• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The cultural appropriation police are turning fried chicken, dreadlocks and prom dresses into a race

Criticising a teenager for wearing culturally insensitive clothes may seem like a trivial matter - but once the cultural police get to decide who can wear what, it is only a matter of time before they are able to impose their will on other aspects of our lives.

Keziah Daum never imagined that she would find herself the target of a nasty twitter-storm. She made the mistake of posting pictures of herself wearing a red silk Chinese dress to her high school prom.

One twitter-warrior complained: “My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress.” Another asked “What’s the theme of your life? Ignorant”?

And it was only a matter of time before Keziah was branded with the R-word! One troll asked, “Was the theme of prom casual racism?”

Evidently, for social justice warriors, wearing clothes or costumes from another culture constitutes a crime that goes by the name of cultural appropriation.

In recent times universities have become the hot-bed of the crusade against cultural appropriation.

As a professor who has worked universities for many decades, I was taken aback by the speed with which a tiny group of cultural crusaders have succeed in gaining power over campus life.

The rhetoric of cultural appropriation plays an important role in the performance of outrage. And everybody is at it.

In some universities guidance is offered to students about what costumes they can and cannot wear on Halloween.

Forget about organising a Latino themed party. On both sides of the Atlantic the wearing of sombreros by university students has been condemned as a cultural crime against Mexico.

At one university, yoga classes were suspended because it might cause offence to Indians. A campaigner helpfully offered to change the title of the course to “mindful stretching”.

Recently Oxford university decided to cancel a “cannabis themed” party amid concerns about “cultural appropriation”.

Critics of this party encouraging guests to dress as pop-icons like Snoop Dogg or Shaggy claimed that the event would cause offence to minority students.

Last month, students at Bristol University, who hosted a 21st birthday party themed “A night at the Maharaja’s Palace”, were denounced for committing a cultural crime. Critics were particularly galled by the sight of European students wearing glamorous Indian costumes.

In recent years celebrities have become a favourite target of the culture police.

White models and actresses, including Kim Kardashian, who wear their hair in cornrows are slammed for exploiting black culture.

Iggy Azalea the Australian singer was attacked for rapping with a “blaccent”. Selina Gomez was crucified for wearing a bindi. Bruno Mars was accused of stealing black music.

All celebrities – not just white – risk being accused of cultural appropriation.

No sooner did Beyoncé appear portraying a Bollywood actress in Coldplay’s video “Hymn for the Weekend”, before the all too readily outraged social media warriors accused her of offending Indian culture.

So what’s going on?

Until recently people were delighted when those from another culture adopted their tastes and habits.

Most civilisations - such as the Greeks, the Romans – praised foreigners who adopted their mode of dress, fashion, eating habits and customs.

Throughout most of history the act of cultural appropriation was associated with enlightenment and progress.

No one regarded hairstyles, costumes, music or indeed most cultural artefact as the sacred property of a chosen people.

A civilised society is open to different cultural influences and is ready to share its own culture with others.

Sadly, current crusade against appropriation turns every form of cultural interaction into a potential site for conflict.

Even food has become the target of the culture police. Students no longer simply moan about the quality of food dished out in their canteens.

At Pembroke College in Cambridge University, students condemned their institution for serving “culturally insensitive food” with “inauthentic combinations of ingredients”.

Elsewhere complaints have been made about cooking fried chicken, Vietnamese sandwiches and sushi in a culturally inappropriate manner.

Unwittingly the crusade against cultural appropriation serves to undermine the genuine multicultural impulses in our society.

The policing of culture turns different cultural experience into no-go areas.

Its ultimate objective is to build cultural fences and distance different people and ethnic groups from one another.

Worse still, the policing of cultures creates a climate where the free and open attitude towards how people live their lives, decide what clothes they wear or what kind of hair-style they adopt becomes a highly charged political issue.

If allowed to go unchecked, this horrible crusade will lead to cultural segregation.

It will create a climate of hostility and suspicion were conflicts over who gets to decide what you can eat or wear becomes the new normal.

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