When I was 19 or so, I thought about getting braids. Braids with extensions. Braids with beads on the ends. “African Braids.”
“You’d look like a poser,” my mother said, and that was the end of that. (Admittedly, if that HADN’T been the end of that, further research into the cost of getting braids put in would have settled the issue almost as quickly—braiding, if you didn’t know, is a serious investment. Another place my Scottish and Indian heritage shines through—I am SUPER cheap. “Frugal,” my mother would quickly correct me.)
My mother was giving me a valuable lesson about cultural misappropriation fairly early in life: don’t take other people’s culture and use it without respect to its history and value and distinctness. Don’t use their culture like a costume.
Costumes are an issue that came up a lot in October, with the woman who dressed her son up as a Klansman. Now, that was definitely racist but not necessarily cultural misappropriation, unless you think of the klan as culture (“racist AND adorable,” said the Daily Show, starting at 1:28). In fact, a lot of the most controversial costumes and theme parties were just racist (like the guy wearing blackface and a hoodie with a bullet wound painted on his chest while a friend wore a shirt with “Neighborhoo [sic] Watch” scrawled on it), but not cultural misappropriation. (For examples of racist costume and party highlights from Halloween 2013, click here.)
The young blonde woman I saw walking down Frat Row in Berkeley on the Halloween in a bikini top and a faux Native American headdress, though—that’s racist AND cultural misappropriation. It’s a twofer. Nice work, sister. (For other examples of culturally misappropriating costumes, click here.) And it’s pretty obviously both to a growing number of people (says the woman who dressed up as a gypsy for Halloween four years ago—in my defense, I just combined a bunch of my Indian clothes, and my younger congregants all assumed I was an “Indian princess,” which was MUCH less offensive. Turns out no one dresses like a gypsy for Halloween any more, and I know better now.)
The fact of the matter is, though, that cultural misappropriation is pretty murky stuff sometimes. As a phenomenal article recently pointed out, there’s a big difference between cultural exchange and cultural misappropriation. I’m focusing here on the latter, and its blurriness.
I set out to write this blog post because of the bizarre Katy Perry AMA performance, which should never have happened. (If you missed it, it wasn’t quite as horrific as Miley Cyrus’ and Robin Thicke’s twerking extravaganza, but Katy Perry did a geisha theme last week that only offended a handful of folks who were then offended that the rest of you weren’t all that offended. Yellowface is bad, too; I’m just saying.) This is pretty standard “we didn’t MEAN to offend anyone” stuff, and I mostly find myself thinking, “This is why multiculturalism does in fact matter—if cultures were attached to real people, we might not misappropriate them so casually and then have to apologize for it afterwards. (Of course, that analysis ignores issues of privilege, but this post is already too long.)
Except that I actually set out to write this blog post BEFORE that, when a number of my friends posted an article about a retro-Oriental themed party in Brooklyn (no, seriously, it was called Last Ride on the Orient Express), which invited tons of reflection on “hipster racism.” If you haven’t heard the term “hipster racism,” it’s the phenomenon of hipsters doing things that might traditionally be considered racist, except that they’re doing it ironically, and since they’re in on the joke, that makes it okay. I prefer my friend Jean’s definition of hipster racism: “White people being racist.” (For a great article about being on the receiving end of hipster racism in San Francisco, read “I Am Not Your Black Friend.” It’s almost as succinct as the link I provided to define “hipster racism” above.) Note: with some really passive-aggressive annoyance, the party hosts did tamp down the theme, while letting us all know we should be less hostile to their pan-ethnic artistic process.
Except that I set out to write this blog before THAT because of the recent “feminist” video by Lily Allen, which didn’t bother me that much at first, until I compared it to Rihanna’s Pour It Up and noticed the stark contrast…it’s one thing to take on the sexism of hip hop. It’s another to visually imply (through your relative excess of clothing compared to the almost nudity of the African American dancers in your video) that you are superior to the women who show up in hip hop videos. Rihanna’s video ends up reading like a solidarity manifesto in comparison, and Lily Allen manages to do exactly what Miley Cyrus did in her performance earlier this year—misappropriate another community’s style of dance while simultaneously implying some sense of superiority over what you’ve just misappropriated. (But she’s right; it IS hard out here for a b**** in my experience.)
Except that I actually set out to write this blog post because I’ve been really troubled by the fact that I don’t know how to have a conversation with a friend. My friend has been posting pictures in worship poses in front of Hindu statues, and I’m just undone by it, largely because I haven’t figured out the words to say, “I don’t want to ruin what may be a totally authentic spiritual experience but that’s my ancestors’ spiritual stuff you’re using for photo ops.” Actually, I mostly don’t know how to say it to a fellow person of color.
A friend of mine just helped me parse out why I’m struggling so much with this. There’s an organization I don’t want to work with. It’s largely because the (White) founder’s wife is named Devi. She’s not South Asian. And when White people ask why I don’t want to work with the organization, I say, “the founder’s wife is named Devi. And she’s not South Asian.” And they say, “But maybe she had a spiritual experience in India.” And I say, “I bet she did. And then she named herself GODDESS. That’s arrogant and it’s cultural misappropriation. If one of the tenets of Hinduism is that God is constantly manifesting in multiple forms everywhere, why can’t she find God wherever she’s from?” (When people of color ask why I don’t want to work with the organization, I say, “the founder’s wife is named Devi. And she’s not South Asian.” And they say, “That’s f***ed up.” And they know that has a serious impact on how that organization functions.) However, I don’t think the narrative is automatically the same for people of color, but I think we’ve internalized a lot of dominant culture narratives about one another without even realizing it, and that might affect how and why we borrow from each other without our even realizing it.
