Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Politics of Cultural Appropriation

image of  "American Indian" "wallpaper" is from here

What follows is a typically LONG comment I left on a blog called "Race Files", linked to *here*. I encourage you to read the conversation there. Yes, being white, middle class, and male means I feel very entitled to blather on and on about things, and, often enough, I act accordingly. 

Hi Scot. I just read your post and the comments here. I have several thoughts to add to the conversation. First, I want to commend you on keeping the focus on the political contexts in which cultural appropriation happens. For me, there are a few key issues that I try and keep central when considering this stuff.

One is: who politically benefits from such appropriations? Who is left with more or less than what they had? What are the larger patterns of appropriation and exploitation? Are those patterns part of something else that is less easily disguised as innocuous or innocently done (such as genocide)?

Another key issue, speaking as a middle class white gay Jewish male, is this: what assumptions are carried, usually unconsciously or insensitively, into the process of appropriating others' cultures?

I agree with a commenter above: I'd also say that learning from great thinkers and activists about oppression and resistance isn't "appropriation". Keeping in mind the first key issue, you are using this knowledge to co-create a less oppressive world WITH marginalised people, not just FOR yourself.

I see many middle class whites with Native American, Asian, and Caribbean art and "artifacts" in their possession. They will speak very positively about those cultures and admire the artwork. And I wonder: what do you offer to those cultures and to the people, collectively, who make the art you consume and enjoy? Because what a one-time or regular "collector" paid an individual artist or seller for the artwork isn't a way of responsibly and ethically being with other people with less social privilege and political power. It is an expression of the advantage, the privilege, and the power. This isn't to say that owning the artwork is "bad"; the money one paid for the artwork was likely needed by the artist (this is also true for most white artists I know). It is to say it is part of something beyond but inclusive of the act that is more insidious and hideous.

I learned as a white person to consume despised-while-coveted cultures in a very white supremacist/male supremacist/capitalist way, with great regard for what such acquisition could do for me, and with little to no consideration of what I ought to be offering in return. My people didn't encourage me learn what the conditions were and are that led me to be able to be that kind of consumer or coveter; instead, they taught and encouraged the behavior; after all, it serves the rulers of the oppressive status quo by mimicking their most horrible acts without revealing the rulers' bloody hands.

I see many white middle class people practice New Age spirituality which sloppily and grossly (racistly or "whitely") appropriates practices that may or may not be Indigenous North American. Workshops are offered or classes are taught, never to Indigenous people; only to other whites. The goal is to enrich the lives of whites, to make "culturally deprived" white lives seem more fulfilled, and maybe to cut a profit while doing so. But the capitalist/male supr./white supr. practice of taking-without-giving, and taking-without-asking, operates under an overarching assumption that the world is "for" me not "with" me; it exists to plunder and pillage; bodies exist to be exploited and raped. This is the problem. Appropriating more and more, consuming more and more, is not likely to be a solution--surely not an ethical, responsible, or considerate one. Lorde's caution to us, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house", comes to mind.

The most central global atrocity, to me, is this: white/Western/Anglo and male supremacist "cultures" are built on the backs, brains, and blood of other cultures and people. The ruling classes mass murder, exploit, rape, and otherwise seek to steal from, deplete, and destroy, people and their/our ways of being as well as their/our natural "resources", including stealing and polluting land bases intimately and intricately tied to the cultures being destroyed.

Middle class whites purchasing stocks of corporations that commit genocide for retirement, and whites teaching "Native Ways", and white het men purchasing corporate, for-profit pornography or renting girls or adult women, usually poor, often of color, for sexual assault named "consensual" and "harmless" by the men, all contribute to genocide and gynocide. In my experience, men don't encourage other males to learn what the conditions were and are that led us to be able to be that kind of consumer; instead, we teach and encourage the behavior in other males.

In this view, these practices are all part of a dominant US white/male supremacist culture: these practices define, delineate, replicate, and enforce that culture. These practices, and so many others, tell us what it exists, fundamentally if not only, to do. Ignorance, sometimes feigned or willed, and arrogance, often denied, are two crucial ingredients of that culture.

So, for example, whites appropriate Indigenous North American cultures without understanding the history of whites forcing Native Americans to either give up their own cultures, "adopt" the dominant culture (religion and language, for example), or perish. Another example: men consume corporate pornography as if the people in the pictures or videos aren't as real as the consumer and without regard for the conditions that led the prostituted person to be in front of a camera to begin with. Are girls and women and LGBTIQA people across gender made to fear homelessness and poverty, or are they/we beaten or killed if they/we don't do what pimps (with or without cameras) want? The women I know who have endured and survived such abuses say racist and misogynistic threat and force are endemic and systematic: requisite and definitive rather than anecdotal or apolitically "unfortunate". And of course too often they/we are made homeless, are impoverished, are beaten, raped, and killed for doing exactly what the pimps want, which is, after all, to be a thing for him and other men to possess, use up, and discard--dead or alive.

Whites and the rich appropriate, steal, and consume the lives and cultures of people of color and the poor, including through slavery and mass murder. Men appropriate, steal, and consume girls and women, including women's sexuality and labor, including through slavery and mass murder. We do not share or borrow. We certainly do not "give back". "White-giver" or "Anglo-giver" ought to replace the deeply racist term, "Indian-giver".

I believe these realities ought not be obscured or ignored when the conversations happen. I believe those of us with at least one foot in a structurally oppressive position, if not also a hand, a home, and a retirement account, must strive to continually arrive at less exploitive, less oppressive, less lethal ways of being while challenging and transforming those larger structures and systems of harm and horror. Thank you for not putting these issues aside in your discussion here and in your work beyond the internet.

Post script:
I'll add this question to the discussion: do whites' and men's seemingly non-terroristic acquisitions, purchases, and collections of Asian, African, Pacific Island, Caribbean, Latina/o, and Indigenous cultures contribute to and reinforce the problem of Western white and male supremacist imperialism and terrorism, or do they work against it?