What with exams and everything, the links have really piled up. So, here we are, two (somewhat?) recent articles from around the Internet. I shall endeavor to keep my commentary short, but, we all know I will fail to do so.
To start off, we have a sort of masterpost by Ube Empress on “An Exploration of Orientalism & Asian Cultural Appropriation as Found in American Music (And Why Being a Non-Asian POC Doesn’t Excuse You).” In this lengthy and extensive post, Ube Empress covers everything from Geisha to Bindi – and I am so glad she does, because, surprise, not all cultures are the same! and not all appropriation is the same! – and then lists out a long list of celebrities (mainly in Western pop music), from Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, who have arguably committed crimes of cultural appropriation in their music videos and performances.
There’s still a lot to be said here. But it’s a really good foundational post, from which we can springboard and ask further questions. If appropriation is all about “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” then whose permission is necessary? Who stands as representative of the culture, and arbiter of the appropriate? In some cases, it’s a bit easier, as there are traditional practitioners well-respected, well-established, or even officially licensed, as “teachers”, who can provide that permission. But, in other cases, if one group of POC friends gives permission, and another group of POC individuals say it’s offensive, are you in the right, or in the wrong, for having performed that thing? And if you are of that heritage yourself, and someone else of the same heritage says it’s inappropriate & offensive, that you should be ashamed of yourself, and/or that you’re perpetuating negative stereotypes, who is in the right? Do you, as a member of that identity, have the right to perform that identity how you wish, based on what being of that heritage means to you? Or are the other people in the right? Who gets to play appropriation police?
I wish, too, that Ube Empress had gone further to say just a little more boldly, a little more explicitly, why being a Person of Color is not a transitive quality – why it’s not only whites who are horrible when they appropriate, and that being Latino or black doesn’t give you the right to appropriate elements of Asian or any other culture. Because it’s not about being a fellow minority, or sharing in having been oppressed. It’s about having proper respect for other cultures, and borrowing elements in ways that are respectful, knowledgeable, and appropriate within that culture. This is the same reason that Gananath Obeyesekere’s arguments that as a Sri Lankan he has some special insight into Hawaiian culture, as a fellow non-white/non-Westerner, are, frankly, bullshit. Every culture has different attitudes about what is sacred and what is not, what “sacred” means and how it works, what is and is not offensive, what is and is not deeply associated exclusively with particular purposes or occasions, and should not be performed outside of those contexts. A kimono is not a qipao is not a bindi is not a hula skirt, and being black or Latino does not mean you have any more intimate knowledge than the average white person as to the precise meanings and connotations of elements of particular cultures.
The comments on this article are quite interesting too (though, of course there’s also plenty of racist bullshit mixed in), as some people have expanded on the post, and even offered corrections. Nicki Minaj, of course, is not simply black, but of Trinidadian background, which is a particular thing, different from mainland US African-American background, and she’s apparently 1/4 Indian, which some argue in the comments makes her a fellow “Asian.” Yeah, no. You don’t get a free pass simply for being “Asian.” You cannot go on TV talk shows and talk about how Miley Cyrus twerking is cultural appropriation,1 and then go dress as a geisha in your music videos, followed by a sequence of a karate dojo with all (seemingly, apparently) black participants and no Japanese or Okinawans in sight, as if being 1/4 Indian gives you some special permission or authenticity in Japanese culture.
That said, though, life is complicated. Our identities, our lives, are complicated, and as I return to this post to edit it for the umpteenth time and prepare it for final “publication,” so to speak, I hesitate to even post it at all; I hesitate to contribute to a discourse that says we can (and should!) make assumptions and attack people without considering all the possibilities and asking all the right questions. Are there plenty of cases out there that are just straight-up gross examples of cultural appropriation, in which someone (and their production teams, costumers, choreographers, whomever) just blatantly took cultural elements out of context and used them just for their aesthetic, or worse, to play to certain stereotypes? YES. There absolutely, absolutely, are. And I do not mean to excuse or condone those acts one bit.
