And how timely is this, what with the recent stories of Ariana Grande and her messed-up tattoo(s) and the discussions that lead to?
A couple of things have combined since my last chapter in this ongoing series, and it proved another chapter in the ongoing series of Dealing with Call-Out Culture and Public Shaming IRL, Part Eight Thousand and Twelve. This time, I got to watch several people unload on a group of teen American K.Pop fans, shaming them for following BTS and assorted other bands, and looking to their idols for fashion inspo, and immersing in Korean culture as part of their fandom, because that was cultural appropriation.
How do you purchase a product like music, especially of a branded genre like this, WITHOUT “appropriation”? Is ANY engagement with ANY culture “appropriation”? I mean, isn’t the point of popular music to… sell stuff to fans all over the world? Is just purchasing it akin to enslaving a race (as a few arguments can run)? REALLY?
If YOU aren’t part of that culture, do YOU have any right telling someone else that what they’re doing is appropriating it?
This kind of shit usually leaves people (myself included) frozen with fear, and afraid to engage with anyone at all, rather than bringing people together from a POV of understanding and kindness and basic human decency.
How on earth do we handle this shit?
Again, there are no single “right” answers, and if there were, I certainly don’t have them. This is just another in an ongoing series of musings for which all of the usual “PC police!” “clap-back!” “SJWs!” and “-ist!” tags just don’t fit. Because remember:
THIS SHIT IS COMPLICATED
So I already wanted to talk about this term, but it looks like the whole of Part Four is going to be devoted to the idea of
Last time, I talked about microaggression, and cultural appropriation is a related idea. Halloween wasn’t all that long ago when, yes, yet again, there were the clickbaity “news” stories and the horrible pictures and the problematic conversations about what does and doesn’t constitute a costume.
“My culture is not a costume!” proclaim multiple people. Every year, I have to join in more than one fucking discussion with another fucking person who keeps arguing and arguing about their Halloween costume because no, for fuck’s sake, you do not need to darken your skin tone to look like a person of another race as part of your costume. NO.
But is everyone wearing any garment or accouterment that is related to or a signifier of another culture the same thing as “culture as costume” or “cultural appropriation”? Who defines what? Does it really hurt someone if ___ wears ___? When? How? What about if X culture appropriated it from ___ before? How do we navigate this stuff?
Last summer, I got a couple of hot weather items, including a floaty boho hippie dress, and a feathered headband to wear with it.
Look at it. In fact, I picked it specifically because I know that peacocks are not related to Native Americans, and the style, shape, and material of this headband in no way would evoke Native American culture.
You think that stopped a couple of other people from calling me out on my appropriation of Native culture? (There is a mean, snarky part of me that wanted to respond with “Really? Which of the People hold peacocks as sacred? Aren’t I actually appropriating ancient Greek culture and Hera?”)
Was it really causing them, causing Native American people, cultural harm for me to wear dangling peacock feathers in my hair? Was it an “act of continued violence”?
Before someone says “That’s ridiculous,” let me remind you again of that balance and compassion and good faith and stuff. Native Americans have every reason to feel violence enacted upon them under a variety of circumstances. That is not something a people can “just get over,” and epigenetics would suggest that “just getting over” is actually impossible because it’s part of our DNA going forward.
But was this what that was? Is there one correct answer?
One of the places where I experienced the “cultural appropriation is an act of violence” rhetoric re: my feathery hair thingie was an online discussion group where several members aggressively called out any and all instances they perceived as cultural appropriation, including:
- white people engaging with/listening to/performing/dancing to any sort of rap or hip hop
- white people “showing off” by speaking Spanish to tourists from Spain
- non-Korean girls/kids listening to K-Pop; non-Asians engaging with K- or J-Pop, or anime and manga, including learning the languages, as well as incorporating style elements inspired by the pop culture
- people eating or cooking ethnic foods from cultures of which they are not part, from authentic to “inspired by” dishes
- white people visiting ethnic neighborhoods, like a local Little Persia or Chinatown or Little Italy, because that “turns culture into a tourist destination.”
