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:
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.”