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Pop Culture, Race Relations

Cultural Appropriation: Begin the Begin

I’ll be using the “more” tag with these posts, but WordPress.com doesn’t play nice with feed readers when I do that, so feed readers need to visit the site to read this stuff.

Acculturation became stealing during the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the late 50’s, when R&B cats got punked on record royalties and record companies wouldn’t put their pictures on the album covers. However, as we know, acculturation predates R&B, the blues, records, the phonograph, the telegraph, maybe even stone carvings. Black people had this product, marketable and desired, which was taken – stolen if you like. Though the taking only occurred to a few individuals, that taking symbolized a general disdain for people of African ancestry in this country.

And so we became wary. What is it that you like about our culture so much and what exactly do you plan to do with it when you take it back to Caucasian Headquarters? Oh, and hey, you BEST put my name and picture on that mother fucker. By the time disco rolled up and past us into the cocaine filled dustbin of history with its white icons like Travolta and the Bee Gees, we’d had enough.

And then came hip hop.

At first, white people were perfectly fine to accept melanin challenged purveyors of this new, and some thought novel, music. The Beastie Boys could rhyme over Zeppelin samples and Lucinda Dickey could bust a back spin when they had to raise money for the community center. Somewhere in the 80’s, shit changed. Afrocentrism took hold on college campuses. Anti-Apartheid. Public Enemy. “Pro-black” became the catch phrase. People started recognizing Hip Hop as a subculture, not just another name for rap music, one inexorably intertwined with race, and to a great degree, “ghettos.” Not only did black kids demand rap music be made by black people, white kids did as well. Just ask Vanilla Ice. If you were going to be white and rap, you better have your 5% Nation membership card and license showing your address on MLK Boulevard in your back pocket or get ready to be clowned. This time, there would be no theft from the revolution. The word was authenticity.

Now you must watch your step. You patchouli smelling performance artists doing “African” dance and percussion on a street corner? Stealing. You liberal arts professor moonlighting as a mariachi band leader? Stealing. You American otaku who insist on ending every sentence with “ne?” THEIVES.

The pendulum is swinging too far. Time for a reality check, push that thing back to an equilibrium point. Let’s look at one of our favorite whipping boys, the White dread. * Dreadlocks are thought to be originated by members of the Rastafarian religion (we are not talking about hairstyles that may resemble locs from other past civilizations, and the White Dread is not trying to emulate/honor/steal from those civilizations). Not cutting the hair (or putting a razor on the face) is of religious significance (the Nazarite Vow), not political. Most black people wearing locs are not Rastas. Why is the White dread the thief and Lil’ Jon okay? Is Lil’ Jon (or Pacman Jones) hair a statement or his birthright? As African Americans, it’s a hairstyle that isn’t even “ours” but we get hacked if some weeded out hacky – sack playing kid rocks it.

Black people, it isn’t as if we can’t be called on the same thing. If the White dread can’t exist, then all you black Live Journalers have to trash those Naruto icons and dump those Jack Johnson CDs. No more Ju-Jitsu classes, dude. It’s ALL OVER. No one can do anything over which they cannot claim cultural ownership by virtual of their race or nationality. Saris? Outta here! Mukaluks? Outta here! Hanzi tattoos? Definitely outta here!

So many things have been “appropriated” over the millennia:

Noodles
Gung-fu
Lacrosse
Democracy
Square dancing

When living in a world society that is increasingly interconnected as ours, we (the American we, the world wide we) can pick up on trends from across the globe with a couple mouse clicks. It’s pretty easy to become a dilettante in something. If something pops up that is good, that has appeal, I am hardly surprised when masses pick up on that thing and adore it, and in some cases emulate it.

I’m not saying that appropriation is a myth. It’s there, in the films of Quentin Tarantino, in commercials, maybe at your office Halloween party. I don’t know if it’s on the street corner or at the music festival.

That white kid on the corner with the doo rag talking about “spinners,” he isn’t “acting black.” He’s taken on the trappings of a subculture associated primarily with African Americans. Ain’t the same thing. I don’t care what he’s reasons are, he loves rap, he grew up in the hood, whatever. He might even think he’s acting black,** I still don’t see that as appropriation.

The problem is that white people tend to treat the cultural signposts, artifacts and icons of another culture or ethnicity like costumes. Ooo! The new look this year is kimonos, saris and tabi socks! Asian influence! African themes! This year I’m going out as an African bushman! This act, besides reducing the various and sundry cultures within an ethnicity to a monolith, makes these cultural specificities objects without any significance or history. That’s what pisses people off. So when you see some kid with a Kangol tilted to the side and he isn’t black, alarm bells go off.

