Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

The Effect Of Self-Driving Cars On Schooling

In hindsight it often turns out the biggest effect of a new technology is very different than what people imagined beforehand. I suggest that this may well be the case for self-driving cars.

Sure, the frequently talked about effects like less time wasted in commutes or even the elimination of personal car ownership are nice but I think self-driving cars might have an even larger effect by eliminating the constraint of proximity in schooling and socialization for children.

While adults often purchase homes quite far from their workplaces proximity is a huge constraint on which schools students attend. In a few metropolises with extensive public transport systems its possible for older children to travel to distant schools (and, consequently, these cities often have more extensive school choice) but in most of the United States busing is the only practical means to transport children whose parents can’t drive them to school. While buses need not take children to a nearby school they are practically limited by the need to pick children up in a compact geographic area. A bus might be able to drive from downtown Chicago to a school in a suburb on the north side of the city but you couldn’t, practically, bus students to their school of choice in the metropolitan area. Even in cases where busing takes students to better schools in remote areas attending a school far from home has serious costs. How can you collaborate with classmates, play with school friends, attend after school activities or otherwise integrate into the school peer group without a parent to drive you?

This all changes with self-driving cars. Suddenly proximity poses far less of a barrier to schooling and friendship. By itself this doesn’t guarantee change but it creates an opportunity to create a school system that is based on specialization and differing programs rather than geographic region.

Of course, we aren’t likely to see suburban schools opening their doors to inner city kids at the outset. Everyone wants the best for their children and education, at least at the high end, is a highly rivalrous good (it doesn’t really matter how well a kid scores objectively on the SAT only that he scores better than the other kids). However, self-driving cars open up a whole world of possibility for specialty schools catering to students who excel at math and science, who have a particular interest in theater or music or who need special assistance. As such schools benefit wealthy influential parents they will be created and, by their very nature, be open to applicants from a wide geographic area.

No, this won’t fix the problem of poor educational outcomes in underprivileged areas but it will offer a way out for kids who are particularly gifted/interested in certain areas. This might be the best that we can hope for if, as I suspect, who your classmates are matters more than good technology or even who your teachers are.

I should probably give credit to this interesting point suggesting that school vouchers aren’t making schools better because they don’t result in school closures for inspiring this post (and because I think its an insightful point).

We’re Damn Lucky The HBD Folks Aren’t Right About Race

Some Relieving News About Third World IQs

Here is a bit of hard data to respond to the claims that observed performance on IQ tests by those in third world countries reflect genetic deficits. Its a good thing too (even if this was hardly the first piece of evidence on the point) since its easy to imagine that the world could have turned out in a way in which (despite race not being a scientifically useful category) third world populations also suffered from genetic intelligence disadvantages. There is a decent case to be made that the Ashkenazi Jews have genetic differences given them higher average IQs. Notably that case doesn’t merely depend on differences in performance on some tests but, likely all compelling scientific arguments, weaves together an explanation of a number of different phenomena with an appealing theoretical account1. Whether or not this ultimately turns out to be true it could have been true and other undisputed cases of recent evolutionary pressure like adult tolerance for lactose make it abundantly clear that we got very lucky that there aren’t major differences in genetic predisposition to IQ across people of different descent and seeing studies like this reassures me that we really did get lucky and its not just that we are laboring under a desirable fiction.

Even though our racial categories don’t correspond to any principled scientific division at the genetic level it is a classification that correlates with ones ancestry. Given that people still tend to choose mates relatively close to themselves genetically (whether or not race is salient to them or merely geographic proximity) that means it could easily have been the case that, even supposing all developmental and social effects are controlled for, that some races would average much, much worse on IQ tests and other measures of intelligence than others. It wouldn’t really matter that race wasn’t the best scientific category to explain the effect if it turned out that 80% of people we classified as black had genes which cost them 20 IQ points while only 20% of Caucasians and 30% of Semites had this genetic combination. Such a fact would have amplified existing prejudices and resentments making it much more difficult to roll back racist attitudes and laws. In such a world I doubt one of the 20% of blacks without those genes would have had much luck explaining to the white racists around them that no, no, black isn’t the appropriate scientific concept with which to analyze this effect its really this other grouping they should be using, e.g., one which is purely defined via heredity and doesn’t exactly track our racial divisions but just happens to correlate with them.

One might try and argue that there is too much human genetic mixing for substantial genetic differences in IQ to have arisen. While it is true that for the most part humans haven’t partitioned themselves into non-interbreeding (or at least rarely) sub-populations that only holds for the most part and is itself purely a lucky accident. Australian aborigines appear to have been genetically isolated for almost 50,000 years with that isolation only ending quite recently2. There is evidence that the San people in Africa may split off from the rest of the human lineage at around the time modern homo sapiens first arrived on the scene and were then genetically isolated for nearly 100,000 years until only 40,000 years ago. There is no scientific law that ensured there weren’t major genetically isolated branches of the human species with substantially different intellectual abilities which remained separated until the end of the middle ages. It didn’t have to be the case that America was populated by genetically modern humans3 and for less extreme cases one doesn’t even need genetic isolation at all. One can imagine a scenario in which the black death is even worse and attacks the neural system creating strong selective pressure in Europe for a mutation which protects against it despite its detrimental effects on IQ. I suppose one could argue that people are just too rapacious and generally willing to fuck each other for differences to have persisted during the historical era but that is only true if all populations were subject to the same selective pressures and one could certainly imagine a scenario in which only farmers and not hunter gatherers (or vice versa) experience selection for the kind of mixed blessing genes postulated to be more prevalent in the Ashkenazi.

