A Somewhat Polished Inner Monologue Concerning Cultural Appropriation

I'm about to deep dive into my own brain and delineate some of what goes on in there, so I thought it would settling to start with our more intelligible friends at Wikipedia define cultural appropriation:

"Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is a concept in sociology dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. It is distinguished from equal cultural exchange due to the presence of a colonial element and imbalance of power. "

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Models Wearing Baby Hairs and Facial Jewelry, Looking Beautiful, Creating Questions and Representing Problems


The first time I heard the term cultural appropriation my immediate reaction was identification. I thought about myself and the girl in college who frustrated me when she spoke proprietarily about Cape Cod, the WASP stronghold, where she had never spent time and where I considered home. My experience of the place is and was complicated and deeply personal (in fact, last summer I appeared on an episode of VICELAND's Huang's World to discuss precisely that), and I felt she was using it and its culture as a symbol in an appeal to social status and getting it all wrong. We had a few conversations shaped by this dynamic, and one of them left me awake at night crying secret secret tears and inspired countless personal essays.

This experience is in the realm of cultural appropriation, perhaps, but it is tangential to the topic at hand. This tangent is great though, if irrelevant, as it's my entry point. I am invested in this tangent because it happens to be my life, and because my private pain is my entry point to a much larger conversation. 

Time, perspective and interpersonal research have taught me that the cultural appropriation-like instance is a blip on socio-political radar. I am a person of immense privilege whose inherited culture comes with some of the most exclusionary customs in this country. WASPs are the colonizers of America, past and present. When people appeal to "prep" culture they often do so out of a pressing necessity or an ingrained urge to assimilate, and then it is almost exclusively members of the in-group who profit when others opt in to WASP culture. The Country Clubs, resorts, educational institutions etc. make money when people join, and grow in stature when people are rejected, and so the gatekeepers of WASPness grow or maintain their power, social and economic. Respect for WASP culture is built into any WASP-infused exchange because you must bend or pay to play, and for better or worse, money and submissions signify respect. So the context for my resentment is fundamentally different to what we talk about when we talk about cultural appropriation.

There is some struggle in coming to terms with the fact of my irrelevance and that my personal grievances can and should not matter in broader context. I would suppose that this is a contention familiar to many people of privilege who turn a critical eye on themselves. There's a loss there that I don't want to diminish out of a concern for individual feelings, yes, but also because Kubler-Ross! (i.e. turning towards grief fully and without self-consciousness is the best way to move through it). And I want white people in particular to move through their pain for the good of the world.


I have done a good deal of reading for this edition, and the first thing that I noticed in my reading is that most of the (readily accessible via Google) writing on cultural appropriation is written by white people. This is suspect, as hasn't the conversation around cultural appropriation proliferated in recent years because white people have proven that we are not the best judges of what is and isn't offensive, ethical and, more to the point, ours? Isn't the problem that white privilege is a boundless entitlement to everything - all ways of living, all religions, all modes of dress, all areas of study? Isn't the problem that we play with, pick up and discard identities? Isn't the problem that we do what we want because we can, and because we believe it is our right? Doesn't that sound exciting and full of possibility? And doesn't that sound a lot like Manifest Destiny? Doesn't that then make Cultural Appropriation the inevitable legacy of Colonialism?

My answer to all of these questions is "yes." The irony, of course, is that I am just another white person writing about cultural appropriation. I am also a woman with an innate and visceral understanding of rape culture. I know plenty about jerky guys and the harm that they they do. I do not know that I have the same intimate and incontrovertible instincts around cultural appropriation. I think, but do not know, that it’s probably not possible to have a clear north star without the lived experience. I have an instinctual knee jerk, "this-must-be-wrong" type of reaction to Taylor Swift crawling through the legs of twerking black women in the "Shake It Off" video and to the 21st century offspring of New Age Californians who frequent festivals in metallic face paint and jorts with feathers in their hair and bindis on their third eyes.

I know that others agree with me that Taylor Swift and festival goers are in the wrong, and I know that I too have done wrong by someone. The lines between cultural appropriation or "wrongdoing" in my formulation, and inspiration, appreciation or adaptation are not always easy for me to draw. Sometimes the difficulty lies in the exceptions, caveats and endless complications, and sometimes the difficulty is my emotional investment. My impartial vision gets blurred by caring too much or being too close - or even finding something so overwhelmingly beautiful that I need it to be mine. Affairs feel this way; attraction works this way, so it struck me as particularly enlightened when Nisi Shaw, whose work is cited in The Internet on Appropriation section of this edition, wrote about the function of desire, attraction, and affinity in cultural appropriation. She begins, 

"Desire ... is where it all begins. My introduction mentions the draw of exoticism. Of course motivations are never simple, and a love of the "exotic" can be the product of complex forces. Sometimes a person feels an inner resonance with another culture."

I think she is right. The impulse to appropriate (if I can call it that) is not all bad, though it can turn bad, do bad, cause harm. In fact, I think the impulse is beautiful and intrinsically related to making art. These impulses, to possess and to create, are twins, and leave me wondering how to be as a creative person and tracking the lines that I can see as they change. They leave me trying to remember all of my parts at the same time: the part of me that wants to make the things that move me mine, and the part of me that tirelessly combs my thoughts and actions to wipe them of offense. Both parts are instinctual; both parts are triggered by conversations around cultural appropriation, and each part gets it wrong without the other.


There is something very American about ownership rights, and from where I stand, the conversation around Cultural Appropriation feels similarly “American.” We Americans love property. We love buying homes. Perhaps this because most of our conceptions of home are forever unstable, under siege. Some of us do the seizing and some are routinely evicted and some see it all from both sides. We don't know where we stand or we want to stand elsewhere or we fear that our plots of earth will be swept out from under our feet. 

To me, the correct course of action when looking for an identity, a home of one’s own, is to tread humbly and listen for your reception. Some of us learn to do this: to second guess, to observe, to hold our tongues long before we speak, and to live in fear - of offending, misunderstanding, appropriating, or more generally doing wrong. A good many of us who do have learned caution from being subjected to abuses of power. We may suffer greatly due to this particular brand of care and attention. This caution, however, has empathy, consideration and courtesy as its twin (and Donald Trump as its opposite), so I would hate for it to be stomped out of anyone. 


Nisi Shaw advocates that "honesty and precision are one sort of currency," that honesty and precision, apart from literal currency, are integral to engaging with and representing other cultures respectfully. I would add that honesty and precision lay the groundwork for reciprocity or cultural exchange - the ideal, in my opinion. Reciprocity looks different depending on the players and the relationship which means that respect is active as it requires initiative, attention, perhaps most of all, humility: the recognition that you are one of 108 billion humans who have ever been. Your experience, understanding and capacity for empathy are very, very small, and for any of it to grow, you will have to listen, closely.