Commenting on the debate over Halloween costumes seems freshly risky this week, but the subject has been on my mind since I read this New York Times article on the subject on October 30.
My first thought would be that calls for the resignation of the Silliman House masters at Yale are dangerously disproportionate to the email that they wrote in response to polite guidance from the Yale administration. I’ll come back to why that disproportionate response worries me so much later in this essay.
And yet I don’t entirely agree with the way that Erika Christakis chose to come at the issue. I wish everyone could back up a step so that the entire discussion is not about free expression vs. censorship or between safe spaces and stereotype threats. Once the discussion has locked into those terms, then the “free speech” advocates are stupidly complicit in defending people who show up at parties in blackface or are otherwise costumed or having themed parties with deliberately offensive stereotypes. Once the discussion has locked into those terms, people who want to say that such stereotypes have a real, powerful history of instrumental use in systems of racial domination are forced to understand that advocacy as censorship–and are also unable to leave space open to hear people like Erika and Nicolas Christakis as making any other kind of point.
The real issues we should be talking about are:
1) The concepts of appropriation and ownership. This is where moves are being made that are at least potentially reactionary and may in fact lead to the cultural and social confinement or restriction of everyone, including people of color, women, GLBQT people, and so on. In some forms, the argument against appropriation is closely aligned with dangerous kinds of ethnocentrism and ultra-nationalism, with ideas about purity and exclusivity. It can serve as the platform for an attack on the sort of cosmopolitan and pluralistic society that many activists are demanding the right to live within. Appropriation in the wrong institutional hands is a two-edged sword: it might instruct an “appropriator” to stop wearing, using or enacting something that is “not of their culture”, but it might also require someone to wear, use and enact their own “proper culture”.
When I have had students read Frederick Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, which was basically the operator’s manual for British colonial rule in the early 20th Century, one of the uncomfortable realizations many of them come to is that Lugard’s description of the idea of indirect rule sometimes comes close to some forms of more contemporary “politically correct” multiculturalism. Strong concepts of appropriation have often been allied with strong enforcement of stereotypes and boundaries. “Our culture is these customs, these clothing, this food, this social formation, this everyday practice: keep off” has often been quickly reconfigured by dominant powers to be “Fine: then if you want to claim membership in that culture, please constantly demonstrate those customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices–and if you don’t, you’re not allowed to claim membership”.
And then further, “And please don’t demonstrate other customs, clothing, food, social formations and everyday practices: those are for other cultures. Stick to where you belong.” I recall a friend of mine early in our careers who was told on several occasions during her job searches that since she was of South Asian descent, she’d be expected to formally mentor students from South Asia as well as Asian-Americans, neither of which she particularly identified with. I can think of many friends and colleagues who have identified powerfully with a particular group or community but who do not dress as or practice some of what’s commonly associated with that group.
What’s being called appropriation in some of the current activist discourses is how culture works. It’s the engine of cultural history, it’s the driver of human creativity. No culture is a natural, bounded, intrinsic and unchanging thing. A strong prohibition against appropriation is death to every ideal of human community except for a rigidly purified and exclusionary vision of identity and membership.
Even a weak prohibition against appropriation risks constant misapplication and misunderstanding by people who are trying to systematically apply the concept as polite dogma. To see one example of that, look to the New York Times article, which describes at one point a University of Washington advice video that counsels people to avoid wearing a karate costume unless you’re part of the real culture of karate. But karate as an institutional culture of art and sport is already thoroughly appropriated from its origins in Okinawa, and it was in turn an appropriation of sorts from Chinese martial arts–and no martial arts form in the world today is anything even remotely like its antecedents in practice, form or purpose. Trying to forbid karate costuming to anyone but a truly authentic “owner” of the costume is a tragic misunderstanding of the history of the thing being regulated. It’s also a gesture that almost certainly forbids the wearing of a costume that has a referent that is not wholly imaginary. If a karate outfit is appropriation for anyone but a genuine Okinawan with a black belt, then so also are firefighters, police, soldiers, nurses, doctors, astronauts and so on. Even imaginary characters are usually appropriations of some kind of another, drawn out of history and memory.
It is precisely these kinds of discourses about appropriation that are used by reactionaries to protest Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall, or to assert that a tradition of a particular character or cultural type being white or male or straight means it must always be so. It might be possible to configure a critique so that appropriation from below is always ok and appropriation from above is never ok, but that kind of categorical distinction itself rests on the illusion of power being rigid, binary and fixed rather than fluid, performative and situational.