Of course, if we learn enough about genetics and perform sufficiently high powered studies we will probably come across some minor statistical difference in IQ between racial groups. If we assumed that humans were all otherwise genetically identical the small IQ advantage observed in Ashkenazi Jews would be enough to ensure that sufficiently powerful studies would find some average difference. Of course we aren’t all otherwise genetically identical and surely the beneficial and detrimental mutations won’t perfectly cancel out on average. But the fact that we haven’t already found substantial differences and don’t even know who will come out on top if average differences are ever found already means that we got incredibly lucky. It didn’t have to be that the HBD people were wrong, it didn’t even half to be that our racial categories didn’t track scientifically important genetic fault lines. Even though many of the HBD proponents seem so desperately motivated to believe their theories (and not all for racist reasons…some just want to be contrarian) their views certainly describe a way the world could have been and we got quite lucky that human capacities ended up sufficiently close together and interbreeding smeared us out enough that we can’t obviously pick out the more and less capable major ethnic groups.

The Wonder of International Adoption: Adult IQ in Sweden | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I showed that nurture effects are small within the First World. But I also freely conceded that the nurture effects of growing up outside the First World are probably large:The most important weakness…


  1. In this case the theoretical account suggests that certain mutations which both increase intelligence but also increase susceptibility to certain congenital disorders were selected for in Jews living in medieval Europe and laboring under systematic discrimination which kept them out of most occupations while concentrating them in a few occupations for which IQ was particularly important. 
  2. Though one could, I suppose, argue that had the aboriginal Australians, contrary to fact, been intellectually impaired relative to other humans then relatively nearby populations would have noticed and used their superior intelligence to supplant them. 
  3. For a truly extreme scenario, one could imagine an “out of America” theory of human evolution in which 200,000 years ago proto-humans leave America over the land bridge which subsequently closes (and weather/sea conditions prevent coast hopping) it is only in 1492, after modern humans evolve in the rest of the world, that we rediscover the lost American branch of the human tree. 

Legally Requiring Cross-Racial Adoptions And Sperm Donations

Is Dented Cultural Pride And Growing Pains Too High A Price To Fix Racism?

Based on their statements and revealed preferences it seems that many members of the public, and virtually all liberals, would judge some relatively minor restrictions on personal liberty (and a smidge of dented cultural pride and discomfort) to be a small price to pay to make serious inroads against the current level of racism in the United States. There is broad support for the non-trivial infringement on freedoms (despite the substantial economic costs of compliance, lawsuits and enforcement) imposed by anti-discrimination laws in hiring and public accommodations. Furthermore, the public rhetoric of most liberals and a decent chunk of conservatives suggests they would regard a mandatory two year term of military service (even if only in humanitarian/non-combat units) for American youth an acceptable price to pay in exchange for serious progress against racism in the US1. Provided we aren’t mistaken by multiple orders of magnitude about how bad the current level of US racism is it seems like we should be willing to consider relatively modest legal restrictions requiring all non-familial infant adoptions by white Americans to be of black children (and vice versa2) as well as requiring that sperm/egg banks only offer black individual’s sperm/eggs to whites and vice versa. Let me be clear I’m not at all sure I think this is even close to a good ideas but I think asking whether it is or isn’t and why raises some interesting questions.

Based on some quick googling it looks like something like 2% of all children in the US are adopted and about half of those are non-familial. Determining the rate of donor conceived children is harder given the lack of reporting but my eyeballing of the numbers from wikipedia (remembering that both total US population and use of donors is rising) page suggests that we are looking at another 2% or more donor conceived children. Putting these together it seems like such laws could ensure that something like 3% of children were raised by parents of a different skin color.

Of course, not everyone is either white or black but, according to the 2010 census about 73% of Americans are white and another 13% are black with relatively small percentages of other races. Given that whites are pretty strongly overrepresented among adopting parents as well as consumers of donor eggs/sperm and that black children are quite strongly overrepresented among children put up for adoption it seems plausible that such laws would ensure that something on the order of 1% of US children would be black children raised by whites provided we overcome the limiting factor of insufficiently many black children to be adopted by importing infants from abroad3 (and perhaps also incentivize black women to do more egg donation).

I suspect that such a policy would reduce black/white racism to a small fraction of what it once was within at most 25 years and within 40 teens will start doubting it was ever really a thing. Not only does the integration of a non-trivial percentage of blacks into white society undermine stereotypes but the close bonds of parental affection, childhood friendship and, inevitably , romantic relationships between the races ensures that both sides get an all-but first person perspective on the other, come to common understandings and leverage those relationships (as well as money and power and understanding of the system) to stamp out police bias and other kinds of institutional racism thousands of times more effectively than any social justice movement could.

Ultimately, I’m not really sure whether I see this as more of an argument that we are crazily overestimating the harmfulness of racism, hugely underestimate the harm from regulatory impositions on freedom or if its really something we should pursue.

I’m sure most people will think this is ridiculous to think about even as a thought experiment. Maybe its stupid and a bad idea. However, the space of social interventions to change attitudes is huge and people who care more about fixing the problems of racism than signalling how strong an ally they are should spend more time considering them.

Interracial Adoption Considered Harmful

Now there are any number of criticisms of interracial adoption so I expect a certain amount of resistance to the idea that it would be good to have so many black kids raised by whites.

However, these criticisms seem to break down into a few basic kinds of concerns.

