Promotional sombreros for a Mexican restaurant were banned at the University of East Anglia freshers’ fair. Elsewhere black activists have complained about white pop stars such as Katy Perry wearing hair in a cornrows style.
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea has been attacked for being disrespectful of black culture.
Each of these is an argument about racist “cultural appropriation”—the adoption of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.
Like similar discussions over “white privilege” they are more prevalent in the US than in Britain, where they tend to mainly take place on campuses.
In practice the issue is about the way elements of the culture of an oppressed minority are adopted by members of a dominant culture. In the process it is distorted.
It’s true that racism distorts popular culture. Black music is dismissed and black people are often marginalised in the industry (see below).
But while it’s right to point out levels of racism, dangers lie in looking to individual responses.
At its most straightforward cultural appropriation is about negative stereotypes.
The obvious example is minstrel shows where white people dressed up in blackface to
present a sentimentalised and usually viciously racist view of how black people behaved.
Many people see something similar in the way white acts pick up styles from black music, such as twerking.
US commentator bell hooks suggested in a critique of Madonna, ‘‘Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.’’
What tends to get left out of the argument is class and solidarity.
Often what people want to appropriate is a sense of rebellion and fighting back. Many white artists take aspects of black culture to identify with rebellion.
Jamaican Rastafarians similarly took dreadlocks in admiration for the Mau Mau fighters who had worn them fighting for Kenyan independence in the 1950s.
The ruling class uses racism to divide ordinary people—and then gets scared when this doesn’t work.
The fact that British urban street culture is more influenced by black rebellion has outraged people such as right wing historian David Starkey.
After the 2011 riots he whined, “The problem is that the whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion.”
And there is the issue that while white people can be celebrated for diversity for wearing cornrows, it can still be a problem for black people.
Some schools have a policy against “non-standard” hairstyles.
St Gregory’s Catholic Science College in Harrow was found in 2011 to have practised indirect racial discrimination after banning pupils from having cornrows.
Mainstream commentators often suggest it is ridiculous to make a fuss about “small” issues such as hairstyles.
But this forgets the relentless barrage of propaganda for hundreds of years saying that black features, and specifically tightly curled African hair, are in some way inferior.
Generations of black people have used skin lighteners and hair straighteners to look less “black”.
In the 1960s it was a major step in black pride when people started to wear their hair naturally in afros.
Yet there is an implication that all people of African descent share the same culture.
But not all African societies traditionally used cornrows and not all people of African descent have the same tightly curled hair or features.
For instance one of the most important leaders of the Black Panther Party, Kathleen Cleaver, was light skinned and had blue eyes.
The extreme case is when someone tries to become black. The case of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP civil rights organisation official who came from a white background, made the news this summer.
But she is far from the first person to pass for black.
The US was very segregated in the 1920s, but there were instances of people pushing back the colour bar.
So one history of jazz music notes, “Multiracial, multiethnic bands did record but under pseudonyms that implied a mono racial identity for all the band’s members.
“For example the Italian American guitarist Salvatore Massaro... used the pseudonym ‘Blind Willie Dunn’.”
One striking example was the musician Mezz Mezzrow. He was a white jazz musician who married a black woman and lived in the Harlem area of New York.
He called himself a “voluntary Negro”.
“I’m coloured, even if I don’t look it,” he told the governor when sent to prison in the 1940s. “I don’t think I’d get along in the white blocks.”
The other and more significant side to this is the many black people who have passed for white.
For instance NAACP leader Walter Francis White passed as white under the South’s racist Jim Crow laws in the 1920s and reported on lynchings.
He could have lived as white but chose not to.
Being black is a constructed identity for black people—but that does not make the experience any less real.
It is associated with real physical characteristics that belong to people of African descent.
The experience of being black in the modern world is inseparable from a history of slavery, imperialism and racism.
So these ideas of culture and stolen culture link to wider ideas about civilisation.
They are a response to the popular Western idea that all innovation and progress comes from the West.
Edward Said’s book Orientalism was vital in showing how this process works, and how it creates the idea of other, lesser cultures.
Unfortunately it also suggested that Marxism was part of the Western view that belittled the rest of the world.
But challenging racism has always been key to any serious Marxism.
Revolutionary Karl Marx argued that the key to capitalism’s ability to survive was the way it turned groups of workers against each other.
And one way it does that is to try and make white workers look down on people from other backgrounds.
It may seem a long way from hair styles and hats, but the Marxist tradition has always put racist oppression at the heart of capitalism. And Marx argued that capitalism cannot be challenged without fighting racism.
‘Hip hip music is a contagious culture’
In the 1950s US record companies wanted whites who sang like black people, because the establishment feared segregation breaking down.
The White Citizens Council of Birmingham, Alabama, said rock ‘n’ roll was a “plot to mongrelise America”.
Unity between blacks and whites was linked in their minds to the Civil Rights movement, Communism and moral breakdown.
Before rock ‘n’ roll a similar scare had been linked to jazz.
US Catholic archbishop Francis Beckman warned in 1938, “Jam sessions, jitterbugs, and cannibalistic rhythm orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to hell.”
Part of the music business’s purpose was to make music safe for capitalism. They wanted conservative companies to carry their adverts and play their records without feeling threatened.
The music industry has always been about controlling rebellion and turning it into profit. But outside of establishment fear and corporate greed, two other things are going on.
First there is the genuine admiration or respect white artists feel for a black-led style or art form—sometimes naively.
Second there is often a kind of stereotyping. Perhaps that black people are better dancers, more sexual or more dangerous. Of course, black musicians sometimes exploit these stereotypes themselves.
For years singers in Britain have adopted US styles and accents—sometimes copying black artists and other times white ones.
Often culture is presented as something that should be treated with purity and reverence.
But blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop are all forms of music marked by restless innovation and taking up influences from other sources.
Questlove, from the seminal hip hop group The Roots, spoke out during last year’s controversy over white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. ‘‘We as black people have to come to grips that hip-hop is a contagious culture,’’ he said.