What I think many activists mean to forbid is not appropriation but disrespect, not borrowing but hostile mockery. The use of costumes as weapons, as tools of discrimination. But it’s important to say precisely that and no more, and not let the word appropriation stand in for a much more specific situational critique of specific acts of harmful expression and representation. “Appropriation” is being used essentially to anticipate, to draw a comprehensive line proactively in order to avoid having to sort out with painful specificity which costumes and parties are offensive and which are not after the fact of their expression.
2) But this leads to my second point: “appropriation” is being used for the convenience of custodial authority, for the use of institutions, for the empowerment of a kind of kindly quasi-parental control over communities.
Institutions–like college administrations and particularly the legal advisors they employ–don’t like situational judgments, they don’t like critiques that apply with strong force in some situations and don’t apply at all in others. So they often seek to rework demands for change into rules and guidelines that can be applied evenly to all subjects at all times. That’s one reason why appropriation as a concept at least has the potential to force people to perform the identities they claim according to a pre-existing sketch in the hands of institutional power.
Custodial authority in this respect and many others is a danger for other reasons. Here I can’t do much more than echo Fredrik deBoer’s warning against “University Inc.”: the custodial university quickly becomes the neoliberal corporate university. On some campuses, student activists are incidentally or accidentally strengthening the capacity and reach of custodial power over faculty, staff and students alike. Among other consequences, this change in academic institutions often puts faculty from underrepresented groups at much more intense risk: student activists are sometimes accidentally undercutting one of their most cherished objectives.
Even when the people in the crosshairs do not have that vulnerability, they have the basic vulnerability that all working professionals have in the disastrous political economy of early 21st Century America. In the Christakis’ case and many others, I feel as if simplistic ideas of asymmetrical power and “punching up” are being used to overlook the potentially disastrous consequences of introducing greater precariousness into the lives of middle-aged professionals. Sometimes the consequences of failed leadership is sufficient cause to warrant making an individual’s life precarious, and sometimes the asymmetry of power is enough that one can sleep easy about the consequences–say, with the resignation of the University of Missouri’s president, who I think we can say will in fact land on his feet. But often not. What’s being said to the Christakises in those videos is serious business, and I don’t know that those saying it seem to realize it is, even though many of them clearly feel with legitimate passion that what was said by Erika Christakis is also serious business that makes them feel unsafe in a place where they prize a sense of security. It’s a cliche, but here something of “two wrongs don’t make a right” is important.
This is also a concern about the future of academic institutions themselves. This is the other problem with some of these protests. I feel badly for everyone today in that everything they write on social media, every protest they attend, every response they give, has some chance of being seized upon by commenters all over the world. Nobody was looking at my college life with that kind of attention. But for anyone who aspires to political action,even action as intimate and simple as seeking personal safety and happiness, they have got to pay attention to the infrastructure surrounding that action, and to the consequences that will flow from it. Bit by bit, protests that seem to assert that yes, the university is indeed a world completely apart from the social and cultural realities around it, add fuel to the fires being set by reactionary politicians all around the United States. Bit by bit, protests where the rhetoric that is meant to be strictly local but is turned national or global end up looking tone-deaf or disproportionate. This could be a learning experience: liberal arts learning is supposed to increase the capacities of students to speak, think, write and act in the world around them. But for it to be a learning experience, in some cases students (and faculty) will have to treat the question of how a particular claim will sound or mean outside of the local context seriously. And they will need to think very carefully about matching critical demands to visions of proportionality that sound reasonable to more than just the group at hand.
3) This leads in turn to my third point. What is going on with struggles over Halloween costumes and much else besides within college and university culture has implications for the futures of liberal arts-educated students. And they are not the implications that are commonly drawn either by “free speech advocates” or by defenders of current campus activism.
“Free speech”, broadly speaking, is not what is at risk in most campus disputes. Occasionally it is to some extent: that’s how I interpret the seriously misconceived protests at Wesleyan recently against the student newspaper. Even in the case of Wesleyan, however, the initial impulse to inhibit or constrict what can be said gave way to something more managerial and neoliberal, this time not from administration but from student leadership itself. The student assembly proposed cutting the funding of the paper in the name of a drive for efficiency, having it “compete” for positions against others with an inbuilt incentive-based reward for incorporating diversity.
What I think that move suggests is that some of the drive for cultural transformation, with its constant turn towards custodial forms of managerial and institutional power, may be in danger of turning away from an ideal of creating safety and security for all towards an ideal of governance over others. That the struggles now underway have at least some danger of congealing into an intramural struggle for elite power in the political economy to come. On one side, the future economic elites: the students from selective institutions feeding into the finance industry and Silicon Valley. On the other side, the future cultural managers and bureaucrats: the students from selective institutions feeding into consultancies, non-profits, risk management administration, human resources, into the civic middlemen of a future capitalism.