  1. White parents aren’t culturally/socially prepared to deal with the discrimination, stereotypes and other bad treatment that their adopted black children face and won’t know how to effectively advocate for their child, understand what they are going through or teach them how to live through police stops.
  2. There are differences in hair care and other vaguely specified physical attributes and stuff that white parents will somehow have difficulty managing. Yes, I really found pieces suggesting this but it’s sufficiently absurd in the age of google not to be worth mentioning again.
  3. The supposedly endemic microaggressions, racist language and assumptions and other supposedly racially hurtful things white people are doing all the time will make things uncomfortable.
  4. Blacks adopted by whites are culturally and socially isolated from other blacks but aren’t really accepted by whites leaving them out in the cold.
  5. Suggestions that the practice undermines Black cultural identity or of some kind of intrinsic badness when black children don’t know ‘their’ culture and only white culture.

Point 1 is certainly serious, but it is no longer so much of a big deal when blacks being raised by whites are 1% of the population. Not only will the frequent presence of kids with black skin who are otherwise WASPs in schools, sports teams and camps reduce the barriers and stereotypes these kids face but there will be a large network of other white parents of black kids to network, exchange tips and fight for their children. White parents may struggle when they are on their own but coming together in groups with likeminded mothers to drink wine and strategize about making the lives of recalcitrant officials/teachers/etc difficult is preciscely what Caucasian moms are culturally prepared to do.

As far as point 3 goes, I think these worries take insufficient account of the fact that children don’t enter this world with any conception of what things are racial subtext and it usually takes until well into adulthood to look back on one’s parents as real people with the usual package of strengths and weaknesses. Rather than seeing the normal behavior of their parents as microaggressions and glimpses of racism infants raised by whites from birth won’t even see (when they are there) these supposed microaggressions until they learn to do so as young adults and even then it will be that embarrassing, backwards, way mom talks not threatening racial animus.

Point 4 becomes largely a non-issue. As they would no longer be a rare sight white raised black kids would be more welcome in white circles and the large cohort of other white raised black kids provides a readily available set of people who share the same experience. Finally, point 5 is nothing but the type of attitude we should be eliminating. Having a certain skin color doesn’t make one heritage yours and another not yours. The whole point of the game is to build a world in which no one even distinguishes between BASPS and WASPS and we all assign cultural heritage based on your culture not skin color.

I’m not claiming there won’t be any difficulties. It will be hard and uncomfortable for many people. Even if I’m wrong on virtually every count here as parents matter far less to children’s future welfare than peer groups I’d be shocked if the effect of neighborhood these kids grow up in and school they attend doesn’t swamp any effect based on the color of their parents skin.


  1. That is I think a majority of US voters would be willing to support the candidate pushing the mandatory military service, even knowing congress would give him the votes to pass it, if they believed that the candidates personal characteristics or policies meant having him in the whitehouse would result in real social progress regarding race. 
  2. One could implement such a policy by making it illegal for any white family to adopt a non-black infant provided any healthy black infants are still unadopted and vice-versa. This ensures that no babies go unadopted if there are willing parents just because of numerical mismatch. 
  3. International adoption my be hard now but if the US government made facilitating it a diplomatic and bureaucratic priority and imported those babies themselves it wouldn’t be. 

Reevaluating Police Shootings

Racial Justice By Universal Justice

Anyone who has been paying attention to US media should be aware of the problem of police shooting unarmed black men. There is no doubt these shootings are unacceptable and reveal deep problems in the way police function in the US but stories like that linked below raise the question of whether the most pressing problem is really racial bias or the way we’ve trained our police to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, we want a society in which whites and blacks can expect equal treatment from the police. However, given the deep racial differences in socioeconomic status (exacerbated by the rural/urban divide in where poor whites and blacks live) and the human psychological vulnerability to stereotypes it’s not obvious that there is anything we can do to ensure police don’t develop an unconscious perception of minorities as more threatening. Studies, such as this, suggest that the different treatment that whites and blacks can expect from police aren’t the result of animus as black officers are equally guilty of it. That points to other effects such as stereotypes developed as a result of policing economically disadvantaged minority communities as the cause.

Hopefully, there are strategies we can implement to counteract these stereotypes. Maybe rotating officers into positions where they interact with more high socioeconomic status minorities (or low socioeconomic status whites) would be helpful. I don’t know. This is an area in which more research is desperately needed. However, in the near term, rather than focusing on race and racial bias, we may want to instead focus on the kind of police culture and training that leads to incidents like the one described below. Even if our only concern was racial justice reducing the number of unjust shootings may be the most effective way to reduce the unfair burden of extra risk that minorities bear.

Good Friends And Bullets, A Grimm Tale

What are friends for? Shooting, when the cop brain goes into survival mode. Andy Grimm, who knows Shaw, said he does not want the officer to be fired, the paper reported. “I know Jake,” he said. “I like Jake.” And Deputy Jake Shaw likes Andy Grimm too. “We know the deputy.

Free Speech Slip and Slide

In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.

Superiority of Western Culture

First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of serious controversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).

True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.

While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.

The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.

Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.

Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?

Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.

University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing

Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet

I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.

This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.

While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).

Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.


  1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. 
  2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. 
  3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers). 

No Way Doxing Racist Marchers Can Go Wrong!

So apparently in the wake of Charlottesville a campaign has formed to identify and dox the people who marched in support of white nationalism. No way this could end badly!

I’m sure white nationalists and their sympathizers we see spending all day posting on parts of 4chan and reddit have neither the time nor inclination to respond in kind. And if they do I’m sure they’ll restrict themselves to simply publishing the identities of those in antifa movements or anti-racist marches. No way they will expose gay people in the closet living in repressive regimes or name individuals anonymously sharing their experiences of sexual assault/violence. Surely they would never stoop so low as to reveal the identities of women who live in religiously conservative communities or work for conservative religious employers who seek advice about dealing with the emotional aftermath of an abortion.

