Why Do White People Feel a Need to Claim Everything Good in the World?

meme of Regina George, a snobby white woman from the movie Meme Girls, reading It’s time for another post in the “dear fellow white people” vein. There’s been a lot of cultural appropriation showing up in my feed reader lately, and while the white culprits may have been well-meaning when they embarked upon the appropriative act, it shows a remarkable degree of “wow, we really just don’t get it, do we?” Even while I was writing the first draft of this post, for example, one of my favorite bloggers, Spectra, published a post you have to read to believe on a white woman my age who went to Kenya and claims to be a Massai warrior princess. Big surprise, she’s now writing a book to profit on her experiences.

I suspect the common practice of cultural appropriation has roots in both colonialism and capitalism, though you don’t have to be a self-avowed capitalist or aware of your colonialism to do it. There’s simply a tendency among white people to see that something is good, and then have a reaction of “I want to have that” without seeing the problem with that attitude. Capitalism sees things as property, and people as beings that should want more property, always, while colonialism ignores the concept that land, practices, symbols, and goods might be sacred or collectively held in favor of declaring the white European’s value system superior and rushing to lay “first white claim” on that land, practice, symbol, or good. When we don’t try to make an exclusive claim on something, we still tend to feel that it’s okay to share (appropriate) in the name of equal access. (Yep, because white people as a collective totally believe in equal access to resources.)

Here’s the thing about equality: it’s not equality when you run around taking things from less privileged, systemically oppressed folks and then make a profit from your New Age bookshop or power yoga studio or whatever. Nor is it equality when you use cultural values for parody or humor. Nor is it equality when you mark up cultural resources, turn them into a fad, and limit the access those of the origin culture have to a resource. That’s called stealing.

Now, is there ever a case in which cultural exchange is valid and appropriate? Sure! My recommendation (one that I’m trying to follow myself) is simply that we as white people be sensitive to where things come from, and aware of the violent history of colonialism and current state of systemic oppression that might make those of non-white cultures a little wary about our interest. (This, by the way, applies regardless of the situations of our personal ancestors and other axes of privilege along which we may fall further down). There are plenty of tools out there that we can use to educate ourselves on cultural origins and the perspectives of people of color. We can also respectfully ask questions to our friends who come from the culture in question (keeping in mind that there is no duty to educate) or to those who publicly offer themselves as resources. We can proceed slowly when it comes to our appreciation, rather than immediately asking “how can I have that/be a part of that/become an expert in that?” When seeking education on a subject that has its origins in a particular culture, we can take our money to teachers from that culture rather than approaching white teachers. We can avoid supporting white folks who profit from another culture’s resources.

Some white people are inevitably going to say “but wait, my situation is different, I only care about other cultures.” I suggest that those folks at least make an effort to think critically about how that statement sounds while they’re say, enjoying a beer at the DC football team’s game. What seems harmless to one person may in fact me a reminder of colonialism, cultural theft, and genocide to another.

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About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on September 18, 2013, in privilege, race and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. There’s also an interesting tension with this and white culture’s obsession with intellectual property, revealing the underlying nasty and brutish premise of all this: take whatever you can and do anything to protect your own. Oh we white people are a fun lot!

  2. Don’t even get me started with this one! Too true!

  3. THANK YOU!!
    I was in an argument a couple weeks ago about this topic, and it’s very reassuring to see that I’m not the only white person telling white people to leave other cultures alone

  4. I am strongly touched by your post here, and very very impressed, Avory Faucette.
    Its so good to see that there are some white people out there critiquing the lot and arguing for equality and understanding.
    In peace,
    A women of color, writer from the east.

  5. Excellent post. I think the observation may be a bit American-centric in that there is a bit of a variation in Canada because of our history and relationship to the States. I believe, the American marketing & mass media approach to using whatever images and related values combines with the American Cultural Myth(Belief) of the Great Melting Pot to create this view that the all cultural forms are commodities that can be freely used by anyone for any purpose. It is all part of the Omni-Disney-World and Planet Hollywood Fast Food approach to culture.

    Canadians are susceptible to this because we so awash in American Mass media that it nearly drowns out our own. In that we are aware of this fact, we see our own cultural identity being shaped and appropriated by American companies without our consent . We have also grown with a multicultural policy, that while not perfect in execution, has produced a different way of looking at Canadian identity from the Great Melting Pot Myth. Our greatest failure, that we are only now starting to come to face, is our failure to treat the Indigenous Fist Nations culture and governing communities with respect and true legal acknowledgements of their rights.

    Thanks . I will be exploring your blog further. :) You may find this post of interest:

    http://darkpinesphoto.wordpress.com/2012/03/30/existential-friday-a-different-perspective/

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