Leave Iggy Azalea Alone

by Benjamin Studebaker

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea is being threatened by Anonymous, an organization of internet hackers. Azalea got into a public spat with another rapper, Azealia Banks. The short version is that Banks objected to Azalea’s silence on the Eric Garner protests, Azalea said that Banks should not “judge another’s support or lack thereof solely on if they have ranted on Twitter about it,” and claimed that Banks is using world issues to promote fan battles. Banks responded by accusing Azalea of cultural appropriation, and Azalea essentially dismissed Banks as a jealous hater. All of this is fairly run of the mill stuff, but then Anonymous jumped in.

Anonymous said:

F— you, @IGGYAZZALEA. #ICantBreathe…We have so much shit on you, your scandal would be bigger than Bill Cosby’s …You are guilty of misappropriating black culture, insulting peaceful protesters, and making light of Eric Garner’s death…You have exactly 48 hours…to release a statement apologizing to @AzealiaBanks and the protesters in NYC.

So now, just a few days after Sony was threatened by Guardians of Peace and intimidated into shelving The Interviewwe have yet another rogue hacker organization threatening a person (or group of people) in an attempt to control speech. This is not okay.

Before we do anything, I have to include a random image of Iggy Azalea, because if I do experience shows that more people will click on links to this piece and potentially read the serious arguments it contains:

I could have made up a fake reason for including the photo, but I prefer to be straightforward with my readers. Don’t ask me why this works–you’re the audience, not me.

Now that that’s out of the way, there are two points I want to make here today:

  1. Even if Azealia Banks is 100% correct and Iggy Azalea is a deeply racist person, Anonymous’ behavior is inexcusable and criminal.
  2. While I have no idea to what extent Iggy Azalea personally harbors racist views, there is nothing intrinsically racist about a person of one color or background engaging in behaviors that have been associated with people of some other color even if the person appropriating comes from a background that has been associated with power or supremacy relative to the other background in question. In short, “cultural appropriation” is not morally wrong, and the concept is itself conceptually problematic.

The first point is fairly straightforward. Like Guardians of Peace, Anonymous is attempting to use coercion or the threat thereof to extract political concessions. Anonymous is trying to frighten Iggy Azalea into acceding to its demand that she apologize. It is not attempting to persuade her that she is mistaken through rational argument, it is serving her with an ultimatum–if she refuses to say what they want her to say, or they will leak information in an attempt to harm her and her career. Even if we assumed that Iggy Azalea was a fascist or a member of the KKK, what Anonymous is doing contravenes the principle of free discussion. It operates on the same principles that Guardians of Peace of peace operate on. The only difference between Anonymous and Guardians of Peace is that Anonymous is very careful only to target individuals and groups that are not popular. This does not redeem it in any way, shape, or form. It remains a rogue organization committed to imposing its will illegitimately on the public debate.

As we said the other day, when we respond to threats by acquiescing, we demonstrate that threats and coercion are effective tactics and we encourage other rogue organizations to use these tactics in future to impose their will on our society. For this reason, even if Iggy Azalea is wrong, it is now imperative that she refuse to apologize for being wrong. Anonymous cannot be allowed to get what it wants through coercion and threats, even if we also want what Anonymous wants. Like Evelyn Beatrice Hall said:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

And if we would defend a person’s right to say something disagreeable, we must also defend a person’s right to refuse to say something we want them to say without being subject to coercive threats.

Now, because the occasion has presented itself, I want to have a brief discussion about cultural appropriation. But first, a disclaimer: I want to emphasize that whether or not you find what I’m about to argue persuasive has nothing to do with the truth of what I have said to this point–we must still defend Iggy Azalea’s right to not apologize, even if Iggy were to explicitly declare allegiance to Adolf Hitler. The goodness or badness of the content of Iggy’s speech has nothing to do with Iggy’s free speech rights or the legitimacy of Anonymous’ strategy.

I want to start by affirming that racism remains a very serious concern in all modern societies. In particular, I want to affirm that there are racial disparities in the way American cops treat citizens of different racial backgrounds–I have written about this, and the evidence is quite clear on this count. I further affirm that this racism is ultimately the result of material economic differences among the races, that people of minority racial backgrounds have diminished access to economic opportunities and education, that this is systemic, cyclical, and deeply unjust.

