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Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Cultural Appropriation, Subversive Racial Stereotypes, and Tap-Dancing (and an Amazingly Synced Mars/Ronson Mash-Up)

I should be honest right up front: This post is a thin excuse to share what I regard as an amazingly synced mash-up of stars from old movies dancing to Mars/Ronson earbug “Uptown Funk.” If you are (as I am) a devotee of Fred Astaire, Bill Robinson, the fabulous Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly, among many other great dancers, then you can discontinue reading, click on to the mashup link, and ignore the rest of this post.

This is, alas, an academic-ish blog, so I feel obliged to make a couple of observations about the mash-up’s larger cultural message. Since “cultural appropriation” has recently flashed up as a Twitter Moment, it seems as good a time as any to use this mash-up to distinguish the sense from the nonsense of Cultural Appropriation in America, using the concept of “tap-dancing” and the particular tap-dancing performances in the mashup of Bill Robinson, Fred Austerlitz (aka Astaire), and the Nicholas Brothers to illustrate both the sense and nonsense. Also the framing of the mashup with the Shirley Temple/Bill Robinson duo in “The Little Colonel” cries out for comment on the sometimes subversive quality of racist stereotypes for good measure — all of my comments being worth (per usual) precisely what you, gentle reader, paid for them.

1. Does Tap-Dancing — and the Mish-Mash Called “American Culture” — Show that the Concept of “Cultural Appropriation” is Nonsense?

Mostly yes (but see (2) below).

“Cultural appropriation” is typically defined as the members of one culture borrowing elements from another culture and is most controversial when members of a dominant or privileged class adopt elements of the culture of an oppressed class. The nonsense starts with the terms “culture” and “members of a culture.” In North America, at least, the idea that any social practices can be assigned to “members” like IP is assigned to owners is plainly nonsense. (For what strikes me as a good-faith but plainly desperate effort to define “culture” rigorously, see pages 9-12 of this philosophical exposition of cultural appropriation by James Young).

Tap-dancing is a case in point. Descended from a Caribbean collision between Irish jig and West African gioube with some English clog-dancing thrown in, transmitted through 19th century vaudeville clog- and sand-dancing competitions, tap-dancing might be called the common “property” of the “members” of many “different cultures” — except that it is nonsense to assign any of the participants in the practice to discrete “cultures” and impossible to assign ownership of this property to any of those granfalloons. As my colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, “[t]he right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals -- not nations, tribes or ‘peoples’ -- as the proper object of moral concern.” The idea of “culture” as a discrete thing owned by a well-defined group of people is as confused as the idea of a cloud as a definite shape rather than a confused and constantly changing mass of molecules the overall look of which is purely in the eyes of the observer. This is especially true in the mashup of America, but it is even more obviously apparent in the practice called “tap-dancing.”

Did Bill “Bojangles” Robinson illegitimately “appropriate” the Irish jig when he won a buck-and-wing dance competition in 1900 against Harry Swinton and goes on to become a tap legend? (See chapter 2 of Constance Hill’s wonderful history of tap). Is Fred Austerlitz (he changed his name to “Astaire” apparently to avoid the Napoleonic connotations), who was a guy from Omaha, Nebraska whose dad was an immigrant Roman Catholic son of Jewish converts from Austria and whose mother was an immigrant German Lutheran, illegally appropriating tap from the descendants of Irish and West Africans immigrants? To ask the question is to spot the sheer nonsense of the premise.

But watch the mashup video to see how permeable these memberships and cultures are. Astaire appears throughout, but, near the end, he descends stairs in the classic stair-dancing fashion made famous by Robinson. Theft from, or tribute to, Bill? The Nicholas Brothers ascend the stairs by leaps in a cut from their legendary dance from “Stormy Weather” — a dance that Astaire praised as the greatest film dancing ever. Astaire invented the long-take, wide-shot technique used in “Stormy Weather” (“either the camera will dance, or I will,” he insisted): So did the Nicholas Brothers steal from Fred?

Astaire, by the way, regarded Michael Jackson as his artistic heir. Astaire was especially impressed by Jackson’s “moon walk,” which “moon walk” had, among its many sources of inspiration, Jackson’s careful study of Fred Astaire’s dancing. “Study the greats to become greater” was Jackson’s motto. Put another way, culturally appropriate from everyone, so they will culturally appropriate from you.

Enough, I hope, said: The very idea that cultures are “owned” by their “members” is unadulterated and un-American rubbish. You can copyright a particular dance (but it is tricky to do so). You cannot copyright a “culture,” and a good thing, too.