Also, I’m sure that giving those who might be sympathetic enough to go to a march but not really committed a really good reason to hold a grudge and making sure they can’t hold a normal job will help them see the error of their ways. No way it will turn them into hardened extremists.

And certainly the groups who form to dox these white supremacists will understand that nazis are a special case and, after receiving a bunch of praise, will just pack up rather than going after another group they see as having unacceptable views or if they do it will surely be one you also see as unacceptable.

And, of course, all these vigilantes will exercise great care and verify that every last person they dox is really a white supremacist. No way they will accidentally mistake some passerby or blogger covering the event. I mean this is totally different than the situation will real life crimes like rape or murder where we think vigilantism poses far too great a risk of getting things wrong.

Yup, no reason to worry about this at all. Lets get those nazi bastards.

Does Anyone Really Object To Normalizing Racism/Sexism?

Or Reasons Not To Call Trump Racist

When it is revealed that a public figure said something with racist/sexist overtones criticism piles on fast. Even if it is clear that the figure doesn’t really have these racist/sexist attitudes the common refrain is that its still extremely harmful because it normalizes racism/sexism/etc.. Presumably the theory being that if other people believe that high status people commonly behave this way they will think its ok for them to as well.

Is this just a lie (or self-deception) for partisan purposes? I mean consider the implications if you really believed the following back when Bush was President (No one will plausibly believe Trump isn’t saying sexist things whatever you do):

  1. G. W. Bush isn’t really a racist/sexist (replace with Clinton if you prefer) but he sometimes uses racist/sexist language without thinking in the privacy of the white house.
  2. If people realized the president was saying these racist things they too would think that racism was ok and it would have bad consequences.

First, you should be much more angry at whatever staffer leaked the fact that the president used racist language than at the president himself. The staffer who leaked it had time to contemplate it and still choose to make the country think the president uses racist slurs while the president has a slip of the tongue from time to time. Indeed, you should be most angry if the staffer is a minority themselves who claims to be leaking the information because of his concern for racial justice. Even if you give the leaker some kind of pass for ignorance1 at the very least you should be trying your damnedest to (quietly) discourage any future such leaks.

Second, you should be archenemies with the liberal activists and members of the social justice community who spin stories about how racist/sexist the president is even, perhaps especially when it is true (excepting perhaps the very rare case where you believe it will do enough to affect the balance of power to outweigh the harms to race relations). Even with Trump it should be inexcusable to make allegations about dog whistle racism without absolutely rock solid evidence such as staffer testimony of intent and recognition in the community.

Third, you should be worried about maximally racist/sexist interpretations of a public figure’s comments. Even if it is plausible they meant them in the worst possible way you should favor the least racist/sexist interpretation that is plausible just so you don’t further normalize racism/sexism.

Yet, while I see people make the ‘this normalizes X’ argument all the damn time I’ve yet to see them get angry upset or even remonstrate people who are working to push marginally plausible theories of racist/sexist intent or dubitable claims of racist/sexist language. I’ve certainly never seen anyone making such an argument even suggest that it was bad/wrong for someone to leak that information. To the contrary they usually suggest it was in the national interest.

So how should one understand such claims? They can’t really believe the harm from normalization is that big a deal or they wouldn’t be on board with accusations that offer only minor political benefit at the cost of normalizing such behavior. My best guess is what they really mean is: how dare you break this social norm which I feel is very important. Even though your action only had a really tiny harmful effect the norm is really important because without it people would come to believe it was normal and acceptable to engage in racism/sexism.

That’s a fair statement but notice the implication: since any particular incident only does minor harm to this norm and barely nudges people’s sense of what is normal only a minor penalty is appropriate. After all, the benefit to the speaker is presumably virtually nothing from the slur and its sufficient if everyone takes relatively weak action to ensure they don’t utter any slurs so a small deterrent should suffice. In other words we still can’t interpret the speaker as making a cogent complaint as their intent in raising the specter of normalization was to show why this kind of behavior was so serious we couldn’t just let it go with a slap on the wrist but the speaker’s own disposition to prioritize a modicum of political advantage over avoiding further instances of normalization shows that he can’t coherently believe that the possibility of normalization shows the seriousness of the offense.


  1. Shouldn’t the speaker get the very same pass if he hasn’t worked harder to control his occasional slips of the tongue because he isn’t aware that it has any negative effect on others? Often racist phrases are picked up simply from hearing them said so the speaker isn’t in any way morally more responsible than the leaker…indeed arguably a better position as the leaker has to sit down and think over if he should leak while the speaker may have never even done that regarding his slips of the tongue. 

Racial Bias in Police Stops

Bias Science Done Right

In a previous post I was very critical of a study claiming to show gender bias in journal publications in political science. Like too many studies of this kind the data only supported the judgement of gender bias to the extent one was already inclined to believe gender bias was the appropriate explanation for gender disparities in the field. However, not all studies suffer from these flaws so when I heard about a recent study in PNAS examining how an individuals race affects how police treat them at traffic stops and saw that it was well done I thought I should post an example of the right way to engage in this kind of study (and the important/unexpected information one gets when one studies bias rigorously).

What the authors of this paper did was take body camera footage from Oakland police officers in April 2014 and examine vehicle stops they made. They had human raters (I presume college students) examine transcripts of the interactions (without knowledge of officer or civilian’s race) and rate them based on respectfulness, formality, friendliness, politeness and impartiality. After determining that such ratings were repeatable (different raters tended to agree on scoring) they then trained a computational model to predict both respect and formality which they verified against human ratings. I’ll let the paper’s authors speak for themselves about the results.