Where that danger becomes clearest is precisely in the talk of guidance and guidelines, suggestions and “soft rules”. Not so much in the talk itself, but in who the talk is aimed at. Free speech advocacy tends to see every guideline from an institution as a law, and turn to a libertarian vocaculary to contest it. The issue is less the making of law and more the incipient character of class hierarchy in the political economy to come.
One of the things that I heard coming from a substantial wave of student activism here several years ago was that they held themselves to be already knowledgeable about all the things that they felt a good citizen and ethical person should know. It was the other students, the absent students, the students who don’t study such subjects, who worried them. And some of the activists had a touching faith in a way in the power of our faculty’s teaching to remake the great unwashed of the student body. If only they took the right classes, they’d do the right thinking. As one Swarthmore student in spring 2013 said in the group I was in, “I can’t believe there are students here who graduate without having heard the word intersectionality.”
This moment worried me, even though it is important as always to remember: this was a young person, and I said things under similar circumstances that I would be deeply embarrassed to hear quoted directly back to me. It worried me because I hear that same concern a lot across the entire space of cultural activism, both on and off-campuses.
It worries me first because that student and many similar activists are wrong when they assume that what they don’t like in the culture is a result of the absence of the ideas and knowledge that they hold dear. Far more students here have been in a course where concepts like “intersectionality” come up than this student thought. All political ideologies in the contemporary American public sphere, from the most radical to the most reactionary, have a troubling tendency to assume that agreement with their views is the natural state of the mass of people except for a thin sliver of genuinely bad actors, and therefore where a lack of agreement or acceptance holds, it must be because the requisite knowledge has been kept from the masses. This is a really dangerous proposition, because it blinds any political actor to the possibility that many people have have heard what you have to say and don’t agree for actual reasons–reasons that you’ll have to reckon with eventually.
It worries me second because I think some activists may be subconsciously thinking that if they can sufficiently command custodial or institutional power, they will not have to reckon with such disagreement. Not only does that mistake custodial power as permanently and inevitably friendly to their own interests, it is where the temptation to use class power against other social groups will enter in, has already entered in.
This is what worries me most. The thing that I wish that student had recognized is that some of the people that he wishes knew the word intersectionality already know the reality of it. They might not have the vocabulary he does, but they have the phenomenology right enough. Perhaps more right than the student did.
I worry, as in the case of Halloween costumes and much else, that at least some cultural activists are setting themselves up as future commissioners of culture over other social classes and their worlds, that this is as much about admonishing people “out there” for their failure to use the right terms, for their outre mannerisms and affect, for their expressive noncompliance. That this is all about kids who will become upper middle-class (or rich) through access to education judging and regulating kids who will not have that status or education, no matter where the educated kids started in life. That making blanket policies about Halloween costumes and much else might become a building block of class differentiation, part of a system of middle-class moral paternalism.
That’s what an earlier generation of cultural activism left me doing as a young graduate who wanted to be an “ally”: piously correcting people outside of my immediate social universe whenever life put me into close contact with them. Often when it was the most innocent and well-intended on my part, it gave the greatest offense, as when I once started talking about the importance of working-class unionism with my non-union working-class cousins that I was meeting for the first time at my paternal grandfather’s house.
At least in some cases, the entire infrastructure of current cultural activism is disabling the need for careful listening, for patience, for humility, at the moments where it is needed most, particularly within the ethical commitments that many activists themselves treasure and articulate. That’s why guidelines and rules and custodial dictates and finger-wagging about general concepts like appropriation are a problem: they take what is profoundly situational and circumstantial and turn it systematic. They interrupt rather than intensify attention. They make a spectrum of expressive practice into a right-wrong binary.
We need to tell someone thinking of wearing blackface to a party to absolutely stop right there and think again. We need to tell someone planning a fraternity party with a “gang theme” to cut that shit out or else. Neither of those moments is meaningful expression or harmless fun, and there needs to be no room for them. But we also need to not give ourselves permission to piously tell the kid in the karate uniform that they’re appropriating someone’s culture, or to inform the guy in the cowboy uniform that cowboys were nothing but agents of genocidal conquest.
We need to not self-nominate as authorities over culture, especially the speech and cultural activity of people whom we arrogantly judge don’t know as much about it as we do. We need to be in culture, in circulation, even acting through appropriation and imitation, a part of the crowd and not above it. We are all dancers, not choreographers; our only choreographer is the endless, ceaseless and sometimes abrasive motion of human thought and expression in a never-simple world.