2. So is there anything in the idea of “cultural appropriation” aside from silly Left campus tribalism?

Maybe. Consider the possibility that the concept serves to counteract what I will call the “Elvis Syndrome,” by which I mean an artist’s reaping what Noah Berlatsky calls “cool counter-culture cred” by imitating practices associated with another group. Berlatsky properly bemoans the “transgressive, sexy, exciting pop appeal” of “the idea that a white person could shuck off the bonds of race and become black.” Elvis’s appeal, according to Berlatsky, derived from his “imitating, or referencing, black performers, who (because of racism) were seen as innately sexual and scandalous.” The obvious problem is that treating a practice as transgressive because of its association with a group against which there is a lot of prejudice could end up reenforcing the prejudice.

If one means to denounce that Elvis Syndrome when one condemns “cultural appropriation,” then I’m on board. (I leave it to the reader, however, to determine whether denunciations of cultural appropriation today are motivated by offense at the Elvis Syndrome. My own admittedly very casually acquired sense is that worries about the Elvis Syndrome looms vanishingly small in rhetoric denouncing cultural appropriation noawadays. In any case, white supremacist rhetoric, not imitation of racial minorities, is now probably the “counter culture” with which most effectively to shock one’s parents).

3. And now a word about racial stereotypes

One last thought on Bill Robinson’s and Shirley Temple’s famous “stair climb” in “The Little Colonel.” A cut from the climb forms the culmination of the “Uptown Funk” mashup (at 3:52. Yes, I am back to praising this mashup masterpiece). I cannot help but think that the mashup’s creator is trying to send a message about the subversive character of racial stereotypes in that 1935 film in which Bill Robinson plays the loyal old black servant to a former Confederate officer whose daughter is played by Shirley Temple. “The Little Colonel” film is simultaneously the expression of the worst “Gone with the Wind” racist stereotypes and a subversion of racism. Much to his chagrin, Bill Robinson was attacked for being an “Uncle Tom” in adopting the stereotype of loyal darky who sentimentalizes slavery on the plantation. And yet the “stair climb” scene was the first interracial dance scene ever filmed. So shocking to segregationist sensibilities were the parts of the film showing Robinson and Temple holding hands that they were cut out of the film in the versions shown in the South.

So is “The Little Colonel” a racist atavism or a landmark in the defeat of racism? Probably both. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s original “Uncle Tom,” Bill Robinson’s “Uncle Billy” subverts racism even as he cloaks that subversion in stereotypes about slavery and loyal slaves that appeal to racists. So I think that there is something fitting about triumphantly pairing, at the culmination of the mashup, Robinson’s and Temple’s famous hand-holding dance at the top of those stairs with the Nicholas Brothers’ equally famous leaping up the stairs from “Stormy Weather.” One might say that Hollywood was culturally appropriating the white Southern idea of the Happy Plantation and using it to subvert the segregationist movement that the stereotype was formerly used to defend. If so -- and I leave it for others to judge for themselves — that’s one of the best kinds of cultural appropriation of all.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 2, 2018 at 10:57 PM | Permalink


Generally speaking, I think the whole idea of “cultural appropriation” is indeed a pernicious one, although I have not the time or energy to make the argument here as to why I believe this to be so. If one has not read some of the relevant literature on this topic (a taste of which is provided in the post) and wants a quick introduction, I suggest doing a search with the term “cultural appropriation” at Kenan Malik’s blog, Pandaemonium. Like yours truly, Kenan happens to be well ensconced on the Left, but has written and lectured with critical acumen on this subject for some time, much of which is captured in a number of accessible, topical, and incisive posts at his blog. He’s also penned at least six books, two of which I’ve read and recommend: Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000/Rutgers University Press, 2002) and The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics (Atlantic Books, 2014).

One conspicuous irony here is that the notion of cultural appropriation assumes something like a capitalist-inspired or –derived notion of “self-ownership,” now extended in aggregate to a “cultural” group of one kind or another. Thus this conception is similar if not identical to that which was fundamental to arguments of Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), as G.A. (‘Jerry’) Cohen explains in his brilliant book, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (1995). Cohen points out that the “[l]ibertarian principle of self-ownership has been put to both progressive and reactionary use in different historical periods” [e.g., progressive ‘when it served as a weapon against the non-contractual claims of feudal lords to the labour of their serfs,’ and reactionary when used by those ‘who argue that the welfare state unjustifiably enforces assistance to the needy’]. Nozick’s view, according to Cohen, “is that the scope and nature of the freedom that we should enjoy is a function of our self-ownership: self-ownership, not freedom, is the point of departure for generating the rights over our bodies and our powers on which he insists,” one way of accounting for Nozick’s belief that the “unfreedom of the propertyless proletarian” was not considered a “counter-example to his view that freedom prevails in capitalist society.” The Nozickean moral warrant in this case involves extension of sovereign ownership to a group’s (or ‘community’s) possession of “cultural resources” instead of natural resources, thereby generating a right, if you will, against “appropriation” (often used in the sense of ‘expropriation’).

