people have been discussing my recent post about cultural appropriation on Facebook. I'm not surprised that many people disagree (that's why I wrote it, to put my countering opinion out there), but I have been surprised by how many progressive people do agree.

From the negative comments, I can see that I wasn't clear on a few important points.

1. The entire post refers to white, first-world people calling out other first-worlders with accusations of cultural appropriation -- not aboriginal people. I would not pass judgment or venture an opinion about a native person's judgment of appropriation of their own culture. I have no right to do so -- and I would not do so. I was referring what I see as a quite a large bandwagon, pointing self-righteous fingers at others -- by white people, and at white people.

2. The above might explain why I feel the words shaming and bullying are fair game. I wasn't suggesting that aboriginal people are bullying white people about appropriation. That would be absurd.

3. I do believe that on a personal, one-to-one level, we are all equals and must treat each other with mutual respect. I do not believe that membership in a historically marginalized group is a license to act disrespectfully. That's my belief, but it's not what the post is about.

4. My post was not in response to the Hal Niedzviecki controversy. I had been writing the post for a while. I have very little time to write, and I edit every post at least twice, so it can take quite a while for me to finish something and get it online.

5. The post was also not in response to me personally being taken to task for appropriation. The whole #fragilewhiteperson thing is not at issue here. Again, I was referring to white people criticizing other white people for what they have -- mistakenly, in my opinion -- labeled cultural appropriation.

6. Apparently some readers thought my post was in response to one comment I saw online. Believe me, I don't write 3,000 words about one random comment. I see this as a clear trend.

This postscript is meant for clarity only. It's not important to me whether readers agree with me or not. I just want to express myself clearly and stimulate discussion.

5.16.2017

accusations of cultural appropriation are a form of bullying -- and don't reduce racism

I'm increasingly dismayed by accusations of cultural appropriation that are used as weapons, rather than as a tool for raising awareness and educating. Accusations of appropriation have become a form of bullying, a weapon wielded to police and enforce a superficial obeisance to a behavioural code -- while doing nothing to address the underlying issues.

Cultural appropriation is real. It's a valid issue.

I'm not saying that cultural appropriation is not real. It is. I'm not saying claims of appropriation don't have merit. They do.

When I was a child in the 1960s, parents might dress their children as "Indians" for Halloween, without a second thought. Kids played "Cowboys and Indians," dressing up in hats or feathers, with toy guns or tomahawks. Can you imagine if someone had played "Nazis and Jews"? It's completely inappropriate to turn a history of genocide and oppression into costumes and games. That in the 21st century, people are still doing this... it's mind-boggling.

Racist names and logos of sports teams, the Disney version of stories like Pocahontas -- these images are demeaning, degrading, trivializing, and undeniably racist. They should never stand unchallenged. (When it comes to sports teams, names and images should be changed
immediately.)

It’s disturbing to see sacred images commodified and commercialized, reduced to merchandise, devoid of meaning. That's what our consumer society does -- to everything. Religious holidays become secular shopping marathons. Spiritual symbols are sold on infomercials. Leaders of movements who fought for radical change are re-packaged as icons with feel-good slogans.

Using objects of cultural significance in trivial (and usually commercial) ways is a hallmark of consumer culture. Everything is gobbled up by the giant maw of consumerism, then diluted and spit back, stripped of all meaning, in some mass-marketable form.

It can be depressing, and it can be enraging. But shaming people for their ignorance will not stop this dynamic. The proliferation of racialized language, the enforcement of racialized divisions, the policing of thought and expression -- all hallmarks of appropriation shaming -- do not increase understanding. They preclude it. The current opposition to cultural appropriation sounds a lot like calls for segregation.

The hyperbole is out of control. There is no doubt that dressing children in "Indian" costumes is racist. But it is not -- as I have seen it called -- genocidal. When everything is genocide, then nothing is genocide; the word ceases to have meaning. Perhaps this analogy works: racist costumes are to genocide as street harassment is to rape. They are related. They can be placed on the same continuum. But they are not the same thing.

The current climate of accusation is misguided and harmful. Some thoughts.

