Enrichment Assimilation, part 4


A number of African Americans understandably disliked Elvis Presley for becoming rich and famous after taking “their” music mainstream.¹ But the fact was, as famous record producer Sam Phillips so ruefully appreciated, white kids would not buy black music during the 1950s. Capitalism may be many things, but it does not lend itself to the sort of force-fed culture like the Soviet accordion music of the 1960s, when the Russian youth were craving the Beatles.² So Elvis did not “steal” black music so much as he was a product of it, or at least a derivation of it. He subsequently made a hybrid version marketable. It would be more accurate to blame the racism of 1950s American white society rather than Elvis. And instead of making Elvis a scapegoat for racism, maybe we could credit him with helping to break down the segregationist door, because before long black musicians like B.B. King were benefiting immeasurably from his expanded audience. In other words, white musicians like Elvis helped introduce white audiences to black music, no matter how accidentally. The same dynamic accelerated with the “British Invasion” of rockers who admired Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howling Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and so many more.

But let’s look a little deeper about who “owns” culture. As Eugene Jareki pointed out, two Jews named Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote a famous song called “Hound Dog.” In 1952 it was a hit for African American musician and singer, “Big Mama” Thornton. Later, white boy Elvis covered it and made it even more famous.³ So who is supposedly appropriating whose culture? Muddy Waters would later sing about the blues giving birth to a baby called rock’n’roll.⁴ By then, all sorts of people played and listened to both genres. But blacks themselves played such music on guitars derived from complicated European antecedents, such as the lute and various Iberian guitars. White bluegrass musicians played banjos derived from an African instrument. American music is replete with such multi-directional cross-cultural influences.

Speaking of guitars, how about Hawaiians playing their quintessential “island” instrument, the ukulele, derived from Portuguese guitars introduced during the era of European exploration? Or what about Joseph Kekuku, the Hawaiian who invented the steel guitar during the late nineteenth century, an instrument later associated with the stereotypical twang of classic white country music — but an instrument that actually showed up in numerous genres, from blues (Son House) to rock’n’roll (Pink Floyd) to Nigerian Jùjú (King Sunny Adé)⁵ and numerous others cross-genres and sub-genres like some of the country-rock songs of Judy Collins or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Cross-culturism is not limited to music, of course. The “Afro” hairstyle popular during the 1960s and 1970s is now largely passé. Today, African Americans spend billions of dollars annually straightening their hair in an ironic conformance to the Caucasian hair standard — is that cultural appropriation?⁶

Charles C. Dawson (1889–1981) was a great visual artist who also created many graphic design advertisements promoting hair straighteners and whitening and “brightening” creams. During the early twentieth century, these ads appeared in various African American publications, particularly centered in Chicago.⁸ So Michael Jackson was hardly the first African American to whiten his skin. And remember, there was no equivalent hair-straightening or skin-whitening phenomenon taking place in Africa — this was an American phenomenon and, as such, reflects American culture and American cross-culturism.

A list of cross-culturism examples could go on without end when dealing with physical appearances, language, music, visual arts, clothing, and with many other topics.

By the way, only certain academic types and some of their like-minded journalists tend to be concerned with “cultural appropriation.” The foregoing musical tradition participants never have been, and for good reason. Creative people generally could not care less about “cultural appropriation.” Artists create what they are inspired to create. Stanley Crouch eloquently described creative people as those interested in the human condition in general.⁹

So there is really no such thing as “cultural appropriation.” Put a different way, all culture is cultural appropriation. Unless a culture is completely isolated, it comes into contact with other cultures. And contact means influence, and often outright borrowing and adaptation. So the typical use of the phrase “cultural appropriation” just becomes another manipulative device of contemporary identity politics, trying to dictate what clothes people are allowed to wear, what music they are capable of appreciating, and what art they may view authentically.¹⁰

For another example, journalist Jeff Yang objects to how white women in Texas modified the traditional Chinese game of mahjong. He untenably claimed, “When you’re doing a respectful refresh of something, you’re acknowledging that that thing exists. You’re elevating the original context and origins of that thing. And you’re kind of making it perhaps more accessible, more open. But there’s a real sense in which the erasure of the original Asian context of it and the lineage by which it’s evolved was pretty apparent.”¹¹

Aside from the standard fetishized misuse of “context” so prevalent among the Culture Police, Yang’s highly subjective point of view resembles little more than an art critic decrying Impressionism, praising Picasso’s Blue Period, denouncing Rembrandt’s realism, or what have you. Yang’s claim that modifying the game “erases” earlier context is pure nonsense on several levels. As he admits, the game already evolved a great deal before it expanded its fan base outside of Asia. Wouldn’t that mean subsequent Chinese contexts “erased” earlier Chinese contexts? Of course not. Culture and people change, and that means “context” is also constantly changing.

But the list of absurdities in Yang’s claim goes on and on. Are we implying that only Chinese people are allowed to modify mahjong? If so, that looks like racial thinking, and racial thinking often fosters racism. Aside from that, would it be only Han Chinese who are “allowed” to modify mahjong, or one of the other fifty-plus ethnicities found in China? If contemporary Chinese women had modified mahjong along the lines chosen by the white Texas women, what would we say then? Who appointed Yang or anyone else to dictate how culture should change or who should appreciate what? Instead of “cultural appropriation,” all of this nonsense fosters progenitors of self-conscious culture using it for social and political statements.