But, as I looked for additional photos with which to pepper this post, I came across the following two from Beyonce’s own Tumblr.
In the first, Beyonce is wearing a so-called “coolie hat,” and a yellow top that seems to recall elements of the aesthetic of Qing Dynasty robes. Plus, she’s making a very stereotypical gesture. Very easy to jump on this and just cry “appropriation.” I very nearly used this at the very top of this post, with a caption simply reading “Seriously, B? Really?” But, you know what, we don’t know anything about the context of this photo. Beyonce’s a world traveler – I could absolutely believe that this might have been taken in China, or Vietnam, or Taiwan, and that the local people right there could have been perfectly fine with it. We have no idea who gave her cultural “permission,” and we have no idea the context within which this took place. Maybe people did use that hand gesture with her, in that part of China, to show appreciation, and encouraged her to do the same. Maybe they didn’t.
Here’s another question. Plenty of tourist sites around the world give tourists the opportunity to “dress up” in traditional clothing. I’ve certainly done it once or twice, but I’ve also declined to walk around in public in kimono, outside of cosplay conventions + traditional festivals (when everyone else was also wearing yukata). If Beyonce were wearing something culturally authentic, as part of taking part in a demonstration or workshop, or even just as a touristy “dress up” thing, but totally authorized by the local tourist site, and with the clothes provided by the tourist site, would that be okay? Would it not? Given that the clothes she’s wearing in this picture are terribly inauthentic, but are clearly only inspired by Qing fashions, does that excuse it (how can it be appropriation if it’s not even all that close to the real thing)? Or does it make it worse? I don’t really know…
In the second picture, she’s wearing a hula skirt, and seemingly dancing the hula, or at least trying to. First thing I did was look on her biography on Wikipedia to see if she has any Polynesian ethnic background, or if she lived in the islands for any amount of time. Teen Vogue recently got chewed out on Twitter for using a light-skinned model with dreads, and talking to her about dreads. Well, surprise, the girl is half-Fijian, coming from a culture that has been wearing dreads for centuries. So, it pays to ask questions, and to not just jump to conclusions. In the second half of this post, I return to the point that a “black/white” dichotomy conception of race excludes, erases, the great diversity of other racial/ethnic identities that exist in the world, such as Fijian.
Returning to Beyonce’s photo, the leis, aloha shirts, and white slacks on the musicians in the background lead me to believe this is not just some backyard party, but that this is likely taking place in Hawaii (or another Pacific Island), and that these gentlemen are hired professional musicians. Thus, there is the possibility that there is an authentic kumu hula (hula instructor) present. Again, Beyonce is a professional musician & dancer, and a world traveler, and I really don’t think it out of the realm of possibility that she’s receiving proper formal hula lessons, even if only for a one-time workshop, and that she at least tried to be respectful, best as she knew how. Granted, she’s also extremely wealthy and I wouldn’t put it past her to have all kinds of lavish expensive parties (e.g. renting a beachhouse on Maui and then having a “Hawaiian” party). So, it could go either way. We don’t know.
To be clear, I’m not trying to argue against Ube Empress at all. Quite the contrary, I’m sharing her post in order to promote it. She does a really good job of explaining out the intricacies and complexities of cultural appropriation – what it is, why it’s wrong, how it varies from case to case, because not every cultural element is equally sensitive, sacred, or meaningful – and calling out a long list of very prominent celebrities who I think are almost unquestionably guilty. Perhaps most importantly, she holds non-white celebrities to the same standards. Being black or Latina or 1/4 Asian Indian does not give you any extra claim, or rights, to other cultures, any more so than being white.