-- Who owns culture? Expression is not owned. Culture is not owned. It's not owned by Disney, and it's not owned by the Ojibway. The Ojibway people have a much greater claim to their own culture than Disney, but neither can restrict anyone else's use. No one owns cultural influences, and no one can stop anyone else from being influenced.

-- Who appoints the expression police? Freedom of expression is a human right. When that expression is harmful or offensive, then others must exercise their own freedom of expression in opposing it. But bullying people into silence is never OK. What's more, it doesn't even work! You might get the person to stop the behaviour, but is that the only goal? Submission and silence do not equal understanding.

-- The rhetoric has grown increasingly authoritarian. That alone should make it suspect. The accusations emphasize divisions. They create division.

-- Accusations of cultural appropriation trivialize racism. Calling a hairstyle, or food, or a dance "genocidal" is an insult to every culture that has experienced genocide.

-- Some accusers will say that using another culture's symbols is acceptable if one has engaged meaningfully with that culture. So who makes the call? How does the "appropriator" communicate their engagement, and to what tribunal do they submit their evidence?

-- Who decides? Do the self-appointed guardians of culture have the widespread support of the community they claim to represent?

-- The current rhetoric does nothing to bridge divides and promote understanding. Instead, it accuses, shames, and basks in self-righteousness.

-- The accusation of cultural appropriation is often based on assumptions. Are you sure the person you’re accusing has no “right” to wear her hair that way or to wear a First Nations insignia, or are you assuming based on physical appearance?

I recently learned that a co-worker of mine is First Nations. Had she not told me, I never would have known. Can she wear signifiers from her heritage culture without exposing herself to accusations and attacks? Why should she have to explain or justify her choices? And, it follows, why should anyone?

White women wearing African-derived hairstyles are a common source of outcry. What if we learn that the apparently white woman is actually a light-skinned African American? Is it then ok? Pretty soon we're back to the "one drop of blood" rule. We're DNA testing women to see if they were biologically female at birth. We're asking people to identify their heritage in order to be granted access to a culture. Why do we think this is OK?

The world is a heap of broken images

We live in a multicultural, mongrel world where cultures are constantly blending and shifting and taking on new forms. Almost everything in our common culture originated from some other culture, often from cultures that were once despised and marginalized.

Credit is important. Engagement is important. But even without it, no one has the right to police anyone else's culture.

We often hear that art is "stolen" from its sources. It's not that simple.

Artist Damien Hirst recently was accused of appropriating Nigerian art. Hirst admit the influence and credited it -- but apparently didn't say it loudly or often enough. I'm not a Hirst fan by any means, but here an artist is acknowledging an influence, and it's still not enough.

We can see the influence of African masks in Picasso's paintings, but Picasso did not steal the mask images. It is often said that Elvis Presley "stole" African American music and dance.* In fact, Presley was influenced as much by the music of his African American neighbours as the "hillbilly" music of his white neighbours (who were also poor, marginalized people). Those two influences came crashing together in the form of one (part-Native American) Elvis.

That’s often how art happens -- cultures clash, then give birth to something new. That may happen with or without exploitation -- but it can’t not happen. It will never stop happening, nor should we want it to.

Miley Cyrus was apparently lambasted for twerking onstage, a white woman performing a “black dance”. (I learned of this when researching this post. This "news" would not have been on my radar!) So some people are policing who does what dances, apparently ignorant of the way dance styles proliferate. First it's a strange, exotic movement used by an in-crowd, then it is seized on by the mainstream, at which point the in-crowd moves on to the next new thing. Surely we are not saying that some dance moves can only be made by people with dark skin? And if we are -- why is this OK??

Some responses to what's out there

Researching this post, I’ve read many thoughtful articles purporting to explain cultural appropriation, but I disagree with much of what I read.

In How to Explain Cultural Appropriation to Anyone Who Just Doesn’t Get It, I read --
for the first time -- about the supposed cultural appropriation of food. Nigerian jollof rice and Vietnamese pho have been given a supposedly hip twist by some famous chefs.

