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10 November 2016

Fancy dress season is here, and the ghost of cultural appropriation rattles its chains

No one ever changed the world by boycotting, or even burning down, a fancy-dress shop or Tex-Mex restaurant, and no one will. 

By Tanya Gold

Justin Bieber recently ate haggis at a Glasgow chip shop and evaded a PR catastrophe relating to pretending to be Scottish. (To be fair, we ask little of Bieber since he visited Anne Frank’s house and said that he hoped she would have been a Belieber, had she survived Auschwitz.) Other American stars were unluckier. Their Native American Hallowe’en costumes upset identity politicians and they had to apologise to mystified fans. This is cultural appropriation. That they looked like giant Playmobil people – that is, they looked stupid – was not punishment enough.

I have always considered cultural appropriation – say, the theft of yarmulkes to wear for comedy reasons – stupid. Again, to be accurate, no one really does the “comedy Jew” thing except other Jews (though Sasha Baron Cohen dressing as a porn ultra-Orthodox Jew in his film Brüno was cultural appropriation, and the real, or non-porn, ultra-Orthodox Jews chased him down the street). Then again, I don’t fall over when people steal and adapt Jewish food, which we in turn stole from the people of eastern Europe in a joyless buffet that lasted several centuries and spilled much blood.

I thought that it was stupid when Pedro’s Tex-Mex Cantina in Norwich was banned from handing out sombreros at the University of East Anglia freshers’ fair last year – to avoid offending the zero Mexicans in the room – and I still think it’s stupid now. I was so angry that I went to Norwich, where there was a pogrom in 1144, and ate at Pedro’s Tex-Mex Cantina and took selfies of myself in a sombrero.

No one ever changed the world by boycotting, or even burning down, a fancy-dress shop or Tex-Mex restaurant, and no one will. Bar Italia, or the Raj Tandoori – or any other food outlet in our polyglot cities  – are as fine a testament to cultural appropriation as any. Opponents of cultural appropriation operate on the edges of things, and what they do is meaningless.

Of course, this is the point. Real progressives have risked their lives so that their descendants could fantasise about a specialised millinery department at Yad Vashem. Fighting about wigs isn’t risky, not at all, but it enables them – I see from my rich, white, female perch – to posture without doing anything, because changing minds and policies, which is the real agent of change, is tedious and hard.

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Confronting racist police officers on the streets of Texas, or standing with Native Americans as they seek to protect their homelands – which are two real front lines in the cultural war – is harder still. You would actually have to leave your flat.

I accept that it is easier to knock someone’s hat off, but it is not the thin end of the wedge. I was repelled by Prince Harry appropriating a Nazi uniform, but the joy that I took in his idiocy was compensation enough for any offence I could summon. I also thought that the sombreros at the University of East Anglia were an intellectual step up from the traffic cone, bespeaking, as they did, curiosity about people, rather than traffic management. Critics of cultural appropriation seem to believe that culture is static and conformist and does not bleed into other cultures and create new cultures, which is an adequate philosophy if you are incurious, in denial as to the workings of progress, and are a complete idiot.

I do not want, for instance, to live in what I call a “Jew box”, because I want, like Jews before me (notably Karl Marx) to be a citizen of the world, and I will not be told which parts of my culture to honour by the practice of denying them to others. If any woman – or man – wants to not eat lobsters, or laugh at Howard Jacobson, I welcome them. This is not racism.

Nor is thinking yourself into others’ worlds, as novelists do. That is empathy, as Lionel Shriver persuasively argued in a speech that made her the target of the identity politics brigade in September.

This has led me to fantasise that Hilary Mantel’s house will be picketed by Sir Thomas More’s ghost, and other ghosts would write editorials in support of More in ghostly journals, and Mantel (here it becomes a nightmare) would only be allowed to write, forthwith, about her most accessible self.

Even the imagination must be legislated for, it seems. It must be measured, allocated, controlled and, ultimately, silenced for the benefit of the intellectually inadequate. Silence is not culture. It is not humility, and it is not respect. It is silence.

But then, when I saw men dress as women at university and stroke their big, plastic boobs with a kind of wonder and hold their plastic blond curls up to the light, I only felt a mad gratitude, because their impersonation – their appropriation – was, I felt, both a homage and an education. They drooled at the possibilities of their bodies, and they learned something about nipples.

There was a European Jewish community that migrated to China in the 19th century. It created a unique cuisine – Polish-Jewish-Chinese food – and a restaurateur brought this cuisine to London. I can testify that it was completely horrible and the restaurant soon closed, but without cultural appropriation it would never have existed; and nor would other, more valuable things.

The more I ponder opposition to cultural appropriation, the more it seems, to me, to be a conservative creed inspired by “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, the late Queen Mother’s favourite hymn. (She was no philosopher, even on the gin.)


The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly

And ordered their estate.


This is the horror that is promised when cultural appropriation is annihilated: ghettos for all. 

This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind