Last week, amidst backlash and accusations of whitewashing, Ed Skrein stepped down from his role as Major Ben Daimio—a Japanese-American comic book character offered to the white actor during casting for its Hellboy adaptation.
“I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage,” Skrein wrote in a statement he released via Twitter. “There has been intense conversation and understandable upset since that announcement, and I must do what I feel is right.”
Within the same week, The New York Times published an article wherein writer Bari Weiss rallied “Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation” in response to this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
In his pursuit of what felt “right,” Skrein—a Hollywood actor, unburdened by the social responsibility inherited by a journalist—exercised a certain grasp on the concept of ownership and identity that Weiss has yet to obtain for herself, as the writer seems to suffer from an unfortunate misunderstanding of what cultural appropriation is.
In Weiss’ thinkpiece, she describes the annual award show as a “veritable orgy” of cultural appropriation, and boils any objection to the hedonistic impulse of appropriating for pleasure down to scarily simple terms.
She writes “the logic of those casting the stones goes something like this: Stealing is bad. It’s especially terrible when those doing the stealing are “rich” —as in, they come from a dominant racial, religious, cultural or ethnic group—and those who they are stealing from are ‘poor.'”
If Weiss’ assessment of her opposition isn’t a sign she’s stumbled upon unfamiliar terrain, the examples she walks the reader through detailing what he thinks appropriation is all but confirms her foreign status to the topic.
Among those examples are Kendrick Lamar and his stage performers dressed in ninja outfits, Taylor Swift’s visual plagiarism of Beyonce’s Lemonade, and a flippant suggestion that Bey could be considered an appropriator of Persian culture “by naming her new daughter Rumi after the 13th-century Sufi poet.”
Beyond the ceremony, Weiss notes Martin Luther King’s use of “latinate language to evoke the trials of the Israelites while quoting the writings of a slave-owning founding father,” a Russian Jew having written “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” a black southerner who sang opera, and a Turkish born Kurd who runs a Greek yogurt company—all in support of her argument that cultural appropriation has made America what it is today: a faintly progressive nation which sanitizes Martin Luther King’s legacy in between fits of Christmas joy and scoops of Chobani.
But, of course, to suggest that King appropriated the English language, that a black southerner stole opera, and that Russian Jews and Turkish Kurds are culture vultures for writing Christmas songs and liking Greek yogurt is absurd.
Cultural appropriation, as we know it and interact with it today, is often saddled with and should therefore be recognized as the erasure of the originating culture’s identity under the facade of the appropriators presumed ownership.
None of Weiss’ examples describe instances of cultural appropriation because no one—not even the accused appropriators themselves—would mistake Kendrick for an owner of Asian culture via his ninjas, or Beyonce for an owner of Persian culture via her daughter’s name. These acts were clearly displays of homage, not theft, in that ownership remained clear throughout.
Even the faux Beyonce video Taylor Swift shot for “Look What You Made Me Do,” felt more like unoriginality and white mediocrity than appropriation—as her theft felt specific to Beyonce’s work rather than to what that work means to her culture.
Thefts that encompass more than plagiarism—thefts that rob whole identities and experiences, and celebrate the imposters—are what constitute cultural appropriation. That sort of plunder is what Ed Skrein sought to avoid by forfeiting his Hellboy role to someone better suited for the part.
Continuing on in his statement, Skrein wrote “it is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts.”
The obscuring of people of color is a product of a tried and true, game tested accessory to white privilege—the assumption of white inventorship.
That assumption explains why teens on Twitter are taught the Kardashians invented cornrows, and kids in class are taught Christopher Columbus “discovered” a mass of land that was already inhabited. In those same classrooms, for 28 winter days, walls are plastered with novel fun facts detailing which black person you’ve never heard of invented which tool or appliance you use on a daily basis—because for the other 11 months out the year, we assume white people invented life itself and a light blue sky to match.
At the time of this writing, British GQ is currently under fire for tweeting “thanks to @Harry_Styles, wearing multiple rings is now a thing,” to which one black user replied “white people culture is just black culture 30 years ago,” while another user simply “laughs in Shabba Ranks.”
By opting out of whitewashing a canonical Asian character, Skrein seems well aware of his privilege of presumed originality. Should he have stayed in that role, it would have likely been assumed by non-comic book readers that the original content was written as such—that the spirit of whiteness invented that character, when in reality, the spirit of whiteness has invented little to nothing in this world outside of systematic oppression and insatiable burglary.
According to Weiss, this type of theft, in every way that it robs folks of their personhood, should be celebrated as the sort of “mongrel culture” that stirs the great American melting-pot. Ed Skrein and other folks with clarity understand the consequences of that theft produce a beast far more consuming than whatever it is that pot is fit to feed.