Controlling for these contextual factors, utterances spoken by officers to white community members score higher in Respect [β = 0.05 (0.03, 0.08)]. Officer utterances were also higher in Respect when spoken to older [β = 0.07 (0.05, 0.09)] community members and when a citation was issued [β = 0.04 (0.02, 0.06)]; Respect was lower in stops where a search was conducted [β = −0.08 (−0.11, −0.05)]. Officer race did not contribute a significant effect. Furthermore, in an additional model on 965 stops for which geographic information was available, neither the crime rate nor density of businesses in the area of the stop were significant, although a higher crime rate was indicative of increased Formality [β = 0.03 (0.01, 0.05)].

Note that the authors themselves raised the possibility that geographic region might play a confounding role, e.g., people in high crime areas might be treated more suspiciously, and rejected it. However, one still might worry that any effect we are seeing is a result of minorities being more inclined toward criminal behavior and thus more frequently pulled over on suspicion of serious infractions but that too is considered and rejected.

One might consider the hypothesis that officers were less respectful when pulling over community members for more severe offenses. We tested this by running another model on a subset of 869 interactions for which we obtained ratings of offense severity on a four-point Likert scale from Oakland Police Department officers, including these ratings as a covariate in addition to those mentioned above. We found that the offense severity was not predictive of officer respect levels, and did not substantially change the results described above. To consider whether this disparity persists in the most “everyday” interactions, we also reran our analyses on the subset of interactions that did not involve arrests or searches (N = 781), and found the results from our earlier models were fundamentally unchanged.

Finally, the paper authors are careful to acknowledge limitations of their analysis. In particular, they acknowledge the limitations of their study in identifying the cause of these disparities in treatment/language and with respect to the possibility that it is differences in minority behavior which itself causes officers to respond differently they say:

The racial disparities in officer respect are clear and consistent, yet the causes of these disparities are less clear. It is certainly possible that some of these disparities are prompted by the language and behavior of the community members themselves, particularly as historical tensions in Oakland and preexisting beliefs about the legitimacy of the police may induce fear, anger, or stereotype threat. However, community member speech cannot be the sole cause of these disparities. Study 1 found racial disparities in police language even when annotators judged that language in the context of the community member’s utterances. We observe racial disparities in officer respect even in police utterances from the initial 5% of an interaction, suggesting that officers speak differently to community members of different races even before the driver has had the opportunity to say much at all.

I feel that this analysis considered and fairly convincingly rejected all the plausible confounders. Of course others might disagree and suggest some other factor, e.g., expensiveness of car, is responsible but even if you are inclined to take such a line you have to admit that this study provides some pretty damn good evidence by ruling out many other plausible confounding variables.

Having said this one should still be careful (as the authors of this paper are) in interpreting the results. In particular, we don’t have a good sense of what the psychological reason for officers different behavior with minorities. Is it because they judge them to be less deserving of respect? Or maybe officers judge minorities to be less respectful to them so begin the interaction less respectfully? Or some other explanation? If the goal is making the world a better place and not merely assigning blame those answers matter and hopefully more good scientific studies will reveal them.

I’d like to close with what I take to be one of the most important reasons to do this research rigorously. While most people could have probably guessed that officers would be less respectful to minority drivers it wasn’t at all obvious that officer race wouldn’t play a factor in respectfulness to minorities. Nor was it obvious that we would see a difference in treatment from a broad swath of police officers not merely a few particularly biased officers. The reason this kind of research is important (in addition to validating minority claims of police treatment) is that we need to learn how and why minorities are treated differently if we are going to fix the problem. Without studies like this I think many people’s natural assumption is that hiring minority officers would address these problems. It doesn’t.

The Cancerous Concept of Cultural Appropriation

I’ve always been critical of the concept of cultural appropriation. The prima facia case for encouraging unfettered cultural remixing was so strong that I simply dismissed cultural appropriation as just another canard social justice extremists used to feel superior. The simple fact that each person in the borrowing culture now enjoys the benefits of that knowledge or other cultural practice (without taking that benefit away from the source culture) means that there is a huge utility upside to cultural sharing. Thus, not only must cultural appropriation be harmful to be a valid criticism it must cause more harm than the benefits borrowing provides. While those who condemn cultural appropriation would point out that not all borrowing is appropriation distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable borrowing (at least by the dominant culture) is sufficiently vexed that if people internalized a norm against cultural appropriation as desired it would deter them from borrowing even in many cases that wouldn’t qualify as appropriation. If people who want to build off something they see in another culture, e.g., incorporate aboriginal rhythms into their music, have to check with the source culture or a panel of experts before experimenting with it they won’t bother to do so.

Moreover, the fact that cultures don’t have sharp boundaries (or well-defined views on what is acceptable) makes the whole concept suspect. For example, a cultural practice could spread from India to England while every person in the chain of transmission only adopts practices from what they see as their own culture. However, the facts about the chain of transmission don’t seem to plausibly affect whether the practice is harmful as usually most people won’t even be aware of the chain of transmission.

However, when I saw an article claiming to explain why cultural appropriation is harmful I figured I should give the arguments against cultural appropriation a fair shake. Not only were they incredibly unconvincing they actually persuaded me that the concept/criticism of cultural appropriation actually works to exploit the very least privileged for the sake of the slightly more privileged. I tried to find other articles but they weren’t any more persuasive (at least unless you read the last article as redefining cultural appropriation to simply mean borrowing without citing that culture as an influence). I accept that the defenses of cultural appropriation I consider here may not be the best ones available so if you know of better arguments please inform me. However, given that these seem to be the best arguments generally available to the public I think it’s fair to say that, should they prove unconvincing, the public should repudiate the idea of cultural appropriation until a more convincing justification can be found.

