Who owns culture?

Wednesday 14 November, 19:0021:00, CCT College Dublin, 30-34 Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2, IrelandBattle of Ideas Europe


Cultural appropriation has not been far from the headlines in 2018. In May, Utah student Keziah Daum wore a qipao – a traditional Cantonese dress – to her school prom, and a Twitter furore quickly followed, with accusations of colonialism and white privilege levelled at the teenager. A revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I in London’s West End was accused of ‘imperial condescension’ later in the summer, even though Hammerstein’s lyrics – written in 1951 – overtly poke fun at just such superiority. And in August, British Labour MP Dawn Butler accused celebrity chef Jamie Oliver of misappropriating Jamaican culture when he launched his ‘jerk rice’, tweeting that jerk is ‘not just a word you put before stuff to sell products’. Even the international celebrations of Irishness on St Patrick’s Day are increasingly discussed in these terms.

It is not just cultural accoutrements that are viewed as susceptible to theft – identity itself is something to be vigilantly protected from misrepresentation. Scarlett Johansson withdrew from a planned biopic of transgender Pittsburgh gangster Dante ‘Tex’ Gill following uproar against the role should go to a ‘cisgender’ performer. The announcement that non-gay actor Jack Whitehall was to take on the role of a ‘very camp, very funny’ villain in Disney’s Jungle Cruise was met with derision and hostility from social media. In 2016, author Lionel Shriver was condemned for arguing that it is the prerogative of writers to create whatever characters they want – irrespective of cultural background.

Is our culture and identity fixed or changeable? After all, it is possible to argue that cultures which are the most open to outside influences are also the most welcoming and vibrant, thus changing in the process. Or is it a question of power, in which dominant cultures exploit lower-profile ones, meaning that the demand to castigate cultural appropriation is a conscious political attempt to redress inequality? Where does all this leave the fight for race, gender and sexual equality, which presupposes solidarity across social divides? Or is that universalist Enlightenment ethos actually the problem, serving as a veneer for the unreconstructed imperialist attitudes of old?