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.
I don’t celebrate the 4th of July.
I’m an American, but I don’t really understand the point of celebrating independence from Britain. It seems a little ridiculous to celebrate freedom from a colonial power when you’re living in a country that simply became a separate colonial power, a country that was built on the back of genocide, slavery, and mass oppression. Too many of our history lessons are whitewashed, and I think it’s important to be frank and honest about that. Many of our national values are abhorrent.
Does this mean that I’m in no way proud of my culture? No. What it means is that I’m proud of certain things, but I avoid expressing patriotism as a whole because I believe that displaying the symbols of American patriotism without talking about what they represent would just make me a part of an often-unthinking mass. It’s not okay to say “sure, our history kind of sucks, but we’re past that now,” or “I know that we’re culpable in a lot of ways, but the problem is too big for me to tackle.”
Yes, it is a big fucking problem. It is a big fucking problem. But that’s not a reason to ignore it. That’s not a reason to ignore the fact that many of our laws, policies, and programs are racist. That’s not a reason to ignore the fact that we continue to perpetrate cultural genocide against indigenous cultures. That’s not a reason to accept the rewriting of history that teaches elementary school students all over the country that bad things happened in our history, but don’t worry, you don’t have to think about those.
I think part of tackling the problem is looking deeper, at what is good and what is bad in our country. For example, when I look at my Southern heritage, I do feel some guilt. I hate that my ancestors “owned” their fellow human beings. I hate the racism that continues in the South today. So I try to do what I can to fight the problems I see in the South–racism, xenophobia, anti-immigrant prejudice, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the eradication of reproductive rights, to name a few. At the same time, I look at the good things. If I hated everything about the South, I wouldn’t be eager to change it. I’d just hang out up here in Maryland and say “good riddance.” But it’s my culture, for better or worse–I love that our food kicks your food right in the pattootie. I love putting bourbon in everything. I love the mountains and the beach, I love sitting out on the porch chatting and drinking tea. I love the pace of life, the difference between the rural and urban South. I love our writers and musicians.
I can say the same about the United States. I’m an activist because I give a shit about my culture, and I want to be proud of it. Culture goes beyond government, beyond nation. If you dig deeper, you find great things to celebrate in the people who live within these borders. Among all the shitty history, you find great little stories that make you feel a sense of pride and connection to the land and the people who live on it. I don’t care about our independence from Britain. I care that we are here, that we are fighting, that we are trying to make our society a better place in which to live.
We were talking today in my human rights course about the “First/Second/Third World” system of categorizing countries, and also about the “Fourth World” of marginalized groups such as indigenous people. Obviously, using the number system means you’re making a value judgement, but I also object somewhat to the use of the terms “developed” and “developing” to create a dichotomy that I also feel is value-based. I use those terms sometimes when it comes to economics, but I’m uncomfortable with them. It’s not just that we’re calling some nations undeveloped or underdeveloped, but more that we assume “developed” is a good thing. The right to the development presupposes that everyone wants the kind of development that we have reached in our society, as I mentioned in a previous post, and ignores not only “side effects” but also the kind of broad conceptual/perceptual shifts that are inherent in this terminology.
So what are the alternatives? A lot of people use the terms Global North and Global South, which are a little more “accurate” than East/West, but they still ignore the vast differences among “Global South” countries. Another problem to any form of geographic or value-based classification system is that it ignores disparities within a country. Some scholars, for example, have pointed out that labelling the U.S. or European countries as “developed” ignores the right to development that women living in poverty in these countries have to seek development on their own terms. When you frame development in this way – the right to seek out your own well-being and ways to earn a living on your own terms – I think we’re really hitting on something.
This relates to another point that I made in my law of war seminar last week, related to the question of whether the international community should have been involved in Rwanda or not. One student repeatedly stresssed that based on state sovereignty, we should only intervene if the country wants us to – “If they ask us.” My problem with this, is that though I think culturally appropriate tribunals and decisionmaking are a good thing, I also think that we need to be wary of using this vague “they.” There is no “they” in a situation like that. When women were being subjected to mass rape, and many were traumatised and extremely fearful, it is difficult to say that we should simply ignore the situation because “they” don’t want us to get involved, or because women have forgiven the perpetrators. Perhaps they have, but I do think that it if women have no resources, no medical help, don’t feel safe, etc., we need to ask if the “forgiveness” claimed by men in power is genuine. I’m not saying that paternalism is a good idea, but I am saying that it’s important to consider the varying experiences within a culture and to take those experiences into consideration when offering “development” or other assistance.