Thursday, September 22, 2016

On Cultutal Appropriation

I don't remember when the term "cultural appropriation" first entered the vernacular, but it most certainly entered my vocabulary as a result of reading Jezebel and blogs on the Gawker network (RIP). In the earliest examples I can recall, it was used in response to (white) hipsters donning 'Native American' headdresses at festivals (use of air quotes to denote the headpieces in question were almost certainly not created by, nor for actual Native Americans). I am on board with hating this particular fashion statement as a matter of course, and agree that it is an unambiguously callous and tone deaf act given the wider European history of systematically wiping out the Native American population. Columbus, et al.

But then, as it inevitably tends to do in the insular and fart-soaked virtual chatrooms also known as the Gawker comment sections, the outrage expanded to include white people with cornrows, anyone getting butt injections, eating tacos, wearing big earrings, and taking yoga classes. And thus I increasingly find myself wracked by self-doubt when it comes to getting dressed. Can I get acrylic nails? Can I braid my hair? Can I wear that squash blossom necklace my boyfriend got me for my birthday? If I want to avoid being a cultural appropriator, the answer to all of the above is a resounding NO.

Now I myself am as over-educated and liberal-minded as the average Jezebel commenter, and I understand that donning the visual markers traditionally associated with a minority population if you are not part of said minority group can be problematic if you do not understand the deeper context of those visual markers. But the reality is also that we live in a global culture, and with the globalization of commerce and the Internet of Things taking over our cultural landscape, it is nearly impossible to shop or eat or merely exist without coming into contact with different nations and varying aesthetics. And besides, to not wear/eat/consume anything that doesn't directly correlate to your racial, ethnic, or national history is not only nearly impossible, it surely carries with it its own set of complexities and insensitivities. We all know (for history and Donald Trump tells us) what happens when cultural "otherness" is spurned in favor of jingoistic nationalism. And it's not pretty either.

So if it is both deeply offensive and impossible to avoid, what then? There has got to be a way to differentiate between "blind appropriation, cultural insensitivity, and outright racism" and genuine appreciation and intellectual curiosity about other cultures and other ways of being/dressing/thinking/and eating. I.e. there has to be some middle ground between Kardashian levels of black cultural theft and, I dunno, walking around looking like Georgina Bloomberg. Surely, right? But maybe not. Or maybe hyper-vigilance is a necessary first step to assuage the transgressions of the past several hundred years. 

Perhaps the key (besides avoiding blatant rip-offs of important religious and ethnic visual themes) is to simply be more conscious of what we (white people) wear and what it means to its culture of origin. I would liken this approach to knowing more about where your clothing is made (which I have written about previously). The only problem is, whether or not I take an academic approach to learning more about why, for instance, Oaxacan women wear the traditional huipil embroidered blouses, it will still be viewed as insensitive, myopic, tone-deaf, and ultimately exploitative to wear that pretty Mexican embroidered blouse I found at the thrift store because people will assume I'm just another white asshole. And I'm not going to lie, I don't want to be viewed that way any more than I want to wear Chinos and polo shirts.

I guess what I am (hypothetically asking) here is: is being aware and being educated a 'pass' for me to incorporate the visual cues of another culture? Because I have heard it both ways. Either the problem is that a white person would have dreads at all or the problem is they would refuse to acknowledge the unassailable black origins of that hairstyle.

Sorry if this all seems a little bit...petty given the number of black deaths at the hands of police officers in the past months and as recently as this past weekend, but I started this post ages ago because it is something I think about regularly, being a person who is predisposed to sartorial experimentation and adornment. By no means do I want to assert that I am pobrecita because now I can't wear whatever I want whenever I want to. I merely hope that it will someday be possible to incorporate the visual markers of other cultures as a celebration and exaltation of those cultures. In the words of the great Dodai Stewart: "You can steal from a culture, or you can be born of and truly appreciate that culture while recognizing you are not quite of it." And I will do my best to shun the former and embrace the latter.

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