Other white ethnicities get played, too, though rather than being displayed as generalities, it’s more specific. If you put on a slick snakeskin suit and carry a gatt, you’re identified as a mobster. The Italian part is just understood. You’re wearing lederhosen, you’re a . . . whatever they’re called. Though you don’t see people walking the street in lederhosen, people usually do that type of shit on Halloween unless they are nutzo. Thus the costuming of white ethnic culture never rises to the level of objectification. That isn’t to say that white ethnic cultures don’t experience cultural appropriation.

Which brings us back to what started this thing – a question. Can a culture be owned? Do I, by virtue of my background, have an exclusive right to rap? Is anime for Asians only (begging the question do only Japanese people have a right to indulge in the genre, or can Chinese people get hacked off, too)?

Culture cannot be owned. So culture cannot be stolen. However, the lack of ownership of culture does not exclude the possibility of exploitation of culture. Okay, let’s go.

**The dreaded (ha) phrase I will not be addressing in this context. To criticize someone as “acting black” suggests there is a way to “act black” and there is not one particular way with some seal of approval that I know of. These kids are, however, associating themselves with hip hop culture which is inexorably tied to African Americans, and somehow being hip hop is being black now. Argue if you wish that these kids shouldn’t try and be a part of hip hop culture, but don’t tell me they shouldn’t try to “act black.”

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  • bridgett

    And just to add another question to the pile, what about bi-racial and tri-racial people, living and creating hybridity smack in the middle of several converging diaspora streams? What is his or her “authentic” cultural claim?

    Loving this so far. moving on….

  • http://dorknation.wordpress.com/ dorknation

    Hmm. From observation I think that multiracial people tend to be judged where they fit with regards to certain activities based on either phenotype or how they align themselves, or in some cases, whether or not other people know their background.

    After I graduated college the black athletes at UNC formed an ad hoc quasi political group to address concerns locally. My best friend, who is not so obviously mixed race was excluded from the group because he wasn’t “black enough.” I don’t know how many people knew about his mixed race status. I think they may have judged him on the number of white friends he had.

    I think people want to look for actions to interpret when it comes to mixed race people. For instance if a person who has a black parent decided to wear locs, some would assume that person is “picking a side” because of the symbolism of the hair style.

    So for some in the African American community, the “authenticity” claim for mixed race people must be staked, it isn’t a given. The assumption is that you will take it, OTOH, you might try and pass, so we gonna keep an eye on you.

  • mo

    i really, really REALLY enjoyed this. i thought it was well balanced. a lot of the stuff i’ve read lately about cultural appropriation seems to be black vs white, whereas i took this sort of as ‘everything vs everything’.
    thanks :D

  • http://takingsteps.blogspot.com little light

    I think way, way too much discussion of race issues ends up being just black v. white, Mo. It’s just too complex, and multiracial people–like myself–especially multiracial people who are arguably neither black nor white, get left out in the cold.
    Similarly, I think this whole appropriation debate gets boiled down to a far-too-oversimplified do-we-mix-or-not mess that’s massively problematic, I’d contend.

  • ava

    Mixed race is not only black and white. What about Asian and Hispanic background…what would be considered staking a claim, and which one would be trying to pass. Who would need to be “watched” as you say. Can’t all ethnic backgrounds be embraced without complaints. It seems like everyone wants their culture to be acknowledged, spotlighted, given Creditability if you will (that is what it seems like to me) and then, when that culture is emmulated, the war cries still do not end… It seems as if we as race *human that is* want to fit in a mold and then when we are typecast into that mold we become outraged. I am biracial, or multiracial if you go back a couple generations but who really cares. I live my life as a decent human being…embracing all people all backgrounds all relgions all cultures and embrace the differences and similarities we all possess…We are all picked on no matter what…whether we are too skinny or overweight, blonde hair or red hair or green hair, tattooed or not, spiky hair or curly hair, and the list goes on and on and on and we can argue all day and discuss all day and nothing will ever get resolved. When I see someone hurt or in need and I can help, I help…I work and support myself…I love my family and friends…Isn’t that what life is about.

  • http://www.foren-dienst.de/cgi-bin/forenserver/foren/F_11136/cutecast.pl limewire
  • http://i-muse.livejournal.com/ light skinned daughter of Oya

    You, assuming you know the training, initiation, cultural background, ethnic “mix”, upbringing of any individual dancing any dance, singing any song, in any clothing
    is prejudice.
    stop it. stop trying ot pass it off as intellect, as freedom or anything other than the prejudice it is.
    Those who are guided by spirit and reverent of spirit are not appropriating, they may be young in their practice, but, spirit is compassionate regarding such matters. Spirit and ergo spiritual practices are not appropriated- no one owns spirit.
    study agape as taught By Dr. King and his children today.
    I hope you’ll honor this season of non violence with compassion and the awareness that EVERY human is a unique emanation of one spirit.
    Axe’
    Ashanti

  • http://dorknation.wordpress.com/ Mark

    I’m not sure to whom you are replying or . . . er . . . what you mean.

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