There are many other absurd examples of supposed “cultural appropriation,” often involving fashion. If Kim Kardashian wears a kimono, critics claim that is unacceptable cultural appropriation.¹² But none of these critics ask obvious obverse questions, such as, “What about all those East Asian corporations staffed with people wearing western business clothes?” What about all those Japanese musicians playing American country music (as captured in the 2016 film, Far Western)?

The “western” suit has become practically ubiquitous throughout many parts of the world, yet the Culture Police have apparently given it a pass when it comes to “culture appropriation.” (Wikimedia Common image).

Cultural appropriation seems to be an oddly unique American problem, an ironic offspring of America’s diverse meeting place of so many global cultures.

As Walter Benn Michaels wrote, “cultural appropriation” involves “the absurdity of thinking that having the right ancestry gives you some privileged relation to things that were done neither by nor to you.”¹³ David Garland called it “a quest for unearned virtue,” because it required racial membership,¹⁴ rather than innate interest or inclinations. Playwright Greg Kalleres offered a more nuanced description of popular culture change. First, there is the intermixing of “authentic” traditions that creates something novel, then we “deauthenticate” it through commercialization and mass attention, after which it becomes trite.¹⁵ Popular culture aficionados are plagued by this quest, for one fad quickly follows another. Complaints of cultural appropriation are merely distractions that do not change this reality of an innately and ever-evolving (popular) culture.

Claims of cultural appropriation sometimes reflect ignorance and opportunism, reminiscent of high school cliques with all their exclusionary arrogance. More insidiously, they reflect the power plays of the Culture Police attempting (ironically) to maintain their new version of cultural apartheid.

See my List, “Enrichment Assimilation” for other installments in this series of excerpts from my unpublished book, Enrichment Assimilation: A Lingering American Dream, Copyright © 2019, 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.


[1] See the comments of Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones in Eugene Jarecki, dir., The King (PBS, Independent Lens, 2019). Also in this film, the rapper Carlton Douglas Ridenhour (“Chuck D”) offers the counterpoint regarding the myth and propaganda of cultural appropriation.

[2] This is brilliantly illustrated in Leslie Woodhead, dir., How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin (PBS, 2009).

[3] Eugene Jarecki, dir., The King (PBS, Independent Lens, 2019).

[4] Muddy Waters, “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll,” Hard Again, Johnny Winter, prod. (Blue Sky, 1977).

[5] Bernard MacMahon, dir., Robert Redford, narr., “Out of the Many, the One,” American Epic, Season 1, Episode 3 (Lo-Max Films 2017).

[6] The annual $9 billion hair-straightening industry is covered in the film hosted by Chris Rock: Jeff Stilson, dir., Good Hair (Chris Rock Entertainment, HBO Films, 2009). For an earlier perspective, see Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture (NY: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, 1970), 48–51.

[7] Alisa Wolfson, host, “Artist/Designer Charles Dawson,” sub-segment of “Give the Customer What They Want” season 1, episode 3 of the series Art and Design in Chicago (PBS, Oct. 2018).

[8] See, for examples, Jean Allain, “Slavery and the League of Nations: Ethiopia as a Civilised Nation,” Journal of the History of International Law 8 (2006), 213–244; Giulia Bonacci and Alexander Meckelburg, “Revisiting Slavery and the Slave Trade in Ethiopia,” Northeast African Studies 17:2 (2017), 5–30; Jon R. Edwards, “Slavery, the Slave Trade and the Economic Reorganization of Ethiopia 1916–1935,” African Economic History 11 (1982), 3–14; Alexander Meckelburg, “Slavery, Emancipation, and Memory: Exploratory Notes on Western Ethiopia,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 48:2 (2015), 345–362.

[9] Stanley Crouch, “Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” in Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, Gerald Early, ed. (NY: Penguin Pr., 1993), 80, 84–85, 86–87.

[10] For examples, see Helier Cheung, “Cultural Appropriation: Why is Food Such a Sensitive Subject?” BBC News (April 13, 2019); Seren Jones, “What is Cultural Appropriation?” BBC World Service (May 29, 2018).

[11] Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “Texas-Based Mahjong Company Faces Backlash For Cultural Appropriation,” NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday (Jan. 17, 2021).

[12] Anon., “Kim Kardashian West’s Kimono Underwear Meets Japanese Backlash,” BBC News (June 26, 2019). For other examples, see Chris Bell, “Prom Dress Prompts ‘Cultural Appropriation’ Row,” BBC News (May 1, 2018); Stephanie Soh, “Does Fashion Have a Cultural Appropriation Problem?” BBC News (Nov. 22, 2018).

[13] Walter Benn Michaels, “The Myth of ‘Cultural Appropriation’,” Chronicle of Higher Education (July 2, 2017).

[14] Online comment in Editorial, “A Good Kind of Culture Clash,” Roanoke Times (July 27, 2018).

[15] Hari Sreenivasan interviewing Greg Kalleres, PBS Newshour (Nov. 6, 2015).



Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.

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Will Sarvis

Author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.