I still remember when I first recognized the extent and reality of racism. I was in middle school, and I thought, well, when enough people have intermarried to make the whole world more or less the same color, that would take care of the problem.
At that age, I was blissfully ignorant of the tribalism that would make mankind unlikely to reach that simple “solution”–or the likelihood that if we were all the same skin color, we’d find other ways to distinguish between “us” (the good guys) and “them” (the suspect “others.”)
What made me recall the naïveté of my long-ago “insight” was a really fascinating essay in the Hedgehog Review, titled “My Identity Problem.” In it, Alan Shapiro–a poet and professor of English– muses about his lifelong experience of “belonging, yet standing apart.” Shapiro focused on the relationship between his Jewish-ness and his American-ness, and explained how that experience affects his approach to contemporary arguments about cultural appropriation: is a given example an exercise in empathy, or an unjustified (and inevitably inauthentic) intrusion into someone else’s culture?
That led him to a consideration of the way group identities serve us, and then to a really wonderful anecdote from one of his classes that–at least for me–illustrated the impossibility of avoiding “appropriations.”
A student of Japanese and Latino descent in one of my classes pushed back strongly when I advanced that line of reasoning: “That’s different,” he said. “Black and brown people can write from a white perspective because they aren’t part of the white power structure. When you do it, it’s cultural appropriation. We should just focus on our own culture, and not raid someone else’s. It just isn’t kosher.”
I thought at first that he was joking, using the word kosher. But no one laughed, and he wasn’t smiling. I said, “That’s an interesting word, kosher. A hundred years ago it was a word only Jews used, and only among each other. Now it’s so mainstream it’s hardly even a Jewish word.” I wanted to ask the student what he meant exactly by “white power structure,” but frankly, on this occasion (as on others), I was afraid to give offense.
Still, I continue to wonder: By “white power structure,” do people mean redlining and other unfair lending practices, police brutality, or biased hiring? Does it also include the cars we drive, the latest devices we avidly consume, the huge chunks of time devoted to social media, selling ourselves and our enviable lives to thousands of “friends” we’ve never met? Is anybody pure? Is any culture? Even while we’re all caught up in various systems of power, and despite the rigid monolithic metaphor—white power structure—the systems that make up our social life are neither fixed nor fated, but are constantly in flux, emerging and dissolving unpredictably.
And though it may seem like a small thing, I was deeply touched and heartened by how “naturally” a word like kosher had been assimilated from “my” culture into the American speech of a gay man whose father was Japanese and mother Latina. What better evidence of both the assimilationist metaphor of the melting pot and the identity-driven metaphor of a tossed salad. The exchange with my student seemed proof to me of just how impossible it is to privatize culture, how culture is not a thing or a piece of property you can build a wall around. Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.
As Shapiro writes at a later point in the essay, our group identities are an inescapable part of who we are–but only a part.
In an America where most of us identify as members of many “groups,” (what sociologists and political scientists call “cross-cutting” identities), being a member of any particular one–even a particular marginalized population–doesn’t determine how we think or act. We all take different parts of ourselves from the various communities to which we all belong–a reality that prevents us from being wholly defined by any specific one of them.
That reality is ultimately why bigotry–racism, Anti-Semitism, etc.– is so stupid.
At its core, bigotry is the belief that group identity trumps individuality and behavior—the belief that people who share a skin color or religion or sexual orientation all share essential characteristics that distinguish “them” from “us.” It is a worldview that refuses to see people as people—as individuals who deserve to be approached and evaluated as individuals.
It just isn’t kosher.