- white people traveling to other non-white countries, for the same reason, because that, too, commodifies a culture and dilutes it
- people wearing garments influenced by ethnic garments, including anything with a kimono cut, any print/design that could be considered “tribal,” “ethnic,” or whatever other problematic term you want to apply, and my aforementioned feathers in my hair
Eventually, inevitably, the discussion boiled down to a hard-and-fast claiming, naming, and shaming. Namely, ANYONE engaging in ANY way with ANY culture not theirs, even at the invitation of another individual of that culture, was, according to this discussion, engaging in cultural appropriation, which was harmful and akin to killing/maiming/genocide.
There are so many things to question in so many different areas, but maybe it simply can’t happen in social media/online? Who knows?
One of the biggest problems with this discussion and others I’ve experienced is that there was no allowance for the idea that where a culture is located and how it’s appropriated changes over time. I don’t mean the same old “It was a different tiiiiiime!” thing. Like I say to my students, that is where the discussion starts, not where it ends. But culture itself is hard to define and pin down at ANY given time, much less when we see it in a historical perspective. There MUST be room to engage with all of the things going on, and use it as a tool for deeper understandings of cultures both specifically and as a whole.
Take, for example….
What do we do with this as an act of cultural appropriation? Right now, there are two overly-simplistic binaries. “It was a different time then [so don’t think about it critically at all]!” and “CANCELLED!” Neither of those options are satisfactory for everyone.
On the one hand, Cher was legitimately of Native American ancestry, yet, on the other hand, Cher wasn’t singing songs in the 1970s about her half-Armenian heritage because, let’s face it, that wasn’t either an issue or marketable at the time of the “Indian Movement.” Instead, Cher was singing about her fraction-of-a-part-Cherokee background (without being raised in that culture, btw). She created a narrative story, complete with visual signifiers from her designer Mackie outfits to her long, straight, black hair that all communicated specific Native American heritage. But “Half-Breed” isn’t her actual “authentic” story. Nor is “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves,” nor “Dark Lady,” nor any of the other (I’ll use the word that would have been used then) “exotic” identities that, nevertheless, she could still legitimately claim in some ways.
Does that make this “bad”? “Wrong”? “Art”? “Pop culture”? Doesn’t she have the right to identify as ___ if it’s in her background, and, yes, even make money from that identity? If she then turns to a designer to make her costumes/outfits based on that, is that her right? Or is she not “authentic” if she’s fictionalized/shifted perspectives? Used it as a stage costume? What if it’s framed as “low” art versus “high”? Commodified fashion for others to purchase? What if you buy/make a Cher costume modeled after the Mackie outfit that she wore, and dress up as Cher for Halloween? What if you’re Cher in drag for Pride? What if you don’t wear the costume yourself, but buy/make one for a Cher doll that you purchase?
I mean… isn’t it possible that there’s no one right answer that works forever and ever with this stuff?
Furthermore (since I am fucking OLD), I remember how proud many Native Americans (or, as we called them and they called themselves in the 70s, American Indians) were about Cher at the time. There was an incredible sense of pride and support, in general, that Cher was making that culture visible and accessible to the general public, and that it was part of America’s history. That she, a mega-super-star even then, could take center stage as a legitimate Native American woman and demonstrate, after generations of being considered “dirty” and “savage” and “drunk” and “lazy,” that Native American people and their culture were beautiful and a source of artistic inspiration. Obviously I don’t mean everyone, but back then, there were all sorts of public accolades and praise. A girl in my grade at school who was Cheyenne (although adopted, so she was blond and blue-eyed) was so proud that her parents were recognizable as something positive by being Native American, and that her mother was told multiple times a day that she “looked like Cher,” tall, with long black hair past her waist, wearing beaded garments and turquoise jewelry.
Is there space for those performances to exist? Where? For whom? “Cancelled!” culture suggests we have to chuck it all, cancel out all of Cher’s body of work and everything else she’s done over the decades, and call out and shame Cher for misrepresentation and appropriation and racism, for building a career on that appropriation.
That’s where I completely disagree, and insist that we need to look at the complexities, not dismiss it all. If you find Cher’s Mackie Native American costume offensive, even painful, because of your own heritage and experiences, you can reject it all you want. It would be fantastic if you could raise questions about it, and new ways of engaging with it and thinking about it. But if it causes you pain, then please, don’t engage with it at all.
You do not get to impose your personal interpretation of a complicated cultural thing on everyone else and demand its complete and total rejection by the world as a whole.
People have to be able to simultaneously engage and critique something, acknowledge its problems, and see it as part of a longer history, not an absolute. Maybe in another 20 or 40 or 60 years, we’ll feel about Cher’s performance the same way we feel about Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (And no, I don’t think we need to chuck that movie, either, or all of Mickey Rooney’s movies, but I’ll admit, I’ve never been able to finish watching BAT because of it, and I know I’m far from the only one.) Or maybe we’ll have new ways of contextualizing these issues of culture and race and appropriation. We will for sure have new terms and new critical approaches to thinking about culture and who can and does access it.
BUT THESE THINGS ARE COMPLICATED, and trying to simplify them with absolutes and a set of hard-and-fast rules doesn’t help.
Link: Black American pianist turns himself into an exotic Indian, finds fame and wealth
So, we’re back to Ariana Grande, as well as other conversations that get mixed up with gender, and youth culture, and who really has what power under what circumstances. On the one hand, cultural appropriation is a real thing to consider. On the other hand, there is also a long and ugly history of shaming young women, especially teen girls, for their hobbies and interests, and insisting that if it’s popular with teen girls, it’s stupid and sucky and not real art, and must be rejected and the girls shamed, and those dumb girls don’t REALLY understand ___ anyway.
A lot of the call-outs about cultural appropriation have descended into this very thing: shaming teen girls for liking things, and how they like things. Their interest and enthusiasm is wrong.
And don’t fucking get me started on the assholes claiming that Ariana Grande’s anxiety was “white woman tears,” motherfuckers, because no. You do not get to claim that you are rising up against oppression AND SIMULTANEOUSLY deny someone else their real disabilities, and even their basic, human, emotional reactions. If ___ doesn’t get to define ___ for you, you don’t get to define another person’s anxiety. No, no, and no.
If that person was part of a fucking terrorist attack against teen girls and teen culture, too, then you REALLY don’t get to pull that “fuck your feelings” shit.
If you’re calling out Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea for appropriating black culture, and not, say, Justin Timberlake, Macklemore, Eminem, Diplo, Mac Miller, the Beastie Boys, Hall & Oates, George Michael, Elton John, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and a shit-ton of other while men, then yes, this is not just an issue of cultural appropriation but an issue of sexism and ageism.
Link: Black music and cultural appropriation
Link: Bruno Mars and cultural appropriation
And if that starts, where the fuck does it end?
Who is allowed to do what? By whom? Who has what power, because the ideas of who is a “minority” under what circumstances is loaded as fuck? If China’s economy is outpacing America’s, then who has the power now? Under what conditions? If a white kid grows up in a traditionally-ethnic neighborhood, is their cultural appropriation “authentic” and therefore “okay”? If white tourists go to the Bahamas, where one of the common local services is cornrow hair-braiding, done by locals, at their encouragement, for a fair price, is that “cultural appropriation” if a white woman gets her hair braided? Who has the power there? If a Canadian family rents a house in Bali for a weeks-long getaway, and they buy a bunch of household decor from local shops and artisans to take back to decorate their apartment because they love the “vibe” but are ALSO acutely aware of the problems and are constantly questioning issues of power and privilege, is that unequivocally bad?
Because, as it turns out, this can be extremely complicated. Intersectional, even. Between the internet, travel, and general globalism, there are few instances where there is a clear-cut power dynamic AND a complete oblivion to the culture being appropriated.
Okay. Some of it IS simple: don’t wear blackface. Dressing up in blackface and portraying a lynched black man as a costume has NEVER been okay. There is no excuse for that. If you try claiming it’s “just a joke,” unless you are Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in 1976, it’s not a joke you can pull off. No. Don’t wear blackface.
It is also worth noting that, even just thirty or forty years ago, any kind of darkening of the skin to represent any other race actually wasn’t considered “blackface.” Blackface was specifically understood as this.
Blackface was created with greasepaint and white paint to evoke vaudeville minstrel characters, with distinctly defined signifiers. Blackface, historically, was understood as a comical/unrealistic and degrading portrayal of black Americans. It was always cartoonish, and vulgar. It was a specific ugly, aggressive, violent, and hate-filled stereotype of black people with a clearly-understood history, and served to reinforce those racist stereotypes and keep black people subjected by not just white people, but in an uneasy equal-but-not relationship with the working-class Jewish and Irish performers who appeared in blackface (because even blackface isn’t straightforwardly an either/or situation).
Eric Lott, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (Race and American Culture
Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights
Stephen Johnson (ed), Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy
Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America
Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?
(These are just a few of the books I use when I teach this stuff. Message me if you would like more recommendations.)
However, just a generation ago, trying to look realistically like a black person was considered something different than “blackface,” often even something positive. It’s uneasy, uncomfortable, and isn’t acceptable today, but it’s also worth scrutiny.
Yeah. That’s a thing that happened.
The plot, which I remember well, was that Kimberly’s new guy was racist, and the three Drummond/Jackson kids came up with the idea of Kimberly’s black Maid Marion costume to fuck with him. Like I said, this actually wasn’t considered “blackface” at the time. Not only was this done for specific social purposes, it was aimed at other white people. The source of comedy came not from black actions but white responses to perceived blackness. People were laughing at the white racist, not the black people, or blackness. That’s not to say it “stands the test of time,” but to slap the simple label “racist blackface” on this very complicated piece of pop culture from specific times/contexts doesn’t always work.
There are a ton of questions to ask, and a lot of answers that could inform contemporary understanding of this episode. How many black writers were involved? How did the parents of Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman feel? What was the in-studio audience’s response? What was the audience’s demographic make-up? What were responses from black viewers and critics and other actors at the time? Often, this TV show was one of the first places a large number of white people were introduced to ideas of blackness and race, asked questions they’d never thought about. This wasn’t Archie Bunker, who was SUPPOSED to be disgusting but everyone loved anyway. The Drummond household, where a privileged white family took in their former black housekeeper’s two black sons as equal and beloved family members, without question, was ostensibly the actualization of what MLK said about “harmony.”
Whether or not it has “stood the test of time” doesn’t mean we can retroactively go back and change what it meant in its historical contexts because it makes us uncomfortable now.
Again, if you are someone to whom seeing something like this causes pain, then don’t engage with it. That’s my job: to use my white privilege to frame these kinds of things for other white people, or people who didn’t experience the 1970s-80s firsthand, and make links, encourage critical thinking.
That means I’m also emphasizing that what is considered “culture” changes over time, and means different things in different contexts. Visual literacy also means something different now, both literally and theoretically, than it did then. Applying retroactive values actually lessens the historical value of a culture and its contributions (whether appropriated or not) to another.
Furthermore, what if we consider that culture itself, like gender and all of this other stuff we’re talking about, is a social construct?
You can’t find a neat, taxonomic, all-encompassing classification system for cultural items, acts, or representation.
Is it possible to acknowledge something’s culture of origin, its inherent racism, AND see how it’s something different when performed in another cultural context? Because just ten years after that Diff’rent Strokes episode, there was this example of blackface on a TV sitcom. (I encourage you to find and watch this whole episode in a better format, for multiple reasons.)
“Mammy Dearest,” A Different World, Season 5
Suddenly, a blackface performance does something very different as an experience of blackness in the contexts of a popular sitcom, and yet still deeply rooted in its contextual place in American pop culture history. What do we do with this? A Different World was groundbreaking television in more ways than I can go into here, and yet still relied on black stereotypes and sitcom tropes that haven’t aged well, too. (And that’s before we get into the whole Cosby links, which I’ll discuss in the next, and hopefully last, instalment of this series.)
