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Zadie Smith on Cultural Appropriation
In a long, searching essay at the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith makes the case against “cultural appropriation” by interrogating the language in which it is discussed:
The terms we choose — or the terms we are offered — behave as containers for our ideas, necessarily shaping and determining the form of what it is we think, or think we think. Our arguments about “cultural appropriation,” for example, cannot help but be heavily influenced by the term itself. Yet we treat those two carefully chosen words as if they were elemental, neutral in themselves, handed down from the heavens. When of course they are only, like all language, a verbal container, which, like all such containers, allows the emergence of certain ideas while limiting the possibilities of others.
What would our debates about fiction look like, I sometimes wonder, if our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others was not “cultural appropriation” but rather “interpersonal voyeurism” or “profound-other-fascination” or even “cross-epidermal reanimation”? Our discussions would still be vibrant, perhaps even still furious — but I’m certain they would not be the same. Aren’t we a little too passive in the face of inherited concepts? We allow them to think for us, and to stand as place markers when we can’t be bothered to think.