When cultural appropriation is taking place in an offensive way, it is offensive. Period. And it should be stopped. But, all I mean to say with these Beyonce pictures, and with the Teen Vogue Twitter link, is that culture and identity are complicated. Really complicated. Cultural appropriation is not as simple as “if it looks like a duck.” We need to ask questions, before we condemn someone. Who is the person doing it? What potential cultural authority or rightful claims might they have to these cultural elements? What is the context? Who might have given them permission? And then, if the answers to these questions are that the person does not have rightful claims to authority, and do not have permission, and if the act is offensive to the culture in question, because of the way the cultural element is used or because of the stereotypes it perpetuates, then it is cultural appropriation, and should be lambasted with all due piss and vinegar.
Okay. So, let’s move on. On a somewhat related topic, we have an article from the Good Men Project by Warren Blumenfeld, on the In-Between “Racialized” Category of European-Heritage Jews. In this excerpt from a longer essay, published in the book Everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories, he discusses something I have touched upon before, when I asked Are Ashkenazi Jews White?.
I’m not sure I have anything much to add to what Blumenfeld has to say, except to quote some choice bits from his article, and invite you to read more if you are so inclined.
…the workshop would concentrate on the concepts of “race” and dialogue across racial divides, and include two separate panels of participant volunteers: one composed of four people of color, the other of four white people. … As she explained the intended focus and agenda, great confusion came over me: Should I volunteer? Well, maybe, but I really can’t because I’m not sure if either of the categories on which the panels are organized include me. I know for certain that I am not eligible to volunteer for the “persons of color” panel. But, also, I feel as if I somehow don’t belong on the “white persons” panel either.
I think this speaks to a lot more than just the Jewish experience alone. Our society is incredibly diverse, ranging from Irish-, Italian-, and Anglo-Americans to blacks of slave ancestry, both from the mainland US and the very different circumstances of the Caribbean; blacks with no slave ancestry, coming more recently from Africa, and from very different parts of that massive continent; Arabs; Turks; Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews; Persians; Tamils, Sinhalese, Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi; Mexican, Guatemalan, Chilean; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; Samoan, Chamorro, and Hawaiian; Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese; Haida, Lakota, and Muscogee; and so on and so forth. And yet, our discourse on race in this country, all too often, is very black and white (plus Latinos). Where do all of these people fit? Are all People of Color, in all their diversity, all essentially the same, a single category situated oppositionally against Whites?
Blumenfeld suggests a different model:
As a visual organizer, imagine a vertical line dissected by a short vertical line. Below the left side of the vertical line, write “People of Color,” and below the right side, write “White.” Now imagine how your society constructs or places identity groups upon the top side of the vertical line, including such groups as, for example, English American Protestants, Irish American Catholics, Italian American Catholics, Greek American Christian Orthodox, Polish American Catholics, Mexican American Catholics, Puerto Rican Catholics, Argentinian American Catholics, Afro-Caribbean Americans, Cuban Americans, African American Protestants, African American Jews, recent African immigrants to the United States, Native Americans, Chinese American Catholics, Indian American Hindus, Jewish American Ashkenazim, Jewish Ethiopian Americans, Jewish American Sephardim, Iranian American Muslims, Iranian American Christians, African American Muslims, Honduran American Atheists, Atheists of any ethnicity, and so on.
I see Ashkenazim primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the horizontal line upon the vertical continuum, and I contend that we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis all the groups placed on the left side of the horizontal line of “people of color.” I argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants, or other white non-Jews. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well in the United States.
All of this, of course, is an ongoing conversation. I hope I have spurred some thought, or at least just provided some interesting articles. None of this is my complete or definitive word on the subject… and my own thoughts and attitudes on these exceptionally complex and touchy subjects are constantly shifting, too, as I read and think and learn more. Let us all give one another the benefit of the doubt, yes?
(1) Okay, I admit, I’m stretching it a bit. I can’t seem to find a clip of Minaj really talking at any length about appropriation. But, still, the point remains the same. We could instead cite Azealia Banks, who has been quite vocal about appropriation of black music, of twerking, and so forth, and who then goes and wears bindis and the like all over the place.