What about when we add this to the discussion, from a Season 3 episode, “A World Alike”?
Is this an amazing example of black community, a celebration of heritage and history? That’s absolutely how it was seen at the time.
But… what about the fact that this is specifically a South African dance/song (as it was identified in the episode), and yet a diverse group of black characters on the show, American and from several different African nations, are participating? Is that “cultural appropriation”? Is it racist, more of the “Africa is a really big continent with a massively diverse population, you know, not a single country!” generalization?
Isn’t it possible to both raise questions AND acknowledge the power and importance of what these things meant at the time? Just “calling out” whatever might be questionable or problematic here doesn’t really do anything but shut down engagement.
A lot of this ties into ongoing discussions with blackness and black identity in America, ideas that have come back today as DNA testing and ancestry kits become more of a thing. Before, often with zero factual information to go on, black Americans had little, even no, idea where they were from. Some had been handed down oral histories that were debunked once test results came back.
The controversial idea of “going back to Africa” has been present in discussion of black American identity since the end of the Civil War, and everything from emancipation and segregation to desegregation and Civil Rights to rap and hip-hop culture going mainstream in the 80s and 90s to now. There are constant arguments about why black Americans should/shouldn’t look to Africa, to African cultures and arts and experiences, as a source of identity. Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” from 1973, does an interrogation of what authentic black culture is and where it’s found for black Americans descended from slaves. Black people in America had and have multiple ways of coming together, demonstrating unity and culture, and celebrating history.
How can you take issues like these and reduce them to a general “right/wrong” that should apply for everything? THAT actually harms people and cultures.
AND THAT IS BEFORE WE EVEN GET TO THE POINT ABOUT THIS BEING A GODDAMNED ASSHOLE AMERI-CENTRIC IMPOSITION ON DEFINITIONS OF RACE AND IDENTITY AND INTERSECTIONALITY, FOR FUCK’S SAKE.
Just the fact that not all black Americans are descended from African slaves is an important point that often gets lost by people no matter what their racial makeup.
What happens if, instead of automatically labeling everything and anything as “cultural appropriation” which is always bad and awful and needs calling out and shaming… what if we think about issues of hybridity, intertextuality?
We know that rock ‘n roll is the result of cultural appropriation of black music. Hell, I go further, and teach how literally every single element of what we think of as “American” pop culture, from food to the way jokes are set up, comes from, is filtered through, or was appropriated from black culture as created through the very specific systems of slavery and segregation.
There’s no taking ___ music away at this point, no ‘restoring” it to only black American people. Non-black American people are going to rap. The history of rock ‘n roll, R&B, jazz, all of it, is a global hybrid. What is the effect, the “everyday use” of calling out and shaming a white performer for singing “black” music? It’s sounding a lot like calling people out for… having white privilege. We already know this.
What do we do with this knowledge?
I’ll ask another difficult question: Is appropriation/re-appropriation always wrong? I mean, if any sort of engagement with or hybrid of origin cultures is “appropriation,” is that ALWAYS wrong? What about when Indian gurus teach western people about meditation and yoga? What about when those taught first-hand then teach others? What about the fact that yoga itself is a multi-cultural hybrid due to appropriations over the centuries?
Some gay people think Madonna is the most inspirational artist ever, and she literally gave them the will to live as openly gay. Other gay people think she co-opted queer culture and mainstreamed it with “Vogue,” taking something away from black gay New Yorkers and commodifying it without attribution. Gay people do Madonna drag routines, make money and appear on world-famous TV shows dressed as Madonna. So where do we locate the culture that was appropriated, and determine its value?
There is nothing “traditional” about Indian Fry Bread/Indian tacos sold at Intertribal pow wows, and they have been appropriated from Mexican culture. Yet they’ve become a tradition of their own… AND a money-making element for the Native people selling them.