However, the existence of serious racism in our society does not mean that the often employed concept of cultural appropriation is beyond rational scrutiny. The mere fact that many people of color feel that cultural appropriation is a problem does not make it so, and the fact that the concept is most often challenged by white people does not in and of itself delegitimize those challenges. As far as I see it, there are two kinds of racism out there:

  1. Explicit Racism–the spurious argument that because some number of people of a certain color/nationality/ethnicity/gender/background believe a given thing or act a certain way, the entire group shares in those beliefs or actions. Examples might include: “Asians are good at math.” “Black people like fried chicken.” “White people can’t jump.” “Hispanic men are philanderers.” In all of these cases, the individuality of specific people is discarded. Instead, they are essentialized–lazy stereotypes are projected across large numbers of unique individuals.
  2. Implicit Racisim (aka “closet racism”)–the spurious argument that inequalities among the races/nationalities/ethnicities/genders/backgrounds are due to the “culture” in question, rather than due to systemic inequalities of opportunities and resources. Examples might include: “Black people have a culture of violence.” “Black people have a welfare culture.” “White people have a culture of personal responsibility.” In all of these cases, instead of recognizing that cultural practices are the result of material conditions, culture is assumed to be the first cause. For the implicit racist, black poverty results from black culture, rather than the reverse.

Both of these forms of racism are means by which those who prosper in a society can deny the legitimacy of the complaints of those who do not. They are forms of victim blaming, and they provide excuses when those in power do nothing to help those in need. Discrimination is the policy output of racism–favoring those who come from the backgrounds deemed to be virtuous while shunning those who come from the backgrounds deemed to be corrupt.

Where does cultural appropriation fit into this? Cultural appropriation is said to be the copying of elements from one culture without giving credit or showing sufficient respect for context. It rests on the premise that there are multiple distinct cultures divided on racial grounds. For cultural appropriation to make sense, there must be a black culture distinct from white culture, Hispanic culture, Asian culture, and so on. The trouble is that explicit and implicit racism rely on this same premise, and to reject racism entirely, it is necessary to reject the premise that cultures can be distinguished based on racial criteria. The argument against racism is that differences that appear to be racial are really the result of power relationships and economic inequities. To be consistent, this idea requires that we dismiss the notion that there are such things as “white culture” or “black culture”. These are arbitrary constructs that only serve to legitimize the idea that disparities have cultural causes rather than material ones. The fact that the people who came up with rap were black does not give black people or black culture legitimate ownership of rap anymore than the fact that the people who came up with analytic philosophy were white and male gives white people, white culture, or men legitimate ownership of analytic philosophy. Insofar as white men do own analytic philosophy, we agree that this reflects injustice in our society, and the same can be said with respect to rap music and black men. To really reject the racist premise, we must recognize that rap and analytic philosophy were developed by individuals as a result of their material position in society. Insofar as they were disproportionately one color or another, this is not because of any intrinsic cultural or genetic differences among the races, but because extant power structures distributed material resources and opportunities in a way that was deeply racist and unjust, forcing black and white people to conform to different norms for no good reason. Whenever a person transcends the narrow norms and boundaries our society uses to discourage black people from “acting white” or white people from “acting black”, this is to be celebrated. No group of people has a legitimate monopoly on any human behavior merely due to color, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or background. When Iggy Azalea raps, she is often said to rap “like a Southern American black girl”. Southerners, Americans, blacks, and women have no legitimate monopoly on that sound, and Iggy is every bit as entitled to violate and discard those antiquated norms as a black woman is to violate and discard the antiquated norms that make analytic philosophy a predominately white, male endeavor. The fact that white men are materially favored by racist social systems does not in any way change this, it only emphasizes the amount of work that remains to be done. To truly negate the racist idea, it remains necessary to negate the idea that humanity is composed of discrete cultures that can be identified and summed up with words like “black”, “white”, “French”, “Kurdish”, “female”, and so on. We are all human beings, and all human behaviors ought to belong to all human beings, not just some subsection based on an unjust and arbitrary material distribution. All cultural identities are illegitimate, and it is racist to maintain otherwise. Indeed, “culture” itself is a spurious, meaningless catch-all term into which social scientists have for generations deposited whatever racist ideas they happen to be carrying with them. The aim of social justice ought to be to eliminate any and all vestigial racist discrepancies in the distribution of resources and opportunities so that our social reality comes to reflect that truth. Only then can we adequately take seriously the implications of human individuality as an idea. Otherwise, we’re still doing the same old racist thing–lazily lumping individuals into arbitrary categories, ascribing ownership of behaviors, beliefs, and traits to them on that basis, and socially penalizing them for stepping outside the norms we’ve prescribed for them. This path does not allow for any substantive racial “progress”–the stereotypes can change, but they cannot go away. Instead of everyone fighting racism together, it turns racial issues into a competition, where the balance of power is being revised but the racist premise continues to be affirmed.