I’m as sick of “diversity” as I am of “cultural appropriation”


I wonder whether Marlon James will draw down the same opprobrium down upon himself for critiquing “diversity” as had Lionel Shriver for doing so with “cultural appropriation.” My guess is he will not, for like me, he is black. The diversity proponents don’t quite know how to deal blacks who don’t comply with this comfortable construct. We make it hard. It’s not supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be comfortable. Since this is the era of white guilt, all manner of knee-jerk abuse can be heaped on whites (especially if they’re male) backed up with pseudo-philosophy and guilt-trips substituting for analysis. Who, exactly, needs this? Who thrives on this?

While I don’t necessarily agree with everything Marlon is saying (or perhaps I’m missing bits he isn’t saying), I’m glad that “diversity” and “cultural appropriation” are not universally held to be self-evidently correct. Looking at the actors driving such phenomena will yield more than “doing one’s bit for them.” One of the wonders of being human is the rich diversity of our species. When diversity is appropriated from the species and ossified as sacrosanct and inviolate attributes owned by circumscribed groups, we end up in our currant bizarre situation of selling diversity back to ourselves, only this time without the vibrancy, fluidity, adaptability and fertility, for now it is pressed into service to preserve our divisions. White are not the only guilty ones.

Comments

  1. Kenal-98 says

    Anjuli,

    I think you have probably guessed wrong here. James will not face the same opprobrium as Shriver, not because of his skin colour but because what the two have to say on these matters are fundamentally at odds. I think he wont be slammed because the people who generally pushed back on Shriver fundamentally agree with James on the matter of cultural appropriation.

    Here is what James says in the article about cultural appropriation:

    “And what about diversity’s side effects, like cultural appropriation, which some people still look upon as a positive thing? Are we truly broadening our landscapes, or are we just cutting off a manageable chunk of exotica or worse, putting a white voice on top and selling a million copies, exploiting the cultural richness of diverse peoples without accepting the people themselves or even worse—simultaneously driving them out?”

    The above quote is in direct contradiction to Shriver’s utterly unserious broadside against the concept of cultural appropriation. Furthermore James is not likely to be quite as concerned as you appear to be about so called white guilt. In fact, a fair reading of James’ piece is that he sees diversity as a good thing but rejects the idea that oppressed groups bear any substantial burden to achieve it. See here for instance:

    “One could ask, but isn’t that why we need to have that talk more than ever? To recognize and appreciate diversity more, to overcome racism, sexism and all the other isms that divide us? Well for one, saying these isms are dividing us is implying that we are equally to blame for the division. What is happening is one group using social, economic and political policies to separate themselves from others, not always deliberately. It’s not for the black person to be more open-minded. It’s for the white person to be less racist. It’s not for the trans person to prove why she needs to use the female bathroom. It’s for the bigot to stop attacking trans people. The problem with me coming to the table to talk about diversity is the belief that I have some role to play in us accomplishing it, and I don’t. And the fact that I have to return to that table often should be proof that such discussions aren’t achieving what they are supposed to.”

    You could read the above and reasonably conclude that he is saying that white cis-gender people (especially males) are in fact guilty and bear the substantial burden to redress racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, cultural appropriation etc. So unlike, Shriver you won’t see James even suggesting that the rise of Trump has substantially anything to do with a backlash against political correctness. James is likely not focused on critiquing the supposed ill effects of white guilt but would rather say forthrightly (as he does in the passage above) that white people who support a racist, sexist, islamophobic blowhard for president do so because they themselves are racist, sexist, islamophobes. James would in fact say that these people are guilty and as such it is their responsibility to redress their crimes. You are right of course that white people are not always guilty but I don’t think the people who went after Shriver are saying that white people are always guilty.

    This is I think, the danger of the anti-white guilt/ anti-PC argument; we end taking about a few white people being treated unfairly in some online argument or panel discussion in response to others who are trying to tackle systemic oppression of black, brown, LGBT etc people. I tend to agree with James on this one.

    • says

      Hi Kenal,

      This is just an acknowledgement and to say a quick thank you for a great challenge. A proper response is going to take more time than I have right now (mid-term grading 🙁 ). So please be patient. I’ll respond properly after next Monday.

    • says

      Hi Kenal,

      Sorry it’s taken such a long time.

      I have to agree with you that I have guessed wrong. You are quite right when you say:

      James will not face the same opprobrium as Shriver, not because of his skin colour but because what the two have to say on these matters are fundamentally at odds. I think he won’t be slammed because the people who generally pushed back on Shriver fundamentally agree with James on the matter of cultural appropriation.