Speaking of food and culture, ethnic and local foods change when they move from their country of origin to new countries. In America, we’ve seen Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Indian, Swedish, and Polish foods develop specifically American counterparts thanks to the immigrants from those countries who brought them here, adapted them with different local ingredients, combined them with other things, used different technologies or resources. People from various cultures come together and combine to form new things; most of us know that orange chicken, fettuccine alfredo, breakfast burritos, pierogi, and Thai chicken pizza aren’t “authentic cuisine,” FFS. That doesn’t mean hybrid Americanized foods from other cultures haven’t become something specific here, or that they take anything away from their places of origin because they have. Pizza, fortune cookies and chop suey, Jewish delis, jambalaya, hamburgers, black-eyed peas, hot cocoa, ketchup, bagels… all have become American things via cultural appropriation, and yet it’s possible to recognize that they’re both originally from someplace else AND American. Not to mention they’re different in different regions in America, for that matter.
The existence of one doesn’t cancel out the existence of another, any more than you need to completely silence one person’s narrative in order to center another. These things co-exist.
Come on. At this point in history, yes, we know that curry in the UK is the result of centuries of colonization, and is different than curry in India. Giving up curry because of the problematic colonialist history of it is not going to solve a fucking thing and restore power to disenfranchised Indian people. We know chopsticks are Asian, that Elvis Presley didn’t originate rock ‘n roll, that jokes that were acceptable fifty years ago don’t work now. Even the shittiest, MAGA-asshole knows this (they just deliberately play stupid because they like hurting and upsetting people). Calling out and identifying ___ as ___ isn’t the issue.
The issue is, where do we go now? Where do we make sense of these things? How do we dig in and question instead of just that bullshit “it was a different time then!” cop-out?
There are so many nebulous areas and situations to consider. I used to know a Native American woman who was a member of one tribe, but wore a ceremonial eagle feather ornament given to her by a member of another tribe. Is it a cultural exchange, or is it assuming “All Native American traditions are interchangeable”? I have a friend who is blond, white, and freckled, and yet she was born in Japan, grew up in Japan until she was in her teens, speaks fluent Japanese, and still visits regularly. (She’s not a citizen that I know of, because in Japan, a person does not become a Japanese citizen just because they are born there, unlike many other countries.) She is considered a hakujinkei nihonjin, “white Japanese,” which is an odd, nebulous space to occupy as well. But culturally, she is as much Japanese as she is white American, and owns and has worn traditional garments, taken part in traditional ceremonies, writes stories based on and credited to Japanese fairy tales, and her home looks decidedly more Japanese than American. And she’s been called out for cultural appropriation, because she doesn’t look like someone who should access Japanese culture. I have multiple friends who are white, but are married to POC/POC from other countries and raising children who are part of both cultures and nationalities, yet who get called out for cultural appropriation because someone “didn’t realize” that they had “authentic/legitimate” ties to a non-white culture.
You know, microaggressions. Stereotypes. Prejudices and assumptions.
The lack of awareness and acknowledgement of hybridity is as problematic as cultural appropriation. What if you assume someone is NOT of ___ culture based on their looks/skin tone, when, it turns out they actually are? What about, for example, the aforementioned blond and white girl I knew in grade school who was adopted by Native American parents, and raised in a Native American household. Was she or wasn’t she “Native American”?
Who gets to decide that?
A lot of the power resides in who earns money from a cultural artifact or element. It makes sense that a white person teaching yoga, or opening a “soul food” restaurant and claiming origin for those things raises questions. But… what if that white person trained with Eastern teachers who wanted them to teach westerners? What if that white person cooking soul food is a member of a family of black and white people, raised with those traditions?
There are more questions than answers. Yes, yoga and meditation are ancient, religious practices grounded in Middle Eastern culture. Over centuries, many people from multiple backgrounds, cultures, and identities have been introduced to meditation and yoga by doctors, practitioners, friends or family members… sometimes people who are also Middle Eastern. So is it always 100% cultural and religious appropriation when a white person does yoga? What if my Middle Eastern doctor/therapist recommended it? Do you call them out, too? Do you call out the Middle Eastern people teaching Westerners these practices and making money from it? Or just the white people “appropriating” them?