The TL;DR version of this article is simply: feelings of frustration/resentment because the proceeds from borrowing aren’t distributed in the most fair way don’t actually identify any harm. You might think it would be better if we compensated cultures we borrowed from or if past injustices were rectified but, given that isn’t pragmatically possible, it doesn’t mean that we are better off not borrowing these practices at all. Moreover, many of these intuitions about compensation seem to flow from a pernicious modern attitude regarding intellectual property naively applied to cultures as if they were individuals. Ultimately, pursuing these feelings of aggrievement doesn’t actually right the wrongs of past oppression but does make things worse for those who are alive today, especially the least privileged members of the least privileged groups. For a more in depth refutation I will go through the arguments in the first (most complete) article point by point.

Definitions and Limitations

Helpfully, this article offers the following definition of cultural appropriation:

cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

There are several serious problems with this definition. First and foremost is that it describes an overall state of affairs that people would universally agree is bad (oppression is almost by definition morally bad) but it is invoked to criticize only one aspect of that behavior. To give an example of how this can be misleading consider the following definition:

Homicidal Familial Appropriation
Homicidal familial appropriation occurs when one man (or those acting on his behalf) murders another and then appropriates the dead man’s family (marrying the widow, raising the children as his own etc..).

I think we can all agree that Homicidal Familial Appropriation is a bad thing and ought not to occur. However, the moral harm stems from the murder and, while it might strike us as distasteful, its not clear that stepping into the dead man’s shoes is a further harm. Indeed, in times past where the widow and orphans might face serious hardship or even starvation in the absence of a male protector/provider it might even be morally unacceptable not to marry and care for the widow after the fact.

To make this point more clearly imagine that you and another man (sorry but if you identify as female you’ll have to come up with your own murderous hypothetical) are romantic rivals for the same woman but she marries him and bears his child. You’ve accepted your loss with dignity but when your rich, powerful father hears of the situation he has your rival assassinated without your consent. Now that would surely be a tragic situation but the harm has already been effected and it would simply compound the tragedy to refuse to marry the widow and raise your rivals child. Indeed, even your rival himself would (if he weren’t dead) no doubt prefer that outcome in such a situation. The point is that merely because the definition describes a situation in which one person/group unacceptably benefits from a wrong done to another person/group its not appropriate to infer that choosing not to eschew the benefit would have made the situation better.

However, apart from attempting to tie together the use of cultural material with past oppression it is noteworthy how little this definition does to either pin down what activity is objectionable or what makes it objectionable. Indeed, if anything it creates further confusion about why cultural appropriation might be wrong. After all, from an intuitive point of view, it is hard to imagine that somehow Americans adopting yoga is bad in a way that Japanese adoption of yoga in a similar fashion wouldn’t be despite the lack of any past Japanese oppression of the Indians. Indeed, this definition would seem to suggest that even if a false historical account had convinced every living person that the Japanese and not the British had been responsible for oppressing the Indian people it would still be wrong for British derived cultures to adopt yoga but not the Japanese despite the fact that the effects would be indistinguishable from those in a world in which it really had been the Japanese doing the oppression.

While it is not, in itself, an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation I think defining a concept to ensure it only applies to the group you feel warrants criticism is a red flag. If your goal in using the term cultural appropriation was to pick out some natural class of behaviors that are wrong in the same way such a restriction would be unnecessary and invite the kind of criticism I gave above applying the concept in counterfactual situations. It might turn out that cultural appropriation happened (almost) exclusively in such circumstances because that’s the only time all the preconditions for the supposed harms are present1. However, baking such a criteria into the definition itself suggests a recognition that the speaker will not be able to describe the practice they object to in a way that others will agree only applies to those practices they wish to condemn and is attempting to sneakily avoid tough questions about what morally distinguishes the apparently similar behavior of non-dominant cultures. Again, this isn’t an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation but it does suggest a degree of skepticism may be appropriate.

Allegations of Moral Harm

So setting aside the issue of a precise definition of cultural appropriation for the moment what arguments does this piece offer to show cultural appropriation is morally wrong?

  • “It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression”

So here’s what’s at stake for the Native people: The term “redsk*n” comes from the time when the colonial and state governments and companies paid white people to kill Native Americans and used their scalps or even genitalia (to prove their sex), aka “red skins,” as proof of their “Indian kill.”

Yes, its wrong to offend native Americans by trivializing the long history of oppression and poor treatment at the hands of other (mostly white) Americans. But what this shows is only that its wrong to offensively trivialize violent historical oppression.

To the extent this is your concern it would be more effective to simply drop talk of ‘cultural appropriation’ entirely and simply tell people not to be dicks. Lots of people, like myself, who are strident opponents of the idea of cultural appropriation think that its offensive and unacceptable (morally not legally) to call an NFL team the redskins. The only reason to bring up the label ‘cultural appropriation’ in this context is to borrow the reprobation we rightly feel for offensive/insensitive behaviors and apply it to instances of cultural borrowing that we don’t feel are justifiably viewed as offensive nor think trivialize historical oppression. Thus we are still in search of any reason to view cultural appropriation in general as morally wrong.

  • “It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, I witness people taking what they like without wanting to associate with where it came from all the time. Here, recent transplants to the area write Yelp reviews in search of “authentic Mexican food” without the “sketchy neighborhoods” – which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.