      First off, let me say that I find the question: “And what about diversity’s side effects, like cultural appropriation, which some people still look upon as a positive thing?” confusing. Side effects are generally taken as undesirable. Does that mean diversity is undesirable? James says quite the opposite. But then, the side effect in question is “cultural appropriation”, which is implied to be undesirable. The words “still look upon” simply compound my confusion.

      He does provide a clue, though: “Are we truly broadening our landscapes, or are we just cutting off a manageable chunk of exotica or worse.” It suggests that James has no conception of what makes us what we are, or indeed, of how culture evolves. All drawing on our common human heritage is reduced to petty capricious acts designed to secure advantage. This is commoditisation insinuated into the most intangible aspects of what makes us human — animals with culture. I have argued at length elsewhere that there is no such thing as “cultural appropriation”. I see here some of the more pernicious side effects of insisting that there is.

      Marlon James is trying to eat his cake and have it. One the one hand, he says he is a writer and doesn’t want to talk about diversity, etc., on the other hand, as a writer, he reduces all whites to a simplistic racist cut-out who have to concentrate on solving the lack of diversity and keep off his people-of-colour patch so he can get on with selling a million copies.

      One has to wonder whether these “guilty whites” include the Irish, the Finns, the Estonians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Ukrainians, etc., given that they are whites who have never oppressed blacks, or are they, too, “people of colour”, given that they’d all been oppressed by whites? Or are they white, in which case it doesn’t matter that they’d been oppressed? You cannot cast “whites” in the role of the guilty party, and at the same time have LGBT as victims without explaining how LGBT whites escape guilt. You cannot cast LGBT as oppressed by whites when their most staunch oppressors are black, without explaining how such black oppressors escape guilt. Is this blatant bias not racism?

      Whites do not have a monopoly on the “systemic oppression of black, brown, LGBT etc., people,” bigots and oppressors do, and they come in all colours, whether it’s Indians oppressing Dalits, Muslims oppressing women, Protestants oppressing Catholics, Feminists oppressing transwomen (transmen seem to have escaped their ire), gays oppressing transpeople (yes, that does happen), African dictators oppressing their black compatriots, locals oppressing immigrants, Arab elites oppressing everyone else (and to levels of brutality that would make even white racists see the light), or, indeed, good old whites oppressing blacks.

      Oppression is indeed a problem that we face in the world, but when we seek to exploit that oppression for economic advantage, as the whole “cultural appropriation” and “diversity” industries do, we must then, in order to maintain a semblance of moral probity, muddy the terms of engagement. To fix the oppressor-oppressed relationship in simple “white-black” terms might have had currency fifty years ago propelled by the decolonisation “winds of change”. But the oppressed has since broadened to include a great deal more than just blacks. Since the end of colonialism, blacks have also come to proudly claim their place at the top table of oppressors — no racism there, I’m glad to note. Who would’ve thought that decades after the end of colonialism, the idea of “the white man’s burden” would be back to haunt us, only this time culturally appropriated by the black man.

      I easily fall into several of James’s oppressed categories. Does that mean that I escape guilt, too? When Publius Terentius Afer says, “Nothing that is human is alien to me,” he says more to me than any number of diversity advocates ever will. His formulation inspires my entire conception of life and, naturally, manifests in my writing. To wit, I am currently working furiously to complete a novel set in the 12th century (and immediately confess that I have no personal experience of that period). I don’t know how many chunks of exotica I’ve cut off from Japan, China, Persia, India, Cambodia, the Middle East, Turkey, Iberia and North Africa, but so far, thankfully, they’re proving manageable. My brazen and unrestrained “cultural appropriation” may end up costing me all my royalties in pay-outs, not to mention multicultural condemnation, though I’m not at all certain who the oppressor and who the oppressed are in this instance. I mean, my two main characters are a mixed Persian-Arab woman, and a female samurai. But then it gets even messier with Lucifer and Susano-o (seriously exotic). Even the equine world doesn’t escape my grubby mits. Guilty, or not guilty?

      In a word, I am entitled, by virtue of being a human being, to the entire cultural production of all of humanity right from the moment we first came down from the trees. I do not talk about either diversity or cultural appropriation. I talk only about writing. There is no reason why James cannot do the same. His dilemma is of his own making.

  2. phillipc says

    Hi Anjuli – Interesting thoughts as always.

    To answer your question as to “Who thrives on this ?” and “Who needs it ?” the answer is that it is the proponents of the ideas themselves.

    If a pale-skinned person promotes the idea of white guilt, then while it may seem, superficially, that they are being selfless and noble in voicing the opinion that their own viewpoint is less important, this isn’t really the case.