I won’t elaborate further on this comparison (which strikes me as stronger than an analogy) if only because I want to later proffer a different but not unreleated historical and political economy reason why this notion of “cultural appropriation” came about in the first instance, and this has to do with the global spread of the Western and capitalist “intellectual property” regime as well as the commodified agriculture production regime, two socio-economic and political processes that have had destabilizing and deleterious effects that have proven deep and enduring in non-affluent nation-states, especially among the non-elites and poorer classes in such states. I hope to post further on this later today or tomorrow.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 4, 2018 9:32:00 AM

And when Bill Evans provided those opening chords to “So What” for Miles Davis/Gil Evans and then adopted that minimalist Bill Evans sound (esp in “Nardis” and “My Foolish Heart”), was he appropriating Miles Davis’s “cool” or inventing it?

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 3, 2018 7:46:51 PM

So when Eminem's early recorded styles were clearly influenced by N.W.A. (especially Eazy E) was that Eminem culturally appropriating black music or was that a young aspiring artist mimicking the style of successful artists that eventually evolved into a signature style?

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | May 3, 2018 7:07:02 PM

Asher writes:

“perhaps where we really disagree is just that I think your claim that ‘worries about the Elvis Syndrome looms vanishingly small in rhetoric denouncing cultural appropriation nowadays’ is astonishingly off-base.”

If that’s all we disagree about, then I am happy to concede the point. Keep in mind, however, that the fracas about the Chinese dress did not seem to be an instance of the Elvis Syndrome.

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 3, 2018 6:36:26 PM

This argument doesn't do much for me, though all I've really got on my side is an intuition that there is something problematic about appropriation. But a couple things:

The argument from tap dancing is forceful, I think, because tap dancing's origins are merely a historical fact of which none of us has any real experience or memory. It seems perfectly natural and unobjectionable to us for white movie stars to tap-dance because Astaire and Kelly are the people we're most used to seeing tap dancing in older films. Neither you nor anyone reading this post remembers a time when tap dancing was particularly associated with Irish culture or West African culture and was appropriated by non-Irish, white dancers in Hollywood. But if we did we might feel differently. (Tap dancing is also a weird example because, as you describe it, it's a hybrid of a couple culture's dancing traditions and never belonged to any particular culture at all.) What would you make of non-Jewish movie stars suddenly picking up the hora, or the Yemenite step? I would find that, outside of the context of situational comedy at a Jewish wedding, or something along those lines (like the delightful routine you may be familiar with in Take Me Out to the Ball Game when Gene Kelly pays tribute to Jules Munshin), very odd.

Now, perhaps where we really disagree is just that I think your claim that "worries about the Elvis Syndrome looms vanishingly small in rhetoric denouncing cultural appropriation nowadays" is astonishingly off-base. Most of the big cultural appropriation controversies that I remember over the past few years took the following shape: a white female performer starts dancing, rapping, talking, or styling themselves, or doing all three things at once, in the ways that some young black women dance, rap, talk or style themselves. This is usually intended, packaged and understood as a risque, "edgy" move to sexualize and broaden their appeal beyond their teen-pop base -- or, in the case of someone like Iggy Azalea, a white Australian who made a career out of a bad Nicki Minaj imitation, their entire career is a kind of vocal blackface. I don't think the objections to that sort of thing turn on claims that the mimicked accents, dance moves, rap styles, hair, etc. are black cultural property -- no one would care if Iggy Azalea were a celebrity chef who cooked soul food -- but rather, the sense that these artists see this stuff as transgressive because it's cross-racial.

Finally, the blithe suggestion that "white supremacist rhetoric, not imitation of racial minorities, is now probably the 'counter culture' with which most effectively to shock one’s parents," as if we lived in a homogeneously liberal and anti-racist society these days, really is a little much. Even in gentrified parts of Brooklyn, while I grant you that white supremacist rhetoric would come as a shock, I think it's still possible to shock one's parents by getting cornrows or gold teeth, or performing dance routines one's seen performed by black dancers in music videos set in strip clubs, or all sorts of things that racially insensitive white kids do in attempts to imitate black people, or their imaginary notions of black people. But in much of the rest of the country, I think it's more transgressive when Billy Ray Cyrus's daughter goes through a "hip-hop" phase than when a white celebrity says something racist.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | May 3, 2018 4:49:37 PM

“Thin excuse,” indeed.

Posted by: Anon | May 3, 2018 12:52:10 PM

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