As a fan of Mother Jones magazine, I don’t often disagree with the progressive monthly’s editor in chief Clara Jeffery. But she asked for it with this breathtaking tweet after President Donald Trump fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase:”That the missiles are called tomahawks,” she tweeted, “must enrage a lot of Native Americans (sic).”Or maybe not? I suspect fewer Native Americans were upset by the Tomahawk reference than other Americans who were upset by Jeffery’s presumption, judging by their snarky responses to her tweet.Yet her concern is widely shared these days under the heading of “cultural appropriation.” It means what it sounds like, the appropriation by a privileged group of an oppressed group’s culture without permission.It used to be discussed in terms of black music, for example, which was appropriated by white performers back in the day when opportunities and audiences were strictly separated by race.Unfortunately, when taken to extremes the fight against cultural appropriation can turn into a divisive fight against one of this land’s most underappreciated opportunities: cultural sharing.A surprising example recently came out of Pitzer College in Claremont, California, in a dust-up over of all things hoop earrings.Yes, some Hispanic students accused white women who wear hoop earrings of appropriating Latina culture, according to Inside Higher Ed. Three Latina students reportedly started the controversy by writing “White girls, take off your hoops” on a campus free-speech wall.When the story boiled over into the conservative blogosphere, the young Latinas predictably received a wave of nasty emails from off campus. Some sounded threatening enough for the college’s president, Melvin L. Oliver, to issue an open letter headlined “Hate Speech is NOT Free Speech.”I agree with that. But the more reasonable conservatives raised a fair point, too. We all should be wary of the thin line between racial pride and racial supremacy.The hoop earring dispute reminds me of similar complaints raised about Bo Derek’s blonde cornrows in her hit 1979 movie “10.” The movie turned out to be her biggest hit anyway.Yet rows over cornrows still erupt today. Fashion designer Marc Jacobs faced charges of “cultural appropriation” last September when he closed New York Fashion Week with a parade on the runway of models, who happened to be white and dressed in wigs that looked like dreadlocks. Culture will not be contained.Whoopi Goldberg, co-host of ABC’s “The View,” said as much when she recently called the “cultural appropriation” issue overblown. If black women who oppose cultural appropriation are going to be consistent, she said, they should stop straightening their hair and wearing weaves. After all, “if we’re wearing white lady hair,” she said, “isn’t that appropriation as well?”Maybe so. Look around. Cultural appropriation is no less American than Apple pie, pizza and spring rolls. America is a land of dynamic innovation in the arts and sciences precisely because we have so many cultures learning from each other, when we’re not at each other’s throats.Yes, I, too, want to wince when I see, for example, non-Native Americans wearing sacred Native American artifacts as if they were mere fashion statements.Or when white college kids think it’s cool to wear blackface on Halloween and call themselves Kanye West or Beyonce. But I am even more disturbed by the recent protests mounted by black artists against a painting by white artist Dana Schutz at the Whitney Museum in New York. The abstract painting called “Open Casket” depicts the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black Chicago teenager who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, allegedly for whistling at a white woman.Schutz based her work on photographs, published in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender newspaper at the urging of Till’s mother, that were powerful enough to help ignite the civil rights movement.But now, more than 60 years later, Schutz’s abstract depiction has had to withstand protests and calls for the work to be destroyed, mainly because the artist is not black.”The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” wrote one protest leader, Hannah Black, a British-born black writer and artist living in Berlin, in a Facebook message that was signed by more than 30 other artists she identifies as nonwhite. “White free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”Yet, mainstream culture won’t be made any less white if we African Americans segregate ourselves into our own monocultural enclaves. We don’t have to steal each other’s cultures if we learn to share.Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist and a member of The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.
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