    What they are doing is feigning an attempt to disempower themselves in order to discredit opinions they don’t like so as to exert as much control as they possibly can on any narrative. Having that megaphone to shout through is far bigger boost to the ego than the minor cost associated with having to repeat a formulaic “checking of the privilege” ritual every now and again.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the culture of guilt is associated with a culture influenced by Christianity. That particular religion has its “Last shall be first” and “The lord is the servant of all” sentiments.

    It’s easy to spot the fake humility of the clergy who want control by calling you a sinner, but then add “But I’m a Sinner too!” as if saying this justifies the one-way nature of the control they are trying to exert. What’s more difficult is to see how one may have internalised this mindset oneself and it is coming out in a different form.

    Interestingly, I think that the “white guilt” trumpeters are not only trying to parade their moral superiority over fellow “white” people, but, according to the internalised remnant-Christianity, they are superior to the people of colour too because while the latter (to their way of thinking) stand to benefit from the ‘diversity’, the guilt-mongers are working against their own interest, and because “the last shall be first” they are the most virtuous of all.

    By the by, I hope you realise that by pointing out just what a bunch of embarrassingly weak-minded, attention-seeking numpties comprise a subset of those who share my pasty, sun-averse skin colour, your post has given me white guilt for the first time !

  3. snuffcurry says

    we end up in our currant bizarre situation of selling diversity back to ourselves, only this time without the vibrancy, fluidity, adaptability and fertility, for now it is pressed into service to preserve our divisions.

    Well, divisions and categories of identities and human experiences will remain even if Peak Diversity is achieved, will they not? But instead of identities imbued with inequality and oppression, they can be affirmative, rich, and fluid, rather than first demonized, then co-opted by the dominant culture, and later fetishized (with talk of authenticity from an unauthoritative position) to the point of stasis. Racial “colorblindness,” for example, only blinds people to the consequences of institutional prejudice and keeps those people who are not affected comfortable and blithely ignorant. I fail to see how one can address racism without recognizing race.

    @ phillipc, 2

    they are superior to the people of colour too because while the latter (to their way of thinking) stand to benefit from the ‘diversity’, the guilt-mongers are working against their own interest, and because “the last shall be first” they are the most virtuous of all.

    You’re calling anti-racism virtue-signalling, which doesn’t make much sense to me when, as we speak, tangible progress is being made. Also, the notion that “only” marginalized people benefit from diversity is equally bizarre; living in a world in which talented and ambitious people can realize their true potential and are unleashed to better us as a species is actually highly desirable and would produce net gains. Imagine the achievements that could be made in every field of human endeavors if arbitrary barriers of the past and present were eliminated. That’s not “identity politics” divorced from class issues at all. It’s the opposite. It’s allowing other forms of oppression to intersect, where appropriate, with class in order to better target issues –like wage gaps and diminishing access to welfare programs–that are further complicated by race and gender.

    • Adam Zain says

      Peak diversity sounds like a phrase inappropriately borrowed from the world of ecology – where it may refer to species. Diversity is a fairly useless term when it comes to human populations – it’s entirely dependent on which features you are interested in. A supposedly homogenous community could actually be more diverse in many ways than an ostensibly heterogenous one.

      Also, who decided that diversity was a de facto good thing? The main reason we have the notion of multi-culturalism, for example, is because populations became geographically separated from each other and didn’t mix much, enabling different cultural practices to emerge. The ‘richness’ we have today, globally, a result of the very isolationism (albeit accidental) that those who celebrate diversity seem to detest (at least when applied to Northern or ‘Western’ cultures). I think that’s called “having your cake and eating it”.

      Also, some cultures are better than others – for example, few people would argue for a return to real Victorian culture. So, we can be selective in what we allow to become established as a part of ours. (Religions that approve of the persecution of homosexuals, for example, we could well do without.)

      And a society that doesn’t recognise race is, by definition, non-racist. Once you have anti-discriminatory laws in place, as we have in the UK, you have a duty as a citizen to be non-racist, which simply means to not discriminate on the basis of race alone. There are a few exceptions to this, of course – in areas where arbitrary factors such as looks, height, age, voice etc. are relevant – drama and film, recreations of history or documentary etc. but even with these, at least for fiction – as long as the end result works, there is no problem – we have the tech. to lighten or darken people’s skin or change features in make-up and post production, so shouldn’t be an insurmountable obstacle for actors etc. So, yes, generally colour blindness – as some call it – is a good thing to cultivate for yourself.

      And phillipc was actually calling out racism – not anti-racism – as virtue signalling. The white guilt proponents are by definition racists. Unless you’re someone who wishes to change the actual definition of racism to something that better suits your agenda, of course…

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