By the world’s biggest asshole
Everyone is going to say I’m a horrible person for bringing this up, but I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural appropriation lately. Like, the concept of cultural appropriation is really freaking weird. Like, it means you have to look at yourself and everyone in the world as if we are all always pawns in power games, as if we never get to be just people, as if everything you say or do should always ever be evaluated in terms of its relation to theories about huge power structures over which we have no control as individuals. It’s a very cosmopolitan way of talking about things. Very neoliberal way. And sure, it’s not wrong, the idea of cultural appropriation, at least not wrong within it’s own logic, a logic which, it seems, views the social reality as if through a telescope from a planet far, far away.
Like the rule of “Thou shalt not culturally appropriate” has a sort of Prime Directive feel to it, and it isn’t hard to imagine Mr. Spock on Star Trek saying “Captain, wearing that traditional head fwap from the planet Beta Centauri Seven is in direct violation of the Secondary Directive which states—” To which Starbuck responds by saying, “Shut up, I’m on to something here…and if I don’t work this shit out it’s go to kill me.” And knowing Starbuck, she probably then punches Spock in the nose. What an asshole she is!
It’s awful to be torn between not wanting to further hurt groups of people who have had everything torn from them by this empire and yet feeling drawn to the beautiful music, art, and food that these groups somehow haven’t let the empire beat out of them.
Like, the empire took everything from these people. Fucking everything. Like, in the case of indigenous Americans, these are people who were driven off their ancestral land and subjected to mass genocide and shoved onto horrific reservation death camps where they had to get permission to leave and weren’t allow to practice their tribal religions until 1967. And for African Americans, these folks were fucking kidnapped from their homes and turned into commodities and were subjected to rape and torture and being treated like cattle and having their children sold in auctions. You want to read some really heartbreaking stuff? Read the newspaper announcements from just after the 13th Amendment was passed by all the Black folks desperately looking for children and parents that got sold away from them. And then there’s the continued level of terror people in these groups have been subjected to. It is just obscene. From everything to racist cops murdering brown and Black people for so much as looking at them funny, to the white riots and fucking lynch mobs that enacted a holocaust against Black people throughout the first half of the 20th century, to the way the California Indians were bounty-hunted and enslaved, and many native families around here had to use special blankets to transform themselves into rocks and hide in the hills that way for years at a time (please read Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 if you haven’t already). And there is the fact that here in Berkeley, the Campanile, that giant tower over the university, and also the basement of the Anthropology Library are filled with the bones of over 10,000 murdered California Indians, some of whom were killed as late as the 1920s by lunatic white serial killers who fancied themselves “cowboys” and because of racism, society congratulated them for it.
These horrors are real and the trauma lingers amongst all these people who carry inside them unspeakable pain that grew from unspeakable acts. To just offhandedly grab the few things they have that are still theirs, even if it’s just a song or a headdress, and to treat it like it’s mine—that is an act of horrific ignorance.
And yet… I still get these urges to listen to rock and rock music, which, as one Slingshot member has pointed out, is all inspired by the music of African slaves so maybe we should all stop listening to it and only listen to music made by people who have the same genetic make up as us, and she suggested I listen to Albanian music, even though I’m ancestrally Danish, but oh well. And others in my extended community have claimed you shouldn’t eat corn or plantains if you’re white. I’m willing to give up corn, but to give up caramelized plantains covered in salt on a Saturday morning? Will that really help anyone? Will it really? Also, in Poland, people have worn dreadlocks for hundreds of years. Does that mean it is okay for my old housemate, whose grandparents were Polish to have dreadlocks? Everyone else thought so once she explained, which is really fucked up because Black people find that their natural hair is banned from many places of work in this country, especially government-run places, forcing them to use harsh chemical relaxers that can really damage your body. My old roommate’s “traditional polish deadlocks” weren’t her natural hair, she really had to work to get that knappy, greasy rats nest going, and for her to get to wear her hair like that and still have a job was a slap in the face to those whose natural hair does that sort of thing (but prettier) but who can’t wear that hair due to racism. I mean, a lot of these arguments I keep hearing from white people about how we shouldn’t do cultural appropriation sound creepily a lot like eugenics. Like a genetic ghettoization of culture. That is literally what we are doing by going this route.
But sometimes it goes beyond your genes. Once I had a white housemate ask to see my tribal nation ID because I was burning sage and I mumbled something about my Cherokee and Sioux ancestry. But apparently, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the genes because you have to be a federally-registered card-carrying tribe member to burn sage, at least according to some people who are eager to set up an impromptu cultural appropriation check-point any chance they can get. What’s messed up about this particular tactic is that it is disrespectful of that fact that hundreds of tribes in the US lack federal recognition, largely due to bureaucratic laziness, and this means they don’t get to be card-carrying federally recognized tribe members. This includes the brown people upon whose land the city of Los Angeles now stands, the Winnemem Wintu, and the Ohlone, upon whose land we make the Slingshot newspaper.
As I watch all of these heated screaming matches about cultural appropriation go down in radical community, I find myself bothered by a horrible, asshole-ish question:
Could it be that our frenzied obsession with cultural appropriation right now is actually a way to let white people off of the hook for the larger thing at stake here: reparations?
If white people were on an equal economic and interpersonal playing field with folks of color, cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a thing. Like, it’s fine to wear green and talk with a fake Irish accent on St. Patty’s day because the Irish Americans, collectively, are now fine. Of course, if you look back into the history of Irish-American immigrants, you’ll find this wild era of the racial discrimination that Irish people experienced in the early 20th century here, when they first came to this country to escape a capitalism-contrived famine. Like, American employers hung “No Irish need apply” signs in their windows, and there were racial slurs about the Irish, and horrible things that happened to Irish folks walking alone in the streets. It was only through the ability of Irish people to pass as white within a generation that, as a group, they were able to get ahead.
How can we overcome the propensity among “whites” to share their wealth and network only with other “whites”? Maybe we need to figure out how to get rid of whiteness as a category, and this is something that can only be done if we start listening, really listening to people of color. I’m not talking about listening to their music or mimicking what they do. I’m talking about really listening. To reach out as people, rather than grabbing capitalist commodities that have been labeled as “Black” or “native.” It is through really listening and being in community together that we can break down the arbitrary things of “whiteness” / “not whiteness” that keep us all in chains.
If you have lots of extra cash due to systemic oppression, how about using it to support amazing projects that literally lend power to communities of color? Like supporting African American ownership of cooperative farmland through projects like The Federation of Southern Cooperatives (federationsoutherncoop.com). Or if you live on Ohlone land, you may give “shuumi” or a financial offering to help make up for the fact the feds have failed to grant them land of their own (sogoreate-landtrust.com/shuumi-land-tax/). Or you can support the Winnemem Wintu’s project to restore their ancestral salmon (facebook.com/run4salmon). Or there’s like a million other ways you can financially support the people who have been systemically hurt by the structure of power that gave you your money.
If those with power can strategically help folks of color get on the same playing field as whites, we’ll have a type of equality in this land that we have never yet known. But until we are on equal footing, cultural appropriation will continue to be a thing. And instead of getting to playfully borrow things from these cultures, we will continue to find that, what to one person seems like just silly borrowing of a song or headdress, cuts another person to the bone.
Once we’re truly equal, and everyone, no matter what color their skin, has the same access to food, clean water, emotional care, civic determination, and quality education—once we achieve that, we won’t need the concept of cultural appropriation anymore.