An old Scottish proverb holds that open confession is good for the soul. To honor my Scottish ancestors, I have a confession to make: In middle school, I was a drug-pushing pimp.
Well, I played a drug-pushing pimp on stage. In 1977, I played the role of Sportin’ Life in what was likely New Hampshire’s only all-White middle school production of Porgy and Bess. It might have been America’s only such staging of Gershwin’s operatic-musical that year. Or any year.
So here is my real confession: At the tender age of 14, I was a cultural appropriator. Never mind that I played the villainous pimp (a character made famous by Sammy Davis, Jr.) who enticed drug-addled Bess to leave her lover, Porgy, and join him for the “high life in New York.” Ignore the fact that seventh- and eighth-graders were dramatizing for our parents, teachers, and community a saga that included drugs, rape, blasphemy, and murder. No, the real sin – though we wouldn’t recognize it as such for decades – was that we were appropriating a culture utterly foreign to us.
The opera’s setting is a Black fishing village near Charleston, SC, in the early 1900s. The only White characters are the police investigating the murder. In our version, every character was White. Our show went on without protest, but forty years later a dramatization with a similar “defect” was a national controversy in Hungary. The enlightened keepers of culture insisted that productions of Porgy and Bess be true to the race of the characters as written. That’s as difficult to do in today’s Hungary as it was impossible to do in a small NH middle school in the ‘70s.
The student thespians at Ithaca High School in NY weren’t so lucky. Their production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was cancelled after students protested the awarding of the role of Esmerelda to a White student. Even though Victor Hugo’s novel describes the character as half Roma, half French, the musical version based on the novel reframed her as “an outcast racially and culturally.” Today, that means no Whites allowed.
When did the charge of “cultural appropriation” become an arrow in the quiver of the ever-petulant, race-consumed Left? Like so many loony ideas, it seems to have come out of nowhere (a.k.a. liberal arts colleges).
What anyone with more than an ounce of historical knowledge recognizes as the cultural synthesis that has been improving the human condition for millennia, lefty academics and the students they indoctrinate see as a “power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.”
To the Left, everything is a power dynamic. Those who lack power are excused everything (which is why it’s okay for them to take advantage of social, governmental, and technological structures they didn’t and couldn’t create). But individuals racially connected to the dominant culture are condemned for everything. Even making sandwiches.
At Oberlin College a few years ago, a student of Vietnamese descent forced the dining hall to stop serving its version of Banh Mi – a traditional Vietnamese sandwich. It seems that bad imitation is not a form of flattery. As told in The Atlantic earlier this month, the dining hall used pulled pork instead of grilled pork; ciabatta bread instead of crusty baguette; coleslaw instead of pickled veggies. And they left off the pâté.
“It was ridiculous,” the student complained. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?” The Atlantic journalist pointed out the obvious flaw in the student’s rant: How traditionally-Vietnamese could that sandwich be if it uses baguettes and pâté, foods associated with the French colonizers of the nation now known as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam? I guess that’s where the power dynamic kicks in, except that the French were defeated in Indochina…
From sandwiches to prom dresses, nothing is beyond the rage of the cultural appropriation police. A Utah high school student was slammed on social media a few weeks ago for wearing a cheongsam – a traditional Chinese dress – to her prom. One Chinese-American student critic posted “My culture is not your g*ddam prom dress.”
But, funnily enough, actual Chinese citizens were overwhelmingly supportive. And the Chinese-American grievance-monger seems both well-assimilated into his appropriated Western culture and ignorant of the cultural history of that particular garment.
Will this latest line of attack on personal freedoms by so-called social justice warriors (SJW) succeed? Only if we let it. Cultural freedom fighters need to appropriate Rule #5 from that master of the totalitarian Left, Saul Alinsky: “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”
When plays, sandwiches, and prom dresses spark political outrage, ridicule is the correct response.