I don’t doubt that to some Nigerians (like the author) and to some Vietnamese people, this is offensive. To others, I’m willing to bet, it’s amusing. And still to others, it may be flattery. That is almost always the case. Does the writer speak for all Nigerians? Surely not. He speaks for himself and no doubt some Nigerians agree with him.

Jamie Oliver isn't hiding the fact that the dish is Nigerian in origin. He isn't trivializing Nigerian culture. He isn't using sacred symbols in a debased way. He has created some Nigerian food with his own twist.

Just about the last place we should look for cultural appropriation is the dinner table. Almost everything we first-worlders eat originated from some culture somewhere. Last week, I ate hummus, pizza, and sushi. Somehow I doubt the restaurant owners felt I was engaging in cultural appropriation. Can only Polish people eat pierogis? Should we demand that non-Polish people understand the historical struggles of the Polish people before eating kielbasa? Let's not even get into corn -- invented by the aboriginal people of what is now the Americas.

As ridiculous as it may seem to some to turn a simple dish like jollof rice or pho into upscale food, that is a part of our multicultural world that many people celebrate. It's not appropriation.

In this article in Jezebel, the writer wonders if it's all right for her to hang a dreamcatcher in her window. You do not need someone else's permission to decorate your home, nor should you be concerned that the art you love is originally from another culture. Find me some art that’s not.

This article from an aboriginal blog encourages us to learn about the cultures we borrow from, and asks us to stay away from images that are sacred and meaningful in their original culture. For me it was a welcome, compassionate voice in a sea of snark.

Many people are sharing this post from Everyday Feminism: What’s Wrong with Cultural Appropriation? These 9 Answers Reveal Its Harm. I agree with a few of the writer’s points, but I find others very problematic. I'd like to respond to a few points in particular.

It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression

Sometimes it does. And anything that does that is wrong. The racist team logos and nicknames do. The skirt depicting slave ships do. Decorating your room with a dreamcatcher or eating Jamie Oliver’s jollof does not.

It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People

The writer uses the example of white people wanting to eat authentic Mexican food but not wanting to venture into "sketchy neighbourhoods" to get it. I get this. It can be maddening to run into that kind of classism and racism.

In our multicultural society, we can take what we like and avoid the rest. I think it's something we all do to an extent, including the people who complain about it. However, it is not appropriation. See above: the "yelpers" eating Mexican food are not using sacred symbols in a distorting or demeaning way.

The writer says:
So is every non-Mexican who enjoys a good burrito guilty of cultural appropriation? Say it ain’t so! That would include me and nearly everyone I know.

But now that you know that popularizing “ethnic” food can be one way to harm a group of people while taking from their traditions, you can think about ways to satisfy your international food cravings without participating in that harm.
I find this an enormous leap and assumption. I don't "know" this, I only know this writer thinks so. But more importantly, how can we tell if a burrito-phile is participating in harm or not? We can't. So let's not assume and render judgment.

It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor

Show me one first-world person who is not doing this, every single day, no matter what their background. Is any first-worlder so naive or narcissistic or self-absorbed to think they're not doing this? Where does this woman shop, where does she buy her food? It's not only the privileged that engage in this. In our economy of precarious work, very few people can afford not to profit from the labour of oppressed people.

This is something all first-world activists and revolutionaries should own. We profit from the labour of oppressed people, every time we buy clothes and much of the time we buy food. Believing that this is something other people do -- that appropriators do -- is hypocritical. It's delusional.

It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes

I am concerned with this. Challenging racist stereotypes is part of my life. It should be part of our daily work for justice. But this --
As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”
-- made my flesh crawl. Pretending to be a race you are not? First, do the appropriators actually pretend to be something they are not? Is Miley Cyrus pretending to African American? And more importantly, I find the language here – race, instead of culture or background or ethnicity – creepily regressive.

White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing

Here the writer reveals a fascinating bit of hidden history.
Did you know yoga was once banned in India as part of the “racist and orientalist narratives” that characterized Indian people as perverse heathens who had to conform to Western ways? The bands of yogis who resisted the ban rose up to challenge the oppressive British rule.