This isn’t so much a moral argument as an expression of frustration/disgust. Of course seeing people openly enjoying the fruits of mexican culture while remaining prejudiced against Mexicans might be infuriating but that doesn’t show it is wrong. It’s not like those newcomers would be less prejudiced or Mexican-Americans any better off if white Americans didn’t eat burritos. Just the opposite in fact.

A major factor underlying many people’s fear/distrust of minorities is a lack of any positive setting in which they interact with minorities. If your only experience with mexicans is seeing videos of them running from the border patrol on fox news and seeing the mexicans lingering on the streets around 14th and mission to sell drugs2 of course you will be inclined to be scared of them. Indeed, a serious problem in policing is the fact that while on the job police tend to encounter people up to no good and if that is there only contact with minorities it can instill powerful biases. But every person who sits down at a mexican restaurant and has a pleasant interaction with a mexican waiter or owner of the restaurant is a little less likely to be racist and the owner and employees of that restaurant are a bit better off.

One might try and suggest this might justify enjoying mexican food purchased from mexican owned establishments but doesn’t defend the sale of burritos by non-mexican establishments. However, I need not prove that this actively benefits minority interests only note that it doesn’t contribute to racism or prejudice. Indeed, taken seriously, this complaint would be a reason to abandon language itself for that is the ultimate reason it is possible to express appreciation for a culture while being prejudiced against its people. However, I would argue that even eating burritos sold by whites makes some contribution to reducing racism (if nothing else it makes individuals who might never otherwise have considered going to a mexican owned restaurant do so).

More broadly, I would point out that if the public ever internalized the notion of cultural appropriation as the advocates desire it would eliminate many of these benefits. The mere uncertainty about whether something qualified as cultural appropriation would discourage them from eating at mexican restaurants regardless of who owned them. Even in the implausible case in which people aren’t too lazy to throughly check who owns the restaurant they plan to eat at insisting on mexican ownership of a restaurant serving burritos would substantially reduce the resale vale of mexican restaurants and make it that much harder for Mexicans to get loans to start them. In short, while the actual cultural appropriation doesn’t further any of the harms raised in the argument accepting cultural appropriation as a genuine harm does.

  • “It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color”

For example, standards of professionalism hold back all kinds of people who aren’t white men. As a Black woman, there are many jobs that would bar me if I wore cornrows, dreadlocks, or an afro – some of the most natural ways to keep up my hair. So for me, wearing my hair naturally is a meaningful declaration that I believe in my natural beauty. It’s risky to make this declaration in a society that says I must aspire to whiteness have value.

Again we see the harm (behaviors/appearances identified with minority groups are viewed as unacceptable/unclassy) conflated with a behavior which merely makes that harm salient (white people borrowing it). Indeed, the most plausible way we will get to a society which accepts these minority behaviors/appearances as mainstream is by allowing whites to adopt them. That is unfortunate but what’s morally relevant is the results. Ultimately, which is the better world: one in which white people don’t adopt minority styles/behaviors and that difference continues to be used to oppress them or one in which white people borrow those styles/behaviors and they are no longer used to oppress? Furthermore, given the choice between sending the message to black girls that “the way you look is ugly and inappropriate” or that “the way you look is so good that white women are trying to adopt it” I’d choose the later.

Again, the choice isn’t between the world as it is and the magical world without discrimination where afros, dreadlocks etc.. on blacks are seen as appropriate professional dress but between the world as it is and the world where whites never borrowed these fashions and they never gained acceptability. While the message that mainstream acceptance depends on convincing whites to adopt your style isn’t great its a hell of a lot better than the message that mainstream acceptance is impossible. Indeed, given the social and professional roles occupied by whites insisting that they not adopt black derived fashions/behaviors would be to doom many important black cultural figures to niche influence not to mention impeding the slow steps toward less racial animosity.

  • “It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor”
  • “It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For”

I take this to be the core of the complaint. It feels wrong when you see some white woman benefiting from selling some crap based on native american spirituality while native americans languish in poverty and suffer from discrimination. However, this doesn’t in any way show that the cultural appropriation itself makes anyone worse off.

It is often the misfits and oddballs who come up with the most important ideas. History is littered with stories of misunderstood genuis and people who were treated abominably during their lives only for their great cultural contributions to be recognized latter. Surely we don’t believe that the world would be better if we eschewed their contributions because they were treated poorly. So why would the situation be any different when the creator is a member of a racial/ethnic group that is oppressed rather than someone who merely happens to socially marginalized? More generally, I would simply dispute the very idea that whoever comes up with new ideas somehow deserves or is owed the profit on those ideas. It is a good way to incentivize innovation but doesn’t seem to have much going for it as a morally mandate.

Of course, we can all agree that one should give appropriate credit, e.g., if you’ve borrowed your musical style from black performers say so. However, that doesn’t in any way imply that it would be better not to borrow that style at all.

Lets consider for a moment what the world would be like if white musicians had never borrowed from black music culture or if white studio executives refused to profit from distributing black music. It would be a world even more divided than our world today. The many black artists who profited and have been idolized by teens of all races would never have gotten their chance. Rock music would have been relegated to a racial ghetto and used as further justification for racism rather than bringing folks together.

Yet again while cultural appropriation may make the unfairness of past oppression and continuing injustices salient if anything it works to ameliorate these harms not enhance them.

  • “It Spreads Mass Lies About Marginalized Cultures”

For instance, if you think about the real story of Pocahontas, having your daughter pretend to be her on Halloween is pretty disturbing. The real Pocahontas, whose given name was Matoaka, was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman (not John Smith, by the way), and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at the age of 21.