Is that garment made out of Peruvian wool fabric cultural appropriation? What if the textiles were sourced locally and paid for fairly? How do we define “fair”? Is it more/less “appropriation” if the garment is traditionally Peruvian in style, too? What would that even mean? What region, what town or village, what era? What if Peruvian Person A wants to sell large quantities of fabric to Non-Peruvian Person B and make money? Does Peruvian Person C get to claim that’s wrong? Who really DOES have the power there?
Who gets to claim a thing, especially when it’s become its own tradition? Has the Maori haka become something new when it’s performed in a sporting context? What about the SoCal version of “Cinco de Mayo”? Drag is now done not just by gay men wanting to pass as women/female entertainers, but as a performative art by people with any number of gender identities.
What about when multiple cultural elements combine in a hybrid?
A Japanese-American drag queen and transwoman from Chicago creating a contemporary drag makeup look inspired by an ancient Japanese tradition, loaded with slavery elements, in which women served men. If this isn’t hybridity, then I don’t know what is.
One key factor that keeps getting repeated by critics, scholars, POC, and various other sources is this idea:
“For it not to be cultural appropriation, there has to be recognition, respect, reward or recompense. You have to ask yourself which people benefited from this product — did someone receive an income from it?”
Well, that’s fucking nebulous as hell, too. “Respect”? Ariana Grande claims her fucked up tattoos were out of “respect” for Japanese culture. Easy to laugh that off, isn’t it?
What about when her Japanese fans want, ask for, and buy Ariana Grande merch with kanji characters?
Link: An Open Letter to Gina Rodriguez
There are always questions to ask about cultural appropriation. But no, come the fucking fuck on, a white person listening to a black artist, or eating chicken-and-waffles, or being moved by and wearing a t-shirt quoting Michelle Obama is not always an example of racist cultural appropriation. Elements of gay culture are always going to go mainstream. Can we really demand that only ___ play ___ in a film? While there must be more disability and trans representation, for example, and diversity is essential, is it going to help to insist that only people of 100% Vietnamese blood portray Vietnamese roles?
Also, what if a person with a specific kind of disability isn’t physically/emotionally able to portray that disability onstage or for a camera? Isn’t there room for many possibilities?
Extremes don’t work. It’s. Fucking. Complicated.
But what can we as individual human beings do, realistically? What about us white folks with our heads up our asses half the time, what can we do? We don’t have to take part in the call-out brigades, of course. But what can we do to be more aware, mature, open? How can we make sure that a culture of origin is centered, respected, remunerated?
There are questions we can ask ourselves as we negotiate and navigate these issues. Want to wear ___, or buy ___? You don’t need to have these as debates with other people, btw, or use them as points of argument. Just think about these issues as you make your choices:
- Are you truly aware of what ___ means? (That’s not just a cute rainbow, it’s a symbol of LGBTQ+ rights. That’s not a pretty sparkly ornament, it’s a religious symbol for married Hindi women)
- Who is receiving remuneration for a thing? Who is receiving credit for creating it?
- Is it an item of religious significance?
- If this is an item from A’s culture, is A vilified, punished, or demonized for wearing/displaying said item? (Malcolm X t-shirt, an afro, any sort of headwrap or veil)
- Does the item have a contentious history that is present in the media? (Swastikas, confederate flags, yellow star, a burka)
- How do you treat or interact with actual people of the culture of the thing? Do you know them? What power structures are involved in your interactions?
Let’s say you have considered all of this, and decide you still want to paint your face with a specific Native American marking, wear crucifixes as necklaces, teach your white suburban dance class that Indigenous ceremonial dance and perform it at a fundraiser, or get that Sanskrit tattoo.
- Are you willing to accept serious backlash if you want to go against what this means and to whom?
Just… BE MINDFUL of these things.
We’ll leave off here, because, as usual,