And this is where it gets particularly tricky. Which leads to my next point.
So I had all of these things kicking around in my head, but I didn’t sit down to actually write this post until I found myself possibly culturally misappropriating and still not being 100% sure whether I did or not. I was out for drinks with a couple of friends on Wednesday night. We were talking about how hard dating is, and when he mentioned a particular man in passing, I asked, “Wait—is he single?” “Yes,” my friend responded. “Well,” I said enthusiastically (the man we were discussing is super cute), “help a sister out!” He laughed and said, “I will!”
About two hours later I thought, “Man, I’m all bent out of shape about my friend misappropriating my culture…did I just do the same thing?” So like any over-thinker, I’ve lifted up the question on facebook.
I’ve heard from some friends that it’s totally okay to use phrases we’ve learned from the people we hang out with. But I hang out with a fair handful of African American friends who use phrases that I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to use because they are phrases that belong to a particular community. (It wouldn’t be authentic for an Indian/Scottish girl who grew up outside Akron, Ohio to use the phrase “Fasho,” for example.) I’m also aware that there are a lot of phrases that people have borrowed from Tyler Perry movies that they use as humorous riffs of a Tyler Perry character without realizing when they as non-Black people do them, they’re unintentionally parodying Black people in general. And so using phrases from other cultures whether in parody or in earnest can be complicated.
I also heard that my intent matters: did I use the phrase with my friend BECAUSE he’s Black? Or would I use it with other people as well? And I don’t actually know and have now spent far more time thinking about this than anyone should spend thinking about four words uttered in passing in a bar.
But this is the funny part of “code switching” I haven’t given much thought before. I probably WOULD have used it with some of my Latino and (movement-involved) API friends who think of ourselves as brothers and sisters. I probably wouldn’t use it with most White people because although I do think of them as brothers and sisters, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s okay to borrow expressions that most of us know came from a particular community and use them out of context. And right now I realize that while I would use it with some of my close African American friends, I would never use it with my best friend, because he has very little patience for people haphazardly misappropriating his culture (even if I’m pretty sure you would never hear him say “Help a brother out,” and he CERTAINLY would never say it to me). Which makes me think I may want to pay more attention to the phrases I’ve borrowed and adopted from the diverse cultures I get to hang out with. Even if my friend wasn’t offended by me using that phrase, I probably didn’t need to use it. So now I’m wondering about how code switching works among people of color, how we borrow from each other, and whether we give ourselves more of a pass than we give White people (and whether that’s okay).
I also think a lot of us who are LGBTQ allies take a lot of liberties in making jokes with queer friends because we think we’re in and allowed to do so, and we maybe don’t get called on it very much. I would wager money that I’ve made an “insider information” joke to a gay friend about something as if I have the right to do so without the lived experience of being queer myself. (Nothing springs to mind immediately, but I bet I’ve probably made a knowing “Of COURSE she moved in with her girlfriend that quickly…what does a lesbian bring on her second date?” kind of reference at some point in my life.)
And I recognize how much of a “moving goalposts” conversation all of this might be. I recognize that in every relationship what’s funny and what’s not get to be determined on that relationship’s terms. What’s tricky is that I don’t think we can transfer those standards from one relationship to another, or from one relationship to a public sphere. And that’s why I’ve been obsessing about all the public infractions listed above but also on those four words in a bar on a Wednesday night.
So I have a few questions kicking around in my head:
1) When is an action genuinely respecting and honoring another culture, and when is it disrespectful?
2) When do specific communities’ words and phrases become common domain, and what level of intentionality do we need to have about that?
3) While I think that the vast burden of responsibility about this lies with straight white people, how do we as people of color find ways of helping each other respect our cultural differences, and when is it okay to borrow from each other? So much of our discourse on race is White and Other. But Other keeps interacting with other Other more frequently. We might have internalized enough of the dominant culture that we sometimes disrespect each others’ cultures without realizing we’re doing it. So how do we help each other through that? And how do we who are LGBTQ allies intentionally create space to be called out by LGBTQ people when we think that being allies gives us a pass on making jokes that might be a survival mechanism for people living with real marginalization?
4) How do we find strength to push through the “I meant it as a compliment” or “my other (gay, Black, Asian) friends think it’s funny” comments to have a conversation about how it’s not just that we’re being too sensitive; it’s that the person “honoring” your community isn’t actually honoring your community at all? (I’m not the only one who has at some point pretended to laugh at someone making a reference to something from my culture because they think they have the right to, leaving them with the impression I think it’s okay because I don’t want to be seen as the PC police. And I also know that I find some inappropriate comments really funny from some people that would hurt someone else—just because I do laugh doesn’t mean that material is fair game in the public domain.)
I don’t have any solid answers to these questions, although I have some opinions that I’d love to trade with people in the comments section of this blog. And I recognize this subject is murky at best. My own mother is a good example. She is about as white as white can be. (Remind me to tell you the story about the first time she took me out in the sun as a baby sometime.) And she frequently wears sari’s in order to dress up. And she is consistently complimented by Indian people by how lovely she looks and how comfortable she seems in a sari. (Me, they’re always re-pinning and refolding. My mother, just the compliments.) The people who know her story know that she does this out of a history of embracing my father’s culture as part of the bedrock of their relationship, just as he does the same for her. But there are plenty of people who don’t know him or their story who still think it’s lovely that some random White woman is wearing a sari. But the last time I wore a salwaar kameez to an Indian play in the Mission, I was pretty concerned that everyone who saw me walking down the street assumed I was some hipster who randomly decided to wear Indian clothes because they were trendy.
But at least I wasn’t also wearing braids.
Comments, questions and reflections welcome.