Ok, don’t spread misinformation about marginalized cultures. Got it. Now what does this have to do with cultural appropriation. When it is/isn’t ok to sugarcoat history is an important issue but it isn’t cultural appropriation.

  • “It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes”

As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”

Umm, no. In virtually all cases of so called cultural appropriation no one is pretending to be a different race. But yah, if you see someone perpetuating a racist stereotype call them out on it but this has nothing to do with the issue of cultural appropriation. Indeed, the example cited in the article of Katy Perry dressing up as a submissive asian woman in her performance isn’t even a case of cultural borrowing at all.

Having a half-asian wife I’m well aware of the issues surrounding the fetishization of oriental women. It’s a complex topic that I won’t address here because its not relevant to the issue of cultural appropriation.

  • “White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing”

Again, this explains why members of marginalized groups might get upset about cultural appropriation but doesn’t explain what makes it bad. The whole hope of a less racist, less bigoted future rests on abandoning a race based us versus them attitude and this complain stinks of race based score keeping. We should all be glad that we live in a better time now and no one is punished for the practice anymore. Of course its easy for me to say that and I don’t begrudge those whose cultures were oppressed their feelings but it doesn’t make the argument against cultural appropriation any more valid.

Indeed, I think the article itself nicely illustrates why cultural appropriation is a net benefit.

A touching moment in this discussion with South Asian yoga teachers from South Asian Art & Perspectives on Yoga and America (SAAPYA) shows one woman’s tearful explanation of how the elders in her community don’t have access to the yoga studios dominating the industry of a practice so important to them. As Susanna Barkataki writes, dividing yoga from its true roots and purpose, and from the people who had to fought to keep it alive, means “eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India.”

Step back and think rationally for a moment. In which scenario do you think there is more money, space and interest devoted to keeping traditional yogic practices alive: the one in which California is covered with yoga studios and the Beatles travel to India to consult spiritual gurus or the one in which yoga remains some weird stuff smelly Indian beggars do? I think the answer is obvious. Indeed, the widespread enthusiasm for yoga around the world is generally viewed as providing India with considerable soft power. Unsurprisingly, members of oppressed groups have discovered the same thing that Americans did when they exported American entertainment: having your cultural products consumed by people in other countries grants you considerable power and influence.

  • “It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People”

claiming that the dominant culture has a right to take freely from disempowered groups sounds a lot like the lie of the “white man’s burden” from the past. Colonizers used this concept to claim they had a “duty” to take land, resources, and identity from Indigenous people – trying to justify everything from slavery to genocide.

No, that isn’t what emphasizing the importance of feeling free to make use of whatever ideas/concepts/fashions are available communicates to me. Indeed, I don’t think white people consuming/producing rap, doing yoga or engaging in bullshit native-american spirituality generally sends any of the soul-crushing messages that those arguing against cultural appropriation take them to send. However, to the extent such messages/impressions are harmful then it seems convincing others that this is the message being sent whenever whites engage in cultural borrowing would be manifesting the very harm which advocates claim to be trying to alleviate.

More generally, this point simply can’t provide initial justification for the moral harm of cultural appropriation. Absent an initial showing of harm to marginalized people one can’t claim that accepting cultural borrowing is prioritizing anything over justice for marginalized people.

Practical Pronouncements

Ultimately, what would the effect of taking claims of cultural appropriation seriously. I’ve argued above that if we literally followed out the logic of their complaints we would live in a world with a great deal more racial suspicion missing many of the things which make modern life so good. Moreover, its not merely members of the dominant racial/cultural group who would suffer. Blacks would equally well be denied the fitness benefits of yoga if there weren’t yoga studies all over the US (the fact blacks currently make less use of yoga than whites doesn’t change the fact that they still benefit) and native-american teens would be just as lacking in rock-n-roll as white teens. More generally, the overall increase in societal wealth as a result of the non-linear interplay of freely borrowed ideas benefits everyone, those at the bottom often the most.

However, thats not really the world which those who raise complaints about cultural appropriation would bring about. Practically speaking whats at issue isn’t really when its ok to borrow from another culture but who gets to decide. Looking at the behavior of those who take cultural appropriation seriously (and who haven’t defined the concept not to apply to them) its not that they borrow any less from other cultures but rather that they give veto power to eminent members of the culture who accept the notion of cultural appropriation.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but most ironically because it fails to consider the interests of the least powerful members of marginalized groups. Simply dividing the world into privileged and non-privileged cultures and ignoring the power structures within marginalized cultures is an exceptionally privileged and narcissistic way to understand the complexity of human culture. As a practical matter adopting the vocabulary of cultural appropriation hands power over the use of cultural inheritance to the members of that culture who have already gained a substantial degree of power/acceptance by mainstream society, e.g., the native-american academic or the black activist, while yanking it away from those who could benefit from it the most. The unrecognized black rapper who can’t support his music by selling CDs to white teens and the impoverished native-american who can’t send their daughter to college on money earned from cheap Indian trinkets sold to tourists are equally entitled to the fruits of their culture but the narrative of cultural appropriation denies this to them.


  1. For instance, one might imagine a definition of cultural appropriation that identified the harm as stemming from a sense of loss of cultural dignity or self-direction/control. On such a definition it would be very difficult for a dominant culture to ever be subject to such a harm (though one might imagine some sci-fi scenario in which it happens) but that fact would flow naturally from the definition rather than being baked into the definition. 
  2. No, I’m not making baseless assumptions here about what they were doing. Based on personal experience I can attest that the majority of people who you see lounging about in that area are involved in some way in the illegal drug trade and many of them are mexican. As a past customer I can hardly hold that against them but it is understandable why people would view drug dealing gangmembers as scary.