These days, it seems like yoga’s everywhere, and practitioners don’t have to challenge the rules of the government to reach it. It can bring up some sensitive feelings to say that non-South Asian people who do yoga are appropriating culture, because the practice benefits many people throughout the US.

But you know who’s not benefiting from the commercialization of yoga like middle class white women are? The South Asian people for whom yoga has a deep cultural and religious significance.
I ask: Do South Asian people oppose the popularization of yoga? There is evidence from one person. This may be the dominant thought in her culture, or it may not. I've heard my South Asian co-workers mention yoga with pride -- a positive piece of our common culture that originated from their original culture. This may or may not be the dominant thought of South Asian people. I wouldn’t presume to know. Neither should this writer or anyone else.

It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People

Freedom of expression is not a feeling, it isn't trivial, and it doesn't only affect privileged people. Just the opposite. Marginalized people are always more affected by laws and customs that curtail freedom of expression. Freedom of expression cannot apply only to certain people and not others. Because again, who decides?

I understand the arguments about power imbalance. But when you police culture, you are appropriating power. What gives you the right?

Let's be honest: many of the accusers, many people happily calling out others on charges of appropriation, are not themselves members of marginalized cultures. Many members of the culture police I see on Facebook and Twitter are North American white folks.

So what do we do?

Almost everyone in our world has a background of mixed origins and cultures. Are we only allowed to use expressions from our original culture? Who decides when an attribute from another culture is now part of the mainstream? Three or four generations after my great-grandparents emigrated from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the US, am I only allowed to use cultural references they would have recognized? We recognize that question as absurd. But we're willing to say that this white performer shouldn't dance a black-identified dance, and this artist shouldn't use African influences.

Researching for this post, I did find an article expressing the same ideas as I do here: The Dos and Don'ts of Cultural Appropriation, in The Atlantic. After describing how "getting dressed is a daily act of cultural appropriation," using and wearing items gleaned all over the world, Jenni Avins writes:
As I dress in the morning, I deeply appreciate the craftsmanship and design behind these items, as well as the adventures and people they recall. And while I hope I don’t offend anyone, I find the alternative — the idea that I ought to stay in the cultural lane I was born into — outrageous. No matter how much I love cable-knit sweaters and Gruyere cheese, I don’t want to live in a world where the only cultural inspiration I’m entitled to comes from my roots in Ireland, Switzerland, and Eastern Europe.

There are legitimate reasons to step carefully when dressing ourselves with the clothing, arts, artifacts, or ideas of other cultures. But please, let’s banish the idea that appropriating elements from one another’s cultures is in itself problematic.

Such borrowing is how we got treasures such as New York pizza and Japanese denim — not to mention how the West got democratic discourse, mathematics, and the calendar. Yet as wave upon wave of shrill accusations of cultural appropriation make their way through the Internet outrage cycle, the rhetoric ranges from earnest indignation to patronizing disrespect.

And as we watch artists and celebrities being pilloried and called racist, it’s hard not to fear the reach of the cultural-appropriation police, who jealously track who “owns” what and instantly jump on transgressors.

In the 21st century, cultural appropriation — like globalization — isn’t just inevitable; it’s potentially positive. We have to stop guarding cultures and subcultures in efforts to preserve them. It’s na├»ve, paternalistic, and counterproductive. Plus, it’s just not how culture or creativity work. The exchange of ideas, styles, and traditions is one of the tenets and joys of a modern, multicultural society.

So how do we move past the finger pointing, and co-exist in a way that’s both creatively open and culturally sensitive? In a word, carefully.
Avins then lists her own take on the how to show this care, such as "Don’t Adopt Sacred Artifacts as Accessories," "Appropriation is not a substitute for diversity", "Engage With Other Cultures on More Than an Aesthetic Level," and "Treat a Cultural Exchange Like Any Other Creative Collaboration — Give Credit, and Consider Royalties".

This strikes me as sensitive, compassionate, and mindful of the rights of all parties involved. We have no way of knowing if the appropriator has sufficiently met this criteria or not. So let's not judge them.

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* I am aware of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I know quite a bit about blues music and early rock-